Australian government refuses to lift refugee intake

By Mike Head
7 September 2015

The Abbott government yesterday cynically sought to counter the mounting international and domestic criticism of Australia’s inhuman anti-refugee regime, amid the worldwide outpouring of sympathy for the tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia would take more refugees from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq, pledging to do “the right thing” and help the UN respond to the humanitarian crisis.

“Australia is a country which has always taken its international obligations seriously,” Abbott said. “Australia is a country which has always done what we can to assist when people are in trouble around the world, and we certainly are not going to change our character now.”

In reality, successive Australian governments, Liberal-National and Labor alike, have led the world’s Western imperialist powers in shutting their doors to desperate refugees, from the Keating Labor government’s imposition of the “mandatory detention” of all asylum seekers in 1992, to the current bipartisan policy of “stopping the boats.”

Over the same three decades, Australian governments have also been on the frontline of every US-led military intervention—from Iraq and Afghanistan to the current war in Iraq and Syria—that has devastated the Middle East and sent millions of people fleeing.

Even as Abbott feigned compassion for the refugees, he was preparing to unveil another criminal escalation of Australian military involvement in the Middle East—the extension of the Australian air force’s current bombing campaign from Iraq into Syria. On the pretext of combatting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the government, backed by the Labor Party, is about to join the Washington-led regime-change operation in Syria.

Like its allies in the US and Europe, the Abbott government, backed by Labor, is faking empathy for the victims of these predatory wars, only to exploit their plight to try to justify escalating the turn to war—all in the name of tackling the “roots” of the crisis that the imperialist powers have created.

Abbott’s announcement yesterday was a display of sheer hypocrisy on every level. He ruled out lifting Australia’s small refugee intake of 13,750 a year, and refused to even specify how many extra Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers would be included in that quota.

The Liberal-National government accepted just 4,400 Syrians and Iraqis in the 2014–15 financial year, and previously pledged to accept another 4,500 Syrians over the next three years. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the urgent human need. The UN estimates more than four million people have left Syria since the US-fomented war broke out in 2011, with an additional 7.6 million people displaced within the country.

Moreover, Abbott defiantly defended the Australian policy of repelling all asylum seekers from the country’s shores, and reiterated his previous calls for European governments to adopt the same ruthless approach. He claimed that Australia was only able to “step up to the plate” now because it had stopped all unwanted refugees from sailing to Australia.

Abbott faced calls from some within the ruling Liberal Party itself to be seen to be doing more to respond to the worst refugee crisis since World War II. He spent the weekend fending off condemnations of his government’s policy, including a September 3 editorial in the New York Times entitled “Australia’s Brutal Treatment of Migrants.”

The editorial, which was reposted throughout social media, urged European officials not to adopt Australia’s “hard-line” approach, branding it “unconscionable,” “inhumane” and “of dubious legality.” It described Australia’s refugee incarceration camp on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru as “purgatory” where disgusted ex-staff had reported that children are sexually abused.

As a mouthpiece of the US ruling elite, the New York Times’s editorial itself reeked of duplicity. Not only was it silent on the underlying cause of the refugee catastrophe—Washington’s endless predatory wars across the Middle East. The newspaper also said nothing about the White House’s own policy of incarcerating and deporting record numbers of “undocumented” immigrants, mostly fleeing poverty, violence and the social devastation wrought in Central America by decades of US imperialist interventions. On the latest available figures, the Obama administration deported 438,421 people in 2013, the highest number in US history. Shocking photographs have documented the locking up of tens of thousands of children in over-crowded and subhuman conditions at border detention facilities.

Nevertheless, the editorial identified Australia as leading the way in the barbaric treatment of asylum seekers. The methods unleashed in Australia over the past 25 years have included using the military to repel asylum seekers, indefinitely detaining refugees in concentration camp-style facilities, both internally and on remote islands, and “excising” the entire country from its own migration zone in order to legally bar people from seeking protection visas. Increasingly blatantly, Australian governments have repudiated the international Refugee Convention, first adopted after the horrors of World War II, which recognised a right to flee persecution.

Like the Labor government before it, the Abbott government claims that the “turn back the boats” regime is motivated by a concern to stop drownings at sea. This is a patent fraud. Refugees are dying at sea because governments are going to ever-greater lengths, including dispatching warships and building razor wire walls, to deny their basic democratic right to flee persecution.

This “humanitarian” façade was pioneered by the previous minority Labor-Greens government. In 2012, after being blocked by Australia’s High Court from dumping refugees in Malaysia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government reopened the punitive camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, on the advice of an “expert panel” headed by former military chief Angus Houston, declaring that this would be a “disincentive” to asylum seekers.

Labor’s “humanitarian” rationale provided a vehicle for erstwhile liberal political commentators, academics and journalists to “rethink” their past, limited, objections to the detention regime. The Greens, while maintaining that they remained opposed to mandatory detention, insisted they would still support the Labor government, which relied upon their votes to remain in office. They gave credence to Houston’s report by welcoming his “humanitarian” call to lift Australia’s annual refugee intake to 20,000—an increase that the Abbott government promptly dropped in 2013.

In an effort to appease, and divert, the deepening concerns of millions of working people over the plight of the asylum seekers, Labor and the Greens are now calling for the restoration of this miniscule rise. For the same political reason, Abbott yesterday claimed that Australia led the world by resettling more refugees per capita than any other country.

This claim is only possible because the world’s governments accepted just 105,197 people in 2014 via the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement program. This was a tiny fraction of the 60 million asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless persons and others of concern to the UNHCR. Australia’s share amounted to less than 0.1 percent of this global need. By contrast, Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, has about 1.2 million Syrian refugees.

Amid a deepening global economic crisis, rising unemployment and mounting social tensions, Australian governments, like those across Europe and America, have increasingly resorted to anti-refugee witch-hunting and other forms of xenophobic scare-mongering to divide and divert the working class from a unified struggle against the capitalist profit system that is the source of the horrors now being inflicted on millions of people.

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