From the July 2011 issue of The Spark
On World Refugee Day, the 19th of June 2011, hundreds of people marched in Melbourne under the slogan “unite to end mandatory detention.” After the march Ian Anderson who is on the editorial team of The Spark caught up with leading members of the Socialist Party of Australia, Mel Gregson and Anthony Main.
The Spark: So the movement against mandatory detention of refugees has made headlines in recent months. Could you go a bit into the background of this?
AM: Australia has practiced mandatory detention of refugees since 1992, when it was introduced under the Labor government. Refugees arriving by boats are placed in detention centres while their claims are processed. Often this takes months, and in some cases 6-7 years to process, while the refugees are kept like animals. At various points the mass anger and frustration over these brutal conditions have led to protests and riots. There is also a small but growing solidarity movement on the mainland.
MG: The Howard government tried to negate Australia’s obligations under the UN treaty by processing refugees offshore, at detention centres on Christmas Island, in Nauru, Papa New Guinea and elsewhere. The Rudd government was elected in 2007 on a platform of a “more humane” refugee policy, but ultimately reverted to a similar policy to the Howard government. Most recently, the Gillard government announced a policy of sending refugees to Malaysia. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention, and even deploys state-sanctioned militias to cane refugees. There are numerous deaths and tens of thousands of canings a year.
The Spark: Can you talk about the World Refugee Day march, and the wider solidarity campaign?
AM: World Refugee Day is organized by the Refugee Advocacy Network, which is a broad coalition dominated by NGOs, as well as members of the Labor Party and so on. On a week-to-week basis action tends to be coordinated by another group, the Refugee Action Collective, which involves more left groups and individuals. They organize very regular actions.
MG: The solidarity movement was bigger under the Howard’s time, with more detention centres on the mainland. There were a number of breakouts, which led to detention centres moving off-shore. However the Labor government has begun opening detention centres on the mainland again, and the solidarity movement has resuscitated a little. Protests tend to focus on the mainland detention centres. Groups can also organize tours and it’s easier to get information.
The Spark: What approach has the Socialist Party taken to agitating for refugee rights?
AM: We’ve had a long history of involvement going back to the 1999-2000 period. We were involved in all the major convergences, in particular the Woomera convergence in 2002, which had a big impact on the movement and the government; that detention centre was ultimately closed down. We’ve tried to take a different approach to the moralism of the NGOs, which isn’t sufficient to deal with the mass of workers. Right now there is no mass left party, the unions are largely silent on the refugee issue, so many workers with genuine concerns are influenced by right wingpress..
MG: Workers have genuine concerns about access to jobs, to housing, to healthcare, and the ruling class puts the blame onto refugees.
AM: We argue that refugees are not responsible for these deteriorating conditions. The deterioration is driven by the economic crisis, by privatization, profiteering, not by a few thousand refugees. There were only about 14,000 refugees processed last year, and 90% of them were found to be genuine. Moreover a great bulk of those refugees come from Iraq and Afghanistan, where the occupation, supported by the Gillard government, is driving people to leave their homes. There are also many refugees from Sri Lanka, where the Australian government has backed a genocidal regime.
First and foremost we demand an end to mandatory detention. But we also relate it back to the system and demand access to jobs and services for all, make the point that these things are achievable, but held back by the profit-driven system of capitalism.
The Spark: What views do you encounter in day-to-day agitation?
AM: It’s very polarized. There’s a minority of people who support the refugees, but the majority have concerns fuelled by right-wing populism. These are genuine concerns, about rising unemployment and underemployment, housing more expensive than ever, and people are looking to blame someone. We point out that the system is to blame.
The Spark: What links have been developed with international groups?
AM: We’ve built a number of links mainly around practical campaigns. Particularly in late 2009 when the Rudd government sent refugees to Indonesia, which is also not a signatory to the UN convention. One set of refugees refused to leave their boat, and occupied it for over 6 months. I visited to build links with left groups and unions in Indonesia, to provide practical support for those refugees.
The Spark: What role does international law play and should socialists uphold it?
AM: We have no illusions in capitalist law. However, when laws are achieved that provide some relief to people, it can be tactically useful to use those laws.
MG: It’s also a good propaganda point, when the Australian government claims to uphold human rights, to point out both their abuse of refugees and their support for policies which force them to seek refuge. We have no illusions in the UN, but its good propaganda to point out the hypocrisy of the Australian government.
AM: The solution lies in solidarity between poor and oppressed people world-wide. The capitalist class will not solve a problem they’ve created.
The Spark: What are your strategic priorities in fighting border controls?
Mel: We try not to focus on border controls in isolation. We connect the situation to military interventions overseas, and the need for full access to provisions.
AM: We link the refugee issue to the transformation of society. We currently have open borders for capital, while workers’ movement is restricted. We support the right to free movement by workers, not restriction or movement under duress. There are a lot of prevalent myths about border controls, that they exist to protect workers from terrorism and various other things. We aim to undermine those myths and explain the real dynamics of the situation.