This pamphlet was originally written in 2002 by Stephen Jolly. It has been out of print for a few years but it is now available on line and in a reissued hard copy from our National Office for only $3. It is dedicated to the hundreds of people locked up in Australia’s privately-run detention centres.
This pamphlet responds to the arguments of the Federal Government and their allies on the refugee question and is packed full of facts, figures and explanation. It also puts the debate in a historic context, explaining the role of racism in the rise of Australian capitalism.
It argues that the refugee policy of the Government is not the result of vindictiveness alone but rather is reflective of deeper historical processes.
This pamphlet is written for workers and young people who want to hear a side of the debate on refugees they won’t get in the mass media. Most importantly it offers a perspective and programme for the pro-refugee movement. It was originally written in 2002 but it still totally relevant today.
So violence is “UnAustralian”?
The 1st boat people
Before mandatory detention, before the White Australia Policy, before the racism faced by Chinese and Pacific Islanders, was the first Australian racial conflict; that between the indigenous population and White Australia. We must touch on its key points as a necessary background to understanding the central topic of this pamphlet.
After being defeated in the American War of Independence, Britain had to find other places to dump its unwanted convicts. Australia was its chosen site, with its added benefits of being a harbour for its whaling ships and a military base to protect its trading interests in the region.
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, renewed trade allowed cheaper Spanish and Silesian wool to undercut the British-produced product. In response the British encouraged wool production in Australia on a massive scale. White society came into conflict with the Aboriginal population – whites needed land for sheep and regarded the animals the Aborigines relied on for meat as a nuisance. What followed was a war of conquest against the indigenous population, were seen as pests and worthy of extermination by the white settlers.
Marxist historian Hannah Middleton explained that “if the Aborigines did not die from one of the introduced diseases or were not shot, then they could be tricked with bags of flour laced with poison and destroyed in that way. The colonists also adopted the practice of ringbarking, destroying the trees to clear new pasture land for their sheep (and laying the foundations of the widespread soil erosion which is such a problem today).”
Massacres were common place, one at Myall Creek in 1838 saw 28 Aboriginal people “casually taken from the hut of friendly stockman, tied up with ropes and then slaughtered in the bush”.
Wool production, Australia’s first local industry, was based on massacre and bloodshed. In 1788 there were 300,000 Aborigines, this declined to 67,000 by 1901. This decimation by bullet and disease went parallel with a demonisation and racist vilification of Aborigines that continues in some quarters to this day.
Racism key to the peculiar development of Australian capitalism
A stolen continent allowed Australia to have the highest rate of home ownership in the world. This undercut class-consciousness and boosted petty bourgeois aspirations amongst even the poorest of white society. However the other side of the coin was the difficulty faced by the state and early capitalists in confining workers to the factories and other workplaces, especially after the importation of convicts ended in the mid-19th century. Working people would rather take their chances on the vast tracts of land than slave away for wages in the urban centres.
In the 1850s gold was discovered and the ten chaotic years that followed saw the combined populations of Victoria and NSW mushroom from 270,000 to 888,000. This figure included 55,000 gold seekers from China who joined the 3,000 indentured Chinese labourers (‘coolies’) who had arrived over the previous few years.
Gold fast-tracked the development of industry and through this, the development of a working class and a bourgeoisie. The shortage of labour meant that, from an early stage, wages were relatively high in Australia and trade unionism developed strongly. Australian unions became the first in the world to win the eight-hour day.
However, the pull of a vast young continent with cheap land and even the possibility of finding gold, all strengthened the petty bourgeois aspirations of big sections of workers. This would continue until the rise of mining and the manufacturing industry made society more polarised along class lines in the late 19th and early 20th century.
It is no surprise that sections of the ruling class sought to import labour from China and the Pacific Islands to ‘meet the labour shortage’ and drive wages down. In 1863 Kanaky labourers earned less than six pounds a year. The best response from the workers’ movement would have been to organise these workers and stymie the efforts of the bosses to undercut wages and conditions through their divide and rule tactic.
Instead, an opposition to non-white labour developed, especially after gold was discovered. Bosses began to employ Chinese and Pacific Island workers as strike breakers or on low wages to undercut local standards. Historian Humphrey McQueen explained that:
“economic fears and pure racism were by now inextricable, with each feeding the flames of the other’s fire…At the Fourth Inter-Colonial Trades Union Congress in Adelaide in 1886 it was unanimously agreed that Coolie immigration should be totally abolished because first, the competition of Asiatic against European labour is entirely unfair; second, it is well known that the presence of Chinese in large numbers in any community has had a very bad moral tendency.’”
Racist antagonism often spilled over into violent attacks against Chinese workers such as at Buckland River in 1857, Lambing Flat in 1861, and Palmer River in 1877.
As late as Federation, Labor leader JC Watson told of his “objection to mixing of coloured people with the white people of Australia (this) lies in the main in the possibility and probability of racial contamination.” The labour and union leaders sought to unify the workers’ movement to a section of the capitalist class in a nationalist programme of tariffs and racist opposition to non-British or Irish labour.
Why was this? Roughly 100 years earlier the American ruling class had successfully mobilised their urban and rural poor in a revolutionary war against British colonial rule. The victory in the War of Independence allowed the Americans to keep for themselves the massive agricultural and mineral wealth (stolen from Native Americans) and begin the rapid path to developing the capitalist economic colossus that became the USA.
100 years later in Australia the local ruling class faced not an embryonic working class, but the real thing – and well organised at that. They didn’t dare use democratic ideals to rally the nation, fearful that these ideas could be used for social movements that could threaten the very capitalist system itself.
Instead, capitalism developed a nationalism based on a fear of Asiatic hordes invading the white haven of Australia. The very act of Federation was spurred on by a fear of a growing nationally-organised workers’ movement and the need for a united military capacity to defend White Australia from Germany and France.
The local ruling class much preferred to be Britain’s agent in Australia than mobilise the local workers in a revolutionary war for independence, a war that might get out of hand and end up overthrowing not only British but Australian capitalist rule.
Therefore, instead of the aggressive opening up of the continent American-style, with the importation of labour from everywhere and anywhere, Australia had a relatively restricted labour intake and a general contentment by Australia’s local elite with being a feeding basket and mineral source for Britain. Events like the Eureka Stockade, the growth of trade unionism, and especially the three massive industrial strikes of the 1890s left their mark on the ruling class. They preferred to give a few extra crumbs from the cake to the bureaucracy that was developing at the top of the unions and young Labor Party. The ruling class implemented a White Australia Policy in return for ‘national unity’ and relative class peace sold to the workers by the bureaucracy at the top of the workers’ organisations.
The capitalists gave up their strategy of importing labour from China and the Pacific Islands as an overhead expense for class unity with the local white workers. The Immigration Restriction Act banned non-white immigration. By 1908 most South Sea Islanders were deported and by the 1920s the Chinese population had halved to 15,000 people.
Workers could see that capitalism was not going to develop the continent like their American cousins a 100 years before. In the absence an alternative socialist strategy for the movement, they saw no alternative to the policy of controlling labour supply to keep their standard of living high. The spoils of the vast continent were to be divided out amongst bosses and a privileged section of workers through tariff protection and a White Australia Policy.
What developed was therefore an economically underdeveloped, relatively empty continent with higher standards of living than others in a region of massive population and mass poverty. Is it any wonder the prevailing fear was of the “Yellow Peril”, an invasion from the north from the â€˜Asiatic hordesâ€™?
In 1896 the Melbourne Age wrote:
“In Australia, fortunately, we are free from this (US Negro) problem. The aboriginals were of too low a stamp of intelligence and too few in number to be seriously considered. If there had been difficulty, it would have been obviated by the gradual dying out of the native race. What we have to be afraid of is that, from our geographic position, we shall be overrun by hordes of Asiatics.”
Don McMaster in his recent Asylum Seekers: Australia’s response to refugees points out that “these fears are so irrational as to suggest that collective insecurity is central to the Australian sense of identity and has been since nineteenth-century Australia accepted the myth of ‘invasion from the north’”. Later, in the 1930s, the growing Japanese imperialist power further encouraged this siege mentality.
The White Australia Policy and allied legislation was justified by a monstrous racist ideology that included hatred towards Aborigines, Chinese, Kanaks and even continental European peoples. The ideology of a given society is usually the ideology of the ruling class, as the German socialist Engels pointed out. Henry Lawson and Banjo Peterson combined tales of rebellion against the colonial power with racism that would make Nazis proud. Lawson advised Australian Star readers in 1899:
“If you come across any niggers, learn to sleep calmly notwithstanding the fact that a big, greasy buck nigger (a perfect stranger to you) is more than likely to crawl in, without knocking, through a slit in the tent, any minute during the small hours, rip out your innards with a nasty knife, and leave without explaining.”
The worst racism frequently came from the leadership of the workers’ movement whose position rested on the class collaborationist strategy of unity with the bosses at the expense of unity with other workers. The political price paid by workers for this racist programme was that it allowed the ruling class to divert attention away from their system onto other less fortunate workers. Howard and Ruddock are today following a well-worn path.
The White Australia Policy enacted at Federation was merely the codification into law of principles already in place for some time. This official political marriage between the workers’ movement leadership in the unions and new Australian Labor Party and the ruling class was mirrored in the creation of a state-run industrial arbitration system to replace industrial action with ‘independent’ court control of industrial relations. No wonder Lenin, in his short but perceptive article on Australia in 1913 (pgs 216/217, Vol 19 Collected Works), wrote:
“What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers’ representatives predominate in (parliament) and yet the capitalist system is in no danger. The ALP is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really conservatives. Capitalism in Australia is still quite youthful. The ALP has done what in other countries was done by the Liberals, namely, introduced a uniform tariff for the whole country, a uniform educational law, a uniform land tax and uniform factory legislation. Naturally, when Australia is finally developed and consolidated as an independent capitalist state, the condition of the workers will change, as also will the liberal Labor Party, which will make way for a socialist workers’ party.”
Racism is not the goal of capitalism, but a by-product of its search for profits. Racism has been central to the capitalist strategy of dividing working class opposition. Capitalism in Australia had an extra or added racist component compared to other advanced capitalist countries because of its genesis in the attempted annihilation of the Aboriginal people and, later, the historic compromise with the labour leaders the solutions to refugee issues should resort to measures denying the basic rights of an individual.
There has always been a vocal opposition to the racism inherent in Australian capitalism and not surprisingly it has most consistently come from the anti-capitalists. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were stronger in Australia than any other country outside the US. The IWW were a militant, campaigning organisation that had its roots in Daniel De Leon’s Marxist-influenced Socialist Labor Party in the US. It had a strong orientation to the working class with a clear and principled opposition to racist disunity. During World War One, the IWW opposition to conscription was based on clear internationalist arguments against workers fighting each other in the trenches of Europe. On two separate occasions referendums to introduce conscription were defeated in a major blow to the pro-British imperialist section of the ruling class, including the ‘Labor’ Prime Minister Billy Hughes. However, it must be noted that some of those opposing conscription did so with the racist argument that troops were needed in Australia rather than Europe to defend it fro the “Asiatic hordes”.
When the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was created in the wake of the Russian Revolution it included the cream of the IWW, the most progressive union leaders and many workers. Later it would become per capita the biggest Communist Party in the English-speaking world. From the beginning it had an anti-racist position and played a key role in the establishment of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat (PPTUS) in 1927, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) affiliated to. A year later the Melbourne Trades Hall Council (MTHC) put a motion to the ACTU to disaffiliate from the PPTUS because “it was a heterogeneous collection of Asiatics with unpronounceable names, who have the impertinence to lay down the policy for Australian workers”. The motion was defeated. However, soon after the MTHC itself voted 62-59 to support the ACTU’s affiliation.
There is a mountain of evidence to show that during the 20th century socialists were the most consistent anti-racists.
On the ground, the CPA, even before the post-World War Two mass immigration from Southern Europe, was able to recruit Italian and Maltese cane cutters in Northern Queensland into the party. This laid the basis for the victory of Australia’s only Communist MP, Fred Paterson in the seat of Bowen in 1944. During the Second World War, the CPA and the left trade unions supported the many refugees from Indonesia and Timor who had fled the Japanese invasion. After the war, the CP-led maritime unions banned Dutch shipping and this played an important role in the success of the Indonesian independence struggle. However the Stalinist domination of the CPA, from the late 1920s onwards, undermined at times its principled opposition to racism. The needs of the Moscow bureaucracy came before the interests of international socialism. Taking its lead from Moscow, the CPA at times energetically participated in opposition, no to the Japanese capitalist/imperialist war machine, but to the Japanese people itself, as can be seen in a cartoon in the CPA paper Tribune a week after the atomic bombs fell on Japan.
Migrants and Refugees’ role in Australia’s longest economic boom
From the introduction of the White Australia Policy at Federation until after the Second World War the vast majority of migrants were British or Irish. A dictation test was introduced as part of the Immigration Restriction Act: “Any person who, when asked to do so by an officer, fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer a passage of fifty words in length in any European language directed by the officer is (a prohibited immigrant).”
Some continental Europeans were refused entry because they, for example, couldn’t understand Gaelic Welsh or Irish. Don McMaster explained “the test was not explicitly racist, it was structured to exclude poor and uneducated Europeans and Asian immigrants.”
After the war it was clear to the ruling class that British/Irish immigration, although still preferred and financially encouraged, would not be enough to meet the needs of the growing economy. Manufacturing industry grew substantially during the long international post-war economic upswing. Employment in manufacturing increased by 47% from the war to the 1970s.
On top of the growing need for labour was the fear that the continent was so underpopulated (around 7.5 million in 1945) that it could be vulnerable to the newly independent East Asian states not to mention ‘Communist’ China. The Labor government opened the doors to Eastern and Southern Europeans. Growth was to be based on the 1% rule: 1% population growth from local births and 1% from immigration. Barely concealing his distaste, the Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell declared “it is my hope that for every foreign migrant there will be ten people from the United Kingdom”. The slogans for the new turn were “Populate or Perish” and “Bring out a Briton”.
Over 4 million immigrants arrived in Australia from 1947 to 1972 contributing a 73% increase to the local workforce. By 1972 37% of these migrants were from Eastern and Southern Europe destroying Calwell’s dream.
On top of the migrants, 170,000 refugees were accepted into Australia from 1947 to 1954 under the Displaced Persons Scheme. They were escaping the chaos of Europe after the War. Initially there was an order of acceptance (and a ban on Jews): first Baltic people, then Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenes, Czechs and Yugoslavs, but soon all European refugees (including Jews) were free to come to Australia. Between 1952 and 1961 70,000 refugees arrived, made up of 30,000 Yugoslavs and Italians from Yugoslavia, 19,000 German and Dutch, 14,000 Hungarians fleeing the Russian clamp down after the 1956 Revolution, and 7,000 White Russians from China.
These refugees were sent to live in camps, bonded to a job for two years, and suffered from low pay and the strictest of discipline. By the 1950s, a small number of Asian students (about 5,000) were admitted into Australia and in 1958 the dictation test was abolished. Since the War, a total of 650,000 refugees have settled in Australia.
The right-wing trade unions and more backward sections of the working class still had racist attitudes to these non-Anglo migrants, but their opposition was tempered by the low unemployment rates that existed during the post-war boom. This demonstrates the relationship between racism and the objective conditions of working people.
For most of the post-war boom the ruling class expected all migrants and refugees to assimilate or integrate into Anglo-Saxon society. However many immigrants were fleeing right-wing dictatorships and were keen to maintain their cultural and political heritage, especially when they compared it to the local dominant cultural norm of the 1950s, a grey monoculture and pale shadow of Britain. Inside these communities, and in some sense outside of the control of the ruling class, radical ideas flourished and many migrants became active in trade unions, the ALP and the Communist Party. This is ironic given that immediately after the War the CPA opposed mass migration using the arguments of defending local conditions and that because the Baltic migrants were fleeing ‘Communism’ they would be a right-wing block in Australia. This opposition dissipated as many migrants, particularly those from Italy and Greece, joined the CPA and trade unions.
The very growth of Australian capitalism – boosted by this immigration – strengthened economic trade ties with Asia. When Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1972 it was obvious that the traditional economic link with London was being gradually weakened at the same time as trade with East Asia was developing fast.
The changing make-up of the population through mass immigration undermined the ideology of White Australia. Capitalism had to adapt or face a reaction from the youth and a burgeoning, self-confident migrant population. In the 1960s many young people were radicalised by the Vietnam War and militant trade union and student battles. They increasingly opposed the racist immigration policy of the major parties. While the Liberal/National Party Coalition tried to portray the Vietnamese struggle as an example of “Asiatic hordes” that potentially threatened Australia, more and more ordinary Australians sympathised or at least became neutral towards the National Liberation Front. They saw the Vietnamese as victims of US aggression, not as a force that could invade Australia.
By 1967 the ALP Federal Conference dropped the White Australia Policy from its platform and when the Whitlam Labor Government was elected in 1972 this policy was officially scrapped.
The speed in which more than 100 years of entrenched racist policy was scrapped should be encouragement to all anti-racists. With the economic upturn taking away the fear of mass unemployment, ‘white’ Australians at worst shrugged their shoulders to these rapid social changes, even if many in the older generation retained racist ideas and language.
The Whitlam Government moved away from the unworkable assimilation policy towards migrants and introduced Multiculturalism. This was a pluralist policy that acknowledged the cultural identity and rights of new migrants: all the better to win their acceptance of the capitalist Australian nation. The new policy was cemented by a well-funded bureaucracy of support services to the elites, but usually this support by-passed workers.
In 1975 the Racial Discrimination Act was introduced, banning discrimination on the basis of colour, race or nationality. These reforms represented a victory for migrants and all progressive people who opposed racism.
However Whitlam’s “de-racialisation” of immigration policy went parallel with a fall in the numbers of migrants permitted into Australia as a sudden recession developed – from 170,000 migrants in 1970-71 to 50,000 in 1975.
As long as capitalism remained, the struggle over resources would continue. This would ensure the ruling class would not stop attempting to use the racist divide and rule tactic whenever necessary. As the economic boom came to a crashing end in the mid-1970s racist scape-goating would again become a feature of Australian politics.
The first ‘wave’ of modern boat people
The first wave of Asian refugees arrived after the Vietnam War with the boat people from the South, many supporters of the old regime, fleeing the new ‘Communist’ government. Later, after the failed Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, many refugees from Vietnam were from its ethnic Chinese minority. At first Vietnamese refugees were opposed by Whitlam who told his Cabinet that he “wasn’t having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into the country”. However as most Australians became sympathetic to the tragic sight of starving Vietnamese families in leaky boats landing on the northern shores, opposition inside Labor collapsed. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor and a smaller wave of refugees fled to Australia.
Today there are around 300,000 Indo-Chinese and 25,000 Timorese people in Australia. The flow of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia dropped after 1975, with only 1.58% of refugees arriving since that year. This helped undermine the long-standing Australian fear of “Asiatic hordes”, with recent fears more concentrated on Muslims.
In 1984 the right-wing Professor Geoffrey Blainey opened up a bitter debate on immigration policy by attacking the level of Asian immigration and warning of a growing “Asianisation” of Australia. These ideas were echoed by sections of the left with the reformist Professor Ted Wheelwright and ex-Maoist Abe David releasing “The Third Wave” which predicted a Japanese take-over of local industry and property. This was the first book by so-called socialists to be sold in far right League of Rights book shops. However their predictions – like Blainey’s – were entirely wrong especially after the Japanese economic depression a few years later. Nevertheless, Blainey gave confidence to the then Opposition leader John Howard who, in 1988, raised his own concerns about the effect of Asian immigration on “social cohesion”. Howard faced censure and kept his views private after that – at least until he became Prime Minister in 1996 when his racist scape-goating and British-centric views were given a new lease of life.
The Second Cambodian ‘wave’
The next wave of refugees began in the late 1980s. 19 boats carrying several hundred Cambodian boat people arrived between 1989 and 1994 fleeing the chaos in their country. Unlike the Vietnamese ten years earlier, these Cambodians arrived in Australia with the post-war economic boom well and truly over. The Labor government was quite prepared to use these boat people as a welcome political diversion. In comments that echo Philip Ruddock today, Prime Minister Bob Hawke declared:
“let no one think that we’re going to stand idly by and allow others, by their autonomous action which reflects perhaps some unhappiness with the circumstances in which they find themselves in their own country…to determine our immigration policy”
These “circumstances” were the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed millions of their own people!
Because Labor’s Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans had played a role in the UN intervention in Cambodia and had (unrealised) aspirations to be UN General Secretary in the future, he would not accept that ‘genuine refugees’ could exist in Cambodia. Hawke warned:
“We have an orderly migration programme. We’re not going to allow people just to jump into that queue by saying we’ll jump into a boat, here we are, bugger the people who’ve been around the world…”
When the Hawke Labor Government (correctly) allowed 27,000 Chinese students studying here to remain in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it seemed like double standards – one rule for Chinese students, another for Cambodian boat people.
The Hawke Government backed up its demonisation of boat people with the creation of the first detention centre at Port Hedland in October 1991 and a host of new laws restricting refugees’ rights. Hawke’s racist actions were in response to a second ‘wave’ of boat people which was one-tenth the numbers of asylum seekers ten years later. No wonder socialists highlight the hypocrisy of some Labor identities who attack Ruddock today.
As the Human Rights Commissioner, Christopher Sidoti, said at the time, “no other western country permits incommunicado detention of asylum-seekers – it is incomprehensible that a country with a such a proud record of commitment to finding durable solutions to refugee issues should resort to measures denying the basic rights of an individual”.
The 1992 Migration Detention Act stipulated mandatory detention for all refugee claimants who arrived between December 1989 and December 1992. The following year the Refugee Review Tribunal was introduced which sped up claims for asylum, but denied both legal representation for claimants and their right to examine or cross-examine witnesses.
The Federal Government wanted a tighter control over the judiciary in terms of the refugee issue. They wanted to choke off any judicial interference with their political tactic of demonising refugees. Refugee advocate Mary Crock explained the government were concerned about a judiciary who, under less political pressure than politicians, were putting principles of justice before the political needs of the executive wing of the state. The government feared the judiciary were:
“Usurping the policy-making role of parliament, and threatening the very fabric of immigration control, the courts were seen to be letting in people that the government, acting through its bureaucracy, wanted to keep out. They were threatening the legal structures erected to keep the invading hordes at bay, virtually every change made to the Migration Act in and after December 1989 can be related in some way to the issue of Parliamentary/bureaucratic control of immigration. It is no co-incidence that many of the changes made have had a direct impact on the power of the courts to intervene in immigration changes.”
When the Federal Court found that the mandatory detention of 15 Cambodians breached human rights legislation as set out in international law, the Labor government rushed through legislation to limit compensation to $1 a day. The same manoeuvre was used when the Federal Court found that a refugee had been detained illegally for 2 years.
To get a more permanent solution to these legal defeats, the government introduced the Migrant Legislation Amendment Bill (no.2) in 1994. This law retrospectively amended the Migration Act to make legal the detention of all persons currently in custody.
Under Labor, therefore, a situation developed whereby refugees had less rights under the law than any other person, including prisoners. They faced mandatory detention eg jail without trial, they had no right to bail, and they were presumed guilty until proven innocent.
The Hawke Labor Government began this series of legal counter-reforms and introduced the first detention centre. Howard and Ruddock have merely carried on and intensified what Labor had begun. This is true too for other policies such as privatisation and deregistration and attacks on militant trade unions such as the BLF.
The 3rd ‘wave’
The 3rd group of boat people began arriving in late 1994. In total this ‘ wave’ numbered 953 people, mainly Chinese asylum-seekers forcibly resettled in Southern China from detention centres in Hong Kong or Indonesia. The Migration Legislation Amendment Act (no.4) was specifically introduced by Labor to stop these people gaining entry to Australia. This amendment took away to right to use China’s one-child policy or its forced sterilisation policy as reasons for claiming refugee status. By 1997 this ‘ wave’ dried up, partially a result of China cracking down on people smugglers.
Between November 1989 to September 1997 a grand total of 2,988 boat people arrived on Australia’s shores, of which 2,289 were deported. That is to say, 699 stayed in Australia. This is not an invasion. During this period Australia’s recognition rate for refugees was 13%, compared to the average of 26% in other advanced capitalist countries.
More recent boat people have been mainly from the Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka or are Kurdish people. They are fleeing Saddam’s regime in Iraq, they are Hazaris fleeing Taliban persecution in Afghanistan, or people fleeing the war in Sri Lanka.
Boat people make up less than 0.01% of all new arrivals! There are around 51,000 people ‘unlawfully’ in Australia most being visa over stayers (11% from the UK and 9.3% from the US) who are not detained in the camps unlike every boat person. This is why socialists call the refugee policy racist. From June 1999 to July 2001, the number of boat people increased with 8,316 asylum seekers (11 a day) arriving on Australia’s shores, as more people fled the Taliban and Saddam. Yet this number was still tiny by international standards.
Both Labor and Coalition governments to divert attention from their anti-working class agendas have used the tiny numbers of boat people – onshore arrivals – as a political football. They have attempted to lean on a rich vein of racism in Australia. Once again the task of socialists is to demolish their arguments and fight for working class unity.
What is a refugee?
The UN defines refugees are “people who are outside their country because of a well-grounded fear of persecution” – asylum seekers are people who have not yet been classified as a refugee. There are five grounds for claiming protection: persecution based on reasons of race; religion; nationality; membership of a particular social group; or political opinion. People fleeing political turmoil, famine or physical disaster cannot claim refugee status.
The conditions that create refugees are varied. Imperialist exploitation of the underdeveloped world has created massive economic collapse in many areas. In the absence of a mass socialist alternative the resulting tensions are expressed by way of ethnic, religious and racial conflict. The arbitrary borders of many ex-colonial states, artificially created in the past by imperialist planners, have further exasperated conflict, best seen in the 1947 decision by Britain to place Muslim-dominated Kashmir within Hindu-dominated India rather than with Muslim Pakistan. The consequences of this divide and rule tactic are still being felt today not least in terms of displaced persons.
Refugees are the living casualties of war and economic crisis. The number of refugees worldwide is a pretty good indicator of the health of capitalism. In 1951 there were 1.5 million refugees in the world, that grew to 8.2 million by 1980 and to 21 million in 1999 (1 out of every 284 people). At least 30% of refugees have suffered from torture. These 21 million refugees are competing for 110,000 UN resettlement places. No wonder people â€˜queue jumpâ€™.
The number of people displaced within their own country is another 50 million, however the 1951 UN definition of a refugee includes the requirement that they be “outside the country of his nationality” and therefore displaced people get no help from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Today the largest number of refugees worldwide come from Afghanistan and Indo-Chinese from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The next biggest numbers are African from Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda. Then come Eastern Europe, Nicaragua and Chile. In Asia alone there are 4.8 million refugees plus 1.7 million displaced people.
Not surprisingly, in a typical capitalist way, this market is being met by the US$10 billion per year people-smuggling industry. Journeys to Australia cost between $3,800 and $40,000 per person depending on the distance and quality of transportation. Families have to sell their homes and possessions to make it by boat, richer people can try their luck by air.
The Howard/Ruddock regime
The refugee policy of the Hawke government boosted racist ideas. Both in opposition and then after 1996 in government, the Coalition parties supported every counter-reform of Labor and demanded even more. The rise in racist scapegoating reached a crescendo with the Pauline Hanson/One Nation phenomena in the mid-to-late 1990s. Her movement began with her 1996 speech to Parliament raising the old chestnut of the “danger of being swamped by Asia”. She won support from a layer of older, blue-collar workers fearful of the future, small business people and small farmers squeezed by monopolisation as well as the lunatic racist fringe.
Hansonism was defeated by a combination of radical action from thousands of young people and workers in the cities who protested outside her meetings and opposition from sections of big business who feared her poison would upset their trade with Asia.
Another factor undercutting Hansonism was that the Howard government appropriated her ideas on refugees. In early 2001 Pauline Hanson outlined her policy towards boat people: “You go out and meet them, fill them with food and water and medical supplies and say â€œgo that way’”. This is exactly what Howard did with the Tampa asylum seekers.
A rise in opposition to refugees and displaced persons is widespread in the advanced capitalist world. Imperialism is paying the price for years of exploiting the Third World with the influx of people from the â€˜Southâ€™ escaping war and famine and searching for a new life. Right wing politicians are whipping up racist poison to divert attention of workers in Europe and North America away from the underlying reasons for their falling living conditions.
The new Howard government continued and stepped up Labor’s tightening of refugees’ legal rights. In September 1997 seven new Acts were passed by parliament all aimed at further reducing refugees’ rights and keeping the courts out of the decision-making process.
The new Government introduced a language test was introduced in a partial return to dictation test abolished in 1958. At the same time access to English classes was reduced.
The constant changes to migration law by the government are an attempt to by-pass decisions by the Federal Court. It seems the Government considers the law is something for militant unions to strictly adhere to but, for Canberra to change at will when it doesn’t suit them.
John Howard, who waxes lyrical about international obligations when it comes to supporting the US ‘war on terror’, ignores international refugee law and plays the nationalist card when questioned on his refugee policy. Howard supports free trade and lectures the European Union and the US on the need for open borders for Australian exports, yet wants closed borders for human beings fleeing repression or searching for a new life.
The only court that the Government cannot weaken is the High Court. As a result the number of migration matters ending up there has risen by 161% in the past 5 years and now takes up 18% of all High Court cases. Because of this people appealing normal criminal and civil cases have to wait longer to get their day in the High Court, which has only 7 judges.
In 1999 new laws banned people with dual nationality from applying for refugee status. Also in 1999 second class visas, Temporary Protection Visa (TPVs), were introduced for onshore asylum seekers found to be refugees. These are explained more fully below.
On coming to power, the Government cut annual immigration intake from 96,000 to 86,000 and reduced the number of family reunion by 13,500 while boosting the number of skilled migrant category by 4,400.
In May 2002, in the face of big business demands for a boost to population, Ruddock slightly lifted the annual migrant intake by 12,000 with most (6,500) coming from skilled migrants and 5,300 from family reunion. 10 years ago family reunion was 70% of all immigration, this is very different today. This small boost was expected to add $7.2 billion to consumption over the next 5 years. The Financial Review demanded more arguing “foreign investors, which we still need as much as ever, may not find a low-growth society very exciting we may also find that maintaining a fairly stingy 12,000 places for refugees, when there are more than 22 million seeking a home, ultimately proves self-defeating.”
Ironically the cut to the family reunion category has contributed to the rise in boat people. In the past one male asylum seeker might get to Australia, win refugee status, and then bring in the rest of his family. Now whole families come at once as the new Temporary Protection Visas (explained later) ban family reunion. This leads to more and more children in custody.
The number of people accepted into Australia for humanitarian reasons was pegged at 12,000 (there are 21 million refugees worldwide!). 8,000 of these were to come from various off-shore schemes, that is to say, people who ‘ queue’ or apply via the UNHCR for relocation to a safe place. However all is not as it seems as explained by in the Age by John Menadue, ex-Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Gough Whitlam: Â³Only 4,000 (of these 8,000 offshore places) are reserved for offshore refugee claimants with â€˜superior claims’. Of the 8,000 remainder, 4,000 are for onshore processing. The other 4,000 are for an off shoot special humanitarian intake for people who, while facing discrimination, are not defined as refugees and who must have family or other links with Australia. This is de facto family reunion under a humanitarian guise. It is not a refugee program at all and deliberately so.Â²
With over 200 countries worldwide and only 75 Australian embassies and consulates, not everyone can queue. Even in Kenya where there is an Australian High Commission in Nairobi, 2.5 staff have to deal with applicants from the closest 34 countries. No wonder this High Commission has 9,000 outstanding applications.
During the 1990s war in the Balkans, Canberra expected asylum seekers from Bosnia and Kosovo to lodge their application at the Australian Embassy in Serbian Belgrade!
On average, those in ‘queues’ to come to Australia wait 15 months for their application to be processed.
Australia participates in the UN’s official offshore refugee resettlement scheme. Ruddock proudly claims that on a per capita basis Australia is the second most generous country in accepting refugees. This is true, but only on the league table for this scheme which only 10 countries participate in. The vast bulk of the international refugee flow is outside this UN programme. When all refugees are included, Australia is seen to accept one of the lowest levels worldwide. The European Union has 3 million people without visas, with 500,000 arriving every year. The US has 5 million people without visas. Iran has 1.8 million refugees. Belgium with a population of 10 million has double the number of asylum seekers as Australia.
Australia per capita intake of asylum seekers is 1 per 1,961 residents compared to 1 per 604 in Britain, 1 per 760 in Germany and 1 in 10 in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Australian National University researcher Thuy Do has shown that “in 2000 Australia ranked 32nd in the world in terms of the number of refugees it hosts and 39th on a per capita basis” (Financial Review 22/4/02).
The other 4,000 of the 12,000 refugee places were set-aside for the demonised “onshore” applicants who arrive unannounced in Australia and claim refugee status. Neither the onshore portion of 4,000 nor the full humanitarian quota of 12,000 was fully filled in 1998-99 or 1999-2000, exposing the myth of a boat people invasion. Of the 10,224 boat people that arrived from 1989 to 2001, 49% were granted entry, 32% departed and 19% remain in detention.
The number of people approved in the onshore protection category increased in 2000-2001 to 5,577 from 2,458 the year before, fuelling Ruddock’s rhetoric against refugees. Yet the number of “overstayers”, that is people who come as tourists, students or visitors and overstay their visas, dwarfs even this increased number. In 1999 there were 53,000 visa overstayers, of whom 27% had been in Australia for over 9 years. They came from the UK (11%), US (9%), China (7%), Indonesia (6%), Philippines (6%), Japan (5%), Korea (3%), Malaysia (3%), Germany (3%) and Fiji (3%) – not Afghanistan, Iraq or Sri Lanka.
In July 1996 the government reduced by one the number of offshore places available every time an onshore asylum seeker was granted refugee status. This political tactic was aimed at isolating onshore arrivals in the eyes of ethnic communities in Australia whose relatives are waiting for an offshore place.
The weakening of the offshore refugee component will only encourage people to come by boat or plane and become an onshore rather than an offshore asylum seeker.
Onshore refugees had the support services available to offshore applicants removed. Offshore refugees receive limited housing support, English language classes, cash for furniture and a home, and after two years can apply for citizenship. Onshore (boat people) refugees, that is people the government agree are genuine refugees, are only given 2 weeks welfare payments and thereafter rely on charity and State Government support.
Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs)
After temporary safe haven was granted to people fleeing Kosovo and East Timor the government moved to create a new class of visas – the new 3-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPV), which are divided into three subclasses. TPV (subclass 447) were introduced for asylum seekers captured on boats in the high seas. TPV (subclass 451) were for those caught congregating in countries before attempting to reach Australia. The 451 visa makes it slightly easier to apply for an 866 protection visa (permanent), although only after three years when the TPV expires. Subclass 447 holders have to wait the three years and then get the Minister’s permission before they can apply for this permanent visa.
Asylum seekers who manage to get to Australia before being detained must apply for a TPV (subclass 785) which is similar to the other subclasses, however if they arrive legally they can apply immediately for a subclass 866 visa.
None of these three temporary TPV visas offer social security benefits, English language classes, the right to family reunion, and they also ban international travel. However, asylum seekers who arrive lawfully can immediately apply for permanent residency. Once again it is double standards against boat people.
All of these visa last three years, after which they have no right to apply for permanent residence. Instead they must apply to the Immigration Minister for an 866 protection visa (permanent) which necessitates the individual again going through the onshore refugee determination process. Boat people face mandatory detention, as do people arriving by air who apply for refugee status before they pass the customs desk. If an asylum seeker, arriving by aeroplane, passes through customs and then applies for refugee status within 45 days, they can live in the community and even apply for a work permit!
Changes were made to the process of applying for refugee status. The system is not like an Australian Magistrates Court, with the asylum seeker having legal representation and the right to examine and cross-examine.
Before they get to the stage of being assessed by a Tribunal member, asylum seekers must first get past an initial compliance interview with a junior official and without any legal help. This interview can lead to rapid deportation if the often-traumatised asylum seeker does not clearly ask for refugee status, despite having no legal advice as to the necessary statements to make to DIMA. This denial of legal help contravenes international law as well as section 256 of the Migration Act.
In 1998-1999 alone, 1,457 people were kicked out of Australia within 72 hours because they didn’t clearly ask for refugee status. However where the country of origin refused to accept them back, failed asylum seekers can be incarcerated in detention camps for extended periods. One Iraqi group knocked back at this initial stage of the process has been locked up for over 2 years.
Another applicant, an Afghani asylum seeker, was screened out because he gave the wrong date for his mothers’ birthday, with officials discounting the fact that according to the Afghani calendar 2002 is 1422! Officials no longer have to inform asylum seekers of their right to legal representation or their right to apply for refugee status. As Amnesty International put it “refugees have rights but no right to know their rights.”
After getting past this stage, the applicant is interviewed by a Tribunal member. All power is in the hands of this bureaucrat, who is on an individual 6-12 month contract, chosen, appointed, and potentially fired by the Minister for Immigration – unlike a normal judge who is somewhat out of the direct control of politicians. Being tagged as sympathetic to refugees would not be good for the job security of the Tribunal member.
If refused refugee status by a DIMA official, the asylum seeker can appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal, again not always with legal advice. After that they can appeal to the Federal Court and then the High Court, but only if there is an error in the application of the law. The final appeal is to the Immigration Minister himself.
Successful applicants get a TPV; those who fail are billed at least $60 for every day in detention!
Situation worsens for asylum seekers after September 11th
One of the seven new laws introduced in September 2001 took away the right to refugee status for onshore arrivals if they had spent 7 days or more in a country where they could have potentially found protection. Another permitted detainees as young as 10 to be strip-searched. Penalties for escape were increased from 3 to 5 years imprisonment. People assisting escapees now face up to 10 years jail and $10,000 fines.
The laws introduced in September 2001 were made by the government because this current wave of boat people from the Middle East were being granted refugee status at a higher percentage than ever before. This reflected the real repression that faced in their country of origin. Until the Tampa incident 97% of Iraqis and 92% of Afghanis were granted refugee status. After the changes and the general hardening of attitude by the Tribunal in the post-September 11th period, the success rate of Middle East and Afghani asylum seekers plummeted.
The Tampa boat people that ended up on PNG or a Pacific Island had a success rate of only about 25% (although half of these won refugee status on appeal). Yet of the 159 Tampa boat people that were sent to New Zealand and screened by the authorities there, all bar one were deemed to be genuine refugees! The UN and Australia were much stricter than the New Zealand authorities against asylum seekers from the same ship. This says more about UN and Australian over-confidence in post-Taliban Afghanistan than it does about the asylum seekers themselves.
Most people would not take the dangerous step of taking often-dangerous boats to Australia unless there was tremendous push factors in their country of origin. No amount of detention centres and strict immigration laws can stop the human flood taking place into the US and Western Europe. While numbers of boat people into Australia are tiny today, this may change in the future. PNG is imploding as a nation under the pressure of imperialist exploitation and a corrupt and divided local elite. The Pacific Islands face all this, plus the danger of environmental wipe out from global warming. In Ambon the Christian community face defeat in the next years from the Muslim community as tensions from poverty are reflected in ethnic conflict. The political situation in these three areas could worsen and lead to a new and bigger flow of asylum seekers into Australia.
Several new centres (in reality jails), divided into two categories, were built by the government for a private company to manage. They were at Woomera (approximately 279 detainees as of April 2002, but with a capacity for 2000), Curtin (362), Villawood (458), Maribyrnong (69), Perth (39), Christmas Island (88), Manus in PNG (356) and Nauru (1155), to add to the existing camp at Port Hedland (191).
A new centre was completed at Baxter, near Port Augusta in July 2002, with Woomera being downscaled and Curtin closed.
The notorious Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) won the contract for managing the detention centres. The contract between the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMA) and ACM guarantees the government a share of money raised from any cost-cutting by camp management (“3.2 Sharing of Cost Savings (a) In acknowledgment of the co-operative relationship necessary for cost reductions, the Contractor agrees to share with the Commonwealth any Savings achieved at a proportion to be agreed between the Parties in each Service Contract”).
As a lawyer put it in the Financial Review:
“DIMA is supposed to be the regulator of this private American company. But that clause in the contract means it has now entered into a perverse commercial relationship with ACM that encourages the maximising of profits to the advantage of both parties. That clause has destroyed the integrity the department may have had as a regulator.”
ACM is a 100% subsidiary of the US security company Wackenhut whose founder George Wackenhut once kept files on 3 million people he considered communist. Wackenhut has 68,000 employees and had revenues in 2001 of $2.8 billion. In 1999 alone ACM made $100 million for Wackenhut.
One way they boosted profits was paying St Vincent de Paul $5 or less per kilo of clothing instead of the usual $8 per kilo. Detainees can work fulltime inside the camps for less than $50 a week. At Woomera ACM staff sell food at exorbitant prices: $4 for a Mars bar for example.
ACM staff works 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off. Australian Workers Union Occupational Health and Safety director, Yossi Berger, has complained that guards at Port Hedland were “fatigued, poorly trained, at times distressed and sometimes abused…officers are exploited by ACM management and opportunistically managed.” He claimed ACM were saving money by limiting training. “It is a calculated, delinquent and offensive failure under the simple requirements of duty of care.”
Some ACM staff are racist thugs with numerous stories of their cruelty to children and adults. Others become demoralised by their work and have spoken to the media, criticising ACM mismanagement of the centres.
One such person, paediatrician Annie Sparrow, told of babies and infants at Woomera having retarded walking, social and cognitive skills because of a sterile learning environment and mothers who were too depressed to play with them. There are no trees, no grass and no flowers at Woomera. Many children have to answer to a number not a name.
Dr Sparrow told of a one-year-old boy who “was barely crawling and not walking. Normally it should be crawling by age one”. Other reports tell of children of 11 and 12 years wearing nappies.
Most disturbingly are what Dr Newman (who participated in the recent camp study by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists) calls Â³epidemicÂ² levels of self-harm and attempted suicide. She continued: Â³We’ve also seen depression and suicidal ideas and behaviours in pre-pubertal children, which is virtually unheard of in the general community.”
Commercial confidentiality” protects ACM from close scrutiny. However stories from asylum seekers, their lawyers and friends, and even from disaffected centre medical staff and ACM staff tell a tale of occasional sexual and physical abuse, 3rd rate education and health standards and even systematic torture.
In July 2002 Ruddock admitted that several ACM staff had beaten a child for shouting “free the refugees”. In the same year, a 5-year-old boy was raped at Curtin. In 2001 an ACM guard faced criminal charges after he assaulted a detainee. In 2000 reports surfaced of sexual abuse of children at Woomera and Curtin. In 1999 a 9-year-old boy has forcibly fed tranquillisers to “control his behaviour”. No wonder many detainees are traumatised, suicidal and carry out desperate acts of civil disobedience and protest such as lip-sewing and hunger strikes. In 2000 a Tongan man facing deportation after living in Australia for 17 years jumped headfirst to his death from the top of a basketball pole after being verbally abused by ACM staff.
Serious concerns have been raised about health standards at the camps, both in Australia and in PNG/Pacific Islands as ACM spend as little as possible on medication and preventive medicine. Ironically, rather than mandatory detention being necessary to protect Australia from imported diseases, the camps may be breeding grounds for disease, which can then be spread via staff and visitors.
45% of detainees have been locked up for over 3 months, with an average stay 56 days. Some people have been in detention for over 2 years. The average cost per day for each detainee is about $115, which is less than that spent per asylum seeker on the Pacific Solution.
In the next months the contract for managing the camps is up for tender and Group 4 Falck are favourites to win the contract. This company has recently bought out Wackenhut and therefore owns ACM! Group 4 are not new to Australia, managing Victoria’s Port Phillip prison. As Jessica Whyte explained in her excellent July 2002 article on RMIT and its links with ACM: Â³In the first seven months that Group 4 ran the prison, 60 staff resigned, and five inmates hung themselves. A Group 4 statement has described the extent of the company’s social conscience, arguing â€˜Group 4 Falck considers its most important social responsibility to be ensuring that the company has a good and sound financial position.’Â²
The Tampa incident
In the run-up to the November 2001 Federal election the Government used the Tampa incident to once again demonise refugees as potential Muslim terrorists, appear tough on ‘border protection’, and thereby divert attention from the Ansett collapse, the GST, and the host of other attacks on working class people. A small committee (the People Smuggling Task Force) was set up inside the Prime Minister’s department to manufacture lies and propaganda around the Tampa affair in order to win the election. It included senior military officers and public servants, debunking the myth about state neutrality in class society.
Lies such as the “children overboard” claims were made that were aimed at dehumanising these asylum seekers in the eyes of ordinary Australians. When the truth eventually came out ex-minister Peter Reith was made the fall guy, but it clear that all the top military brass, the Cabinet and their senior public servants were up to their neck in this disgusting lie – accusing parents of threatening to kill their own children.
Even by the lax standards of the Howard government, international laws were flouted at a rapid rate during the Tampa crisis. Elite SAS troops boarded a commercial vessel of a friendly power, took possession of it, and forced the captain to sail to PNG. Those onboard were forced into a new detention centre that makes ACM camps in Australia seem like 5 star hotels. All this was made legal through retrospective legislation, the Border Protection Act, passed with Labor’s support.
Labor leader Kim Beazley pointed out that there wasn’t a “cigarette paper” of difference between the two major parties on refugee policy. This didn’t stop the Coalition winning the November 2002 Federal election; why vote for the Â³2nd 11Â² of Beazley’s team when you could vote for the real thing? Sections of the ruling class feared that the short-sighted scape-goating of the Government and Opposition would backfire in the future in terms of radicalising youth and undermining trade.
Murdoch’s Australian wrote scathingly of “the government which has mobilised and inflamed public opinion against Muslims and refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan. What a triumph of leadership. What a way to win an election.” The Financial Review raged against “Howard’s weasel words about Australia’s warmth…(while) his actions has turned harsh and merciless and that the Coalition is prepared to use human beings as pawns in its domestic electoral struggle…Howard’s policy cannot disguise the damage to Australia’s global reputation and to vital regional foreign policy interests, particularly Australia’s still raw and sensitive relations with Indonesia.”
Without any major opposition the Government could move into increasingly bizarre and unique ways to keep boat people from claiming asylum in Australia. The great Aussie nationalist Howard excised the northern islands from Australian territory in regards to the right to claim refugee status. Those boat people picked up by navy ships or who manage to arrive onshore were taken to PNG or Nauru. Local elites received secret financial â€˜compensation’ to get them to agree to accept asylum seekers and house them in hastily constructed detention centres with even worse standards than ACM facilities on the Australian mainland.
The Pacific Solution is merely one step up from Australia’s relationship with Indonesia where it pays Jakarta to intercept asylum seekers before they leave their shores, put them up in a hotel, and gives them US$50 a month plus medical help. Despite grand promises by Canberra, only 2 of the 1,500 people detained by Indonesian authorities have been accepted into Australia as refugees. Is it any wonder asylum seekers pay â€˜people-smugglers’, get on leaky boats and take their chances?
The callousness of the Pacific Solution was most clearly seen in the sinking of the SIEV-X boat carrying 400 asylum seekers, including 70 children, that sank on its way from Indonesia to Australia. Australian Federal Police operative Kylie Pratt was based in Jakarta and she telephoned authorities in Australia to warn of this overcrowded boat and the possibility of it sinking. The message reached Coastwatch, the officers of Operation Relex (set up to stop ‘illegal’ boats), the armed forces and the highest levels of the Federal Government. Yet no Orion planes or naval vessels were sent to assist SIEV-X. At best this was a case of criminal negligence that led to the drowning of 350 people.
While Australia gives only $20 million to the UNHCR’s refugee programmes, the so-called Pacific Solution cost $450 million, which equals $500,000 per asylum seeker!
For this amount of money, the government could put up the 3,000 people currently in the detention camps in an expensive hotel for one year (at $150 per night), buy them a good car each ($50,000), a decent house ($300,000), and still have $95,250 left over for each detainee!
In a unconscious parody of the beads and mirrors offered by Batman to Aborigines for the area that was to later become Melbourne, the Federal Government offered $2,000 per person/$10,000 per family to go back to Afghanistan. Ruddock claimed this amount was 10 times the average yearly income for people in Afghanistan. However less than 10% of detainees accepted the offer – money means little if your life is threatened. Most Afghani refugees are Hazaris from the centre of the country fleeing Taliban repression. In any event, the cash could well be stolen by the warlords upon return.
Migrants and refugees bad for the economy?
A debate is brewing about the changing demographic mix of Australia. On current trends, with an aging population and low fertility rates, our population will only rise to 24 million by 2058. As an aside, if population is to be reduced to 6-12 million as some would-be protectors of the environment argue (such as scientist Tim Flannery), 100,000 people would have to be ‘removed’ from Australia each year! One Nation’s zero population growth policy would lead to stagnation until 2048 and then a rapid collapse in population. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in five years time there will be 120,000 fewer people moving into the 20-40 age group and this will worsen further in ten years time. This will undermine demand for goods and services and has provoked the push by big business for higher levels of immigration. The ruling class also worries about the extra financial burden placed on the government and the working population to pay for the health needs of an aging people. The reason for a lower fertility rates amongst Australian women is related to issues such as cuts to child care subsides, casualisation of the workforce undermining the financial security needed to plan a family, more expensive health care and education.
These cuts to services and ‘reforms’ (in reality counter-reforms) of the labour market were supported and encouraged by big business. Now the consequences of these cuts are hitting them in terms of a potential lower demand for their goods and services.
Another reason big business wants more skilled migrants (rather than family reunion) is that they arrive pre-trained which saves them money. Big business is also concerned about the trade consequences of a racist refugee policy. The anti-refugee rhetoric of Ruddock can generate political pressures to cut migration as a whole, and it also gives trade competitors in East Asia a political weapon to use against Australian exports.
Howard looks to the US and downplays the trade consequences in Asia flowing from his refugee policy. In return the US repays him with new $350 billion subsidies for their farmers and new tariffs to protect their steel industry from Australian exports. Local business is increasingly connected to East Asia, not Britain or the US. Trade between Australia and the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations rose 62% from 1996 to 2000. There is no reason to see migrants as having a negative impact on the local economy. One report explained how:
“a 30,000 reduction in the number of migrants will cuts housing starts by about 10,000 dwellings. On the basis of Housing Industry Association estimates, the annual production requirement for new homes will fall by 130,000 units a year, well below industry capacity. Put another way, there will be no incentive for manufacturers, of building materials to invest in new plant and machinery.”
The housing industry is particularly sensitive to cuts to migration as Italian, Greek, Croatian and Serbian-born Australians are on average 20% more likely to build or buy their own home than Australian or UK/Irish born people.
Ruddock admits that every 1,000 new skilled migrants add up to $50 million in extra federal taxation revenue, not to mention the benefit in terms of extra demand for goods and services. He counterpoises this to the alleged cost on the federal budget of $30 million for every 1,000 new refugees. Yet if this is true, that is a loss of $30,000 per refugee at a time when the government is spending $500,000 per asylum seeker now to keep boat people in detention centres and on the whole Pacific Island solution.
In reality, Ruddock’s figures ignore that fact that refugees are keen to build a new life, have skills and obvious self-motivation and will boost economic demand. If anyone should be ‘kept out’ it should be the gangster stock market speculators and ‘investors’ who aim at acquiring companies, asset-stripping them, sacking staff, and then sell off the butchered company for a massive profit. The most recent example is the New Zealand Airlines bosses who helped destroy Ansett and put thousands on the stones of unemployment.
On the basis a repair of our environment (see below) and an economic plan to expand useful, environmentally-conscious industry, public transport and infrastructure the continent could take, and would need, a vast increase in population. The type of planning and democratic input and control necessary for such a radical change in direction could only come from a socialist transformation of society. Private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy would be replaced with workers’ control and management with the short-termism of the profit system being replaced with a democratically-decided socialist economic plan that puts the needs of people first. In turn, such a process would need to be linked to similar transformations internationally as neither environmental, economic or population policy can be planned on anything other than an international level.
Environmental sustainability as an excuse to oppose refugees and migrants
Some, even on the left and in the environmental movement, argue against greater immigration and against support for the refugees by using the excuse of environmental sustainability. These ideas are not new. They show a complete disregard for the main reason for both the cause of environmental damage and the shortages that arise from it: big business and the skewed distribution that comes from a class society.
There is plenty of food in the world, in fact food is dumped in Europe and the US to keep up prices. However not everyone has the money to buy it. There are cures for many of the diseases killing millions of people in the Third World, but again distribution is based on the laws of the profit system, capitalism. It is true that Australia faces an ever-worsening water and salinity crisis because of the mismanagement of natural resources by successive governments, farmers and big business.
As Salt Watch explained:
“removal of deep rooted native trees and grasses and the development of irrigation projects has allowed more water to soak into the soil, raising the level of the groundwater…when the watertable rises to near the one metre of the surface, the salt can rise to the surface by capillary action, causing salting of the soils and severely limiting the growth of vegetation.”
2.5 million hectares of land now suffers to some degree from the effects of salinity. If unchecked this is expected to rise to 15 million hectares in the coming decades, at the rate of one football field an hour. The once mighty Murray River has not deposited a drop of water into the sea since November 2001.
The Paris Le Monde explained in July 2002 that:
Â³Australia admits the highest annual volume of greenhouse gas per inhabitant in the world (27 tonnes)…the volume of arable land destroyed by erosion is also the highest in the world (180 tonnes per person per year). The planet’s driest continent is also the biggest consumer of water (1,540 cubic metres per person per year). Each Australian throws away 620kg of household refuse a year, an amount surpassed only by the Americans.Â²
A new survey by the World Economic Forum and Yale and Columbia Universities ranks Australia 134th on the list of the 142 countries that are seeking to reduce their greenhouse gases.
But what a short sighted approach it is to see these damaging practices as unchangeable and work out an immigration/refugee policy accordingly. Socialists link the fight against racist refugee policies to the need struggle for workers’ control of their environment, economy and state power. We blame the crisis on the short sighted â€˜profit first’ mentality inherent in capitalism, not simply the number of people living in Australia. In fact the worst environmental damage suffered in Australia occurred before the Second World War when the population was less than 5 million!
The whole world’s population, organised in family units with a quarter-acre block each, would fit into Queensland, with space the size of Victoria and Tasmania left over. Australia, despite the criminal mismanagement of our water resources by privatising governments, private water companies and bad farming techniques, still has per capita twice the renewable water than the US.
On the basis of ending the private ownership of water, with a national plan to improve the standard of irrigation, protection of remaining trees and topsoil, and support for alternative farming techniques, the water and salinity crisis could be overcome in a relatively short period of time. Vast areas of Australia could be opened up for environmentally-sustainable agriculture and habitation.
The greenhouse effect can by reduced by a move away from energy sources such as coal, petroleum and natural gas which all produce carbon dioxide when burnt.
This of course requires the ending of the profit system and a sane socialist society with workers’ control and management of the commanding heights of the economy. Only such a government would be able to end the domination of the oil and car industries and have the will and means to put the vast resources necessary into solar, wind and tidal power.
The same is true for dealing with the salinity crisis. For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation believes that $65 billion is necessary over the next ten years to fix the salinity crisis, the combined spending from all governments over the next seven years, however, is only $1.4 billion.
70% of farms are losing money. Most farmers therefore cannot afford to take part in costly salinity projects, which would mean them replacing crops earning $600 per hectare with $100 per hectare for pastureland. They could only make this change if they received the necessary government intervention and support.
How racist attitudes will be undermined
Marx explained that, in Britain, capitalism was created with blood dripping from its every pore, this is even more the case in Australia. The system is steeped in racism – from the attempted annialation of Aboriginal people to the White Australia Policy to Howard and Ruddock’s scape-goating of today. The legal apartheid-style exclusion of certain races and nationalities from a share of the continent’s wealth is the racist glue than created the Australian state in 1901. The working class has paid a price for this in terms of a stunted economic development and in terms of being prone to racist scape-goating at key junctures in history.
Yet racism is based on a lie, not on objective reality. Workers fear new migrants might undermine their living conditions. Those in higher income brackets don’t have the same fears and this partially explains why at the moment most anti-racist activists are university students and from the inner city suburbs rather than from a working class background.
A new survey by Professor James Forrest of Macquarie University explained the relatively more racist attitudes in (working class) Western Sydney was motivated by economics. He continued:
Â³I think it’s partly job related; you know how each earlier group blames the new group for taking jobs away. One of the reasons why it’s less important in (richer) northern and eastern suburbs is, I think, that immigrants are not a threat in any way…The Asians are fairly respectable now. It’s a typical patternâ€¹it used to be anti-Italian, anti-Greek, anti-Middle East, anti-Asian and now anti-Muslim. The good thing about this is that it may be a transitory thing, spanning a number of years, and something else happens.Â² The reason that wages, living and working conditions are being undermined in Australia has nothing to do with the number of asylum seekers let alone migrants. In fact unity of working class people with refugees and between Australians of all colour, creed and background is a pre-condition to enable our movement to achieve the political strength to overcome capitalism. Marx explained in the 1800s that the British workers would never overthrow their rulers as long as they supported British Imperialist oppression of Ireland and the other colonies. Today, Australian working class people will never be united and focused enough to combat the elite as long as they allow themselves to fall for the scape-goating propaganda of the right-wing politicians and bosses’ media.
The support from sections of ordinary people for the refugee policy of the Government will be partially overcome by the hard slog of political explanation by socialists and other anti-racists. However these ideas will be most rapidly overcome when workers begin to move into struggle in the next period to defend their jobs, unions, wages, conditions and social services. In the course of these battles the racist sties on the political eyes of many workers will be undermined as the media, politicians and the state machine expose themselves as enemies of the people. This was seen, for example, during the British miners’ strike in 1984-85 when racist attitudes by the young, white, striking miners were eradicated after they received massive moral and financial support from inner-city Blacks and Asians. These ethnic minorities could identify with the repression miners were facing from the police on their picket lines.
The multicultural character of the working class today – probably amongst the most cosmopolitan in the advanced capitalist world – makes racism increasingly at odds with the objective needs of workers, which is class unity in the face of local and international capitalism. As Sydney socialist Bob Gould explained in his excellent article The ALP, the Labor Movement and Racism, the current population includes 600,000 Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders, Maoris and South Sea Islanders. There are 1.4 million people of Asian descent. 3.5 million of an Irish Catholic background. 5 million non-British European and Middle Eastern peoples. These 10.5 million people outnumber the 8.5 million of British, Scottish and Welsh descent. Per capita there are more Indian-born people living in Australia than in the UK. In the 1990s the number of Vietnamese-Australian jumped by 61,000 (through family reunion) and the number of Philippines-born residents rose by 51,500. The Indonesian population in Australia has doubled. The New Zealand population has also doubled (70,000 extra in the last 5 years), and is now 10% of the population of New Zealand itself! In total 23.6% of the population was born overseas.
Socialists welcome this diversity with all its cultural and political benefits. The genuine anti-capitalists and socialists have been the most consistent in their opposition to racism in Australia. We stand in this tradition today.
Inside the camps, asylum seekers have undertaken brave acts of civil disobedience against the cruelty of ACM and the refugee policy of the Government. Outside the camps, the frontline of opposition to mandatory detention comes from young people. At the Woomera event at Easter 2002, at the rallies in the cities and towns, and in the activist networks all around the country young people have given their time and energy to fighting the government on this issue. Thousands of people have signed up to Phillip Adams’ list of volunteers to house escaped refugees, and many are already doing so. With no leadership from the ALP or most union leaders, young people have had to take things into their own hands with the wave of protests, vigils and even break-outs at the camps.
Young people, and often students, do not have the weight of social conservatism weighing down on them as much as older workers. They also don’t have the massive burden of family commitments. As in every serious struggle for reforms and revolution the youth usually move first and the workers move later, and of course more decisively as they carry more social weight. The main task today is to take the ideas out to working class people.
The refugee campaign must not be left alone to the small ‘l’ liberals who want capitalism with a human, non-racist face. These people cannot answer workers’ concerns for their futures under this system. Only socialists have the ideas to cut through the racist scapegoating of the bosses’ media and politicians. This has always been the case throughout Australian history. As Malcolm X said in the 1960s “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” We must link the struggle for the refugees and against racism to the need to change society.
The socialist programme on the refugee issue includes the following demands:
Close the camps
The camps set a dangerous precedent for all Australians in terms of detention without trial, privatisation of prisons, and the demonisation of enemies of the state. The camps also pose a potential health risk for detainees and all Australians due to the criminal-negligence of ACM.
Support instead of detention for Asylum Seekers
No-one should rot in detention camps. Asylum seekers should have access to free medical care and all the support services necessary for them to integrate into society as quickly as possible. Free English-as-a-second-language classes are vital to improve the ability to work, interact with others and thereby break down the barriers between peoples.
Jobs for all
The money currently spent on the Pacific Solution and the whole detention system would be better used creating jobs for refugees and all Australians, building railways and public transport, employing teachers and nurses and so on. Socialists demand the right to a job for all refugees and all Australians
Homes for all
Every refugee and worker should have the right to a home. There is enough land, enough building workers and enough equipment to make this a reality. What’s stopping it is the private ownership of the building industry and the laws of capitalism. A socialist planned economy would put workers and materials together and rapidly wipe out the housing shortage.
Support our brothers and sisters in their fight against imperialism and oppression
While most young people want to travel, work overseas for a while and even migrate the 21 million refugees around the world are fleeing war, famine and repression. The massive movement of humanity from the â€˜South’ to Western Europe and the US (Australia gets a tiny share of this refugee flow) will ultimately be eased only by peace and a rise in living standards in the under-developed world. This can only come by an ending of imperialist exploitation of the Third World; an ending of capitalist relations whereby countries are forced to grow cash crops instead of food to please the IMF and World Bank; and overthrowing the local, corrupt elites who are agents for international capital. Socialists in Australia and the West have a duty to assist these struggles in the Third World. This is why the Socialist Party is proud to be an active section of the Committee for a Workers’ International which unites socialist parties and organisations in over 30 countries.
Fight for socialism in Australia
A precondition for solving our environmental crisis and economic stagnation is an ending of the short-term, profit-first system of capitalism. We need a socialist society where the commanding heights of the economy are under workers’ control and management and a sane, environmentally-friendly economic plan can be introduced. To do this we need to build a massive socialist movement that wins majority support inside the labour and trade union movement and amongst the youth.
The socialist development of Australia would open up for a period of massive growth, greater than even the boom after the Second World War. This would allow and necessitate a big increase in the population. A socialist humane society would take the financial pressures off people that stop many having children. However, the bulk of an increased population would have to come from immigration. After a few decades, a socialist Australia would be even more culturally rich than today. We will look back at the White Australia Policy, at Hanson, at Howard, Ruddock and the ALP leaders as purveyors of a grey mono-culture that is thankfully long gone.
A new Britannia by Humphrey McQueen, Pelican Books, 1970
ALP, the Labour Movement and Racism by Bob Gould, 2000, in Labor Review no. 34, Victorian Labor College
Asylum Seekers: Australia’s response to refugees by Don McMaster, Melbourne University Press, 2001
Australian Capitalism: Toward a socialist critique, edited by John Playford & Douglas Kirsner, Penguin, 1972
Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1799 by Bruce Elder, Child & Associates, 1988
Borderline by Peter Mares, University of New South Wales Press, 2001
But now we want our land back by Hannah Middleton, New Age Publishers, 1977
Dispossession: Black Australians and White Invaders by Henry Reynolds, Allen & Unwin, 1989
Future Seekers: Refugees and the law in Australia by Mary Crock & Ben Saul, The Federation Press, 2002
The History of the ACTU by Jim Hagan, Longman & Cheshire, 1981
Reanimating the dead heart by John Auty, self-published, 1994
Web pages of Refugee Action Collective, DIMA, Socialist Party, Maribyrnong 2002, UNHCR
Australian Financial Review