By Cian Galea
COVID-19 gives the Australian Labor Party a chance to turn the page on its treatment of refugees
At 7pm on Thursday 30 April, Young Labor Left and Labor for Refugees will convene a Tele-Town Hall of party members on Zoom to consider and vote on a resolution calling on Anthony Albanese to demand the immediate closure of all onshore and offshore immigration detention centres in the face of COVID-19 and the transfer of the asylum seekers being held there into safe community accommodation. In doing so, we hope to lay the foundations for a grassroots movement of rank-and-file activists that turns the page of the ALP’s racist and inhumane treatment of refugees by exerting its collective power and forcing our elected representatives to follow our lead.
This racism and lack of humanity is typified by the ALP’s decision to reopen offshore immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru and its continuing support for immigration detention and boat turnbacks. This approach is also emblematic of the simple truth that no party of government in Australia has ever challenged the idea that asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat should either be turned back or punished upon their arrival. The closure of the centres on Manus and Nauru in 2008 following years of activism outside the ALP and campaigning by party members was rightly celebrated. However, the ALP continued to detain asylum seekers onshore between 2008 and 2012, including in the detention centre on Christmas Island that shared many similarities with those on Manus and Nauru.
Many argue that the bipartisan racist and inhumane treatment of refugees is dictated by public opinion. This argument presupposes that the Australian public are so resolute in their hatred of asylum seekers that they will punish any proposed change to policies that are directly leading to the deaths of those whose only ‘crime’ is to want to come to our country. If this is the case, it is the result of an alternative never having been presented and argued for by the ALP.
To turn the page on the ALP’s racist and inhumane treatment of refugees, it will not be enough to implicitly justify turning back boats to uncertain fates by exclusively focusing on the processing of refugee claims in other countries. And it will certainly not be enough to continue to condemn certain forms of immigration detention while condoning others.
The elected leadership of our party cannot start the revolution in the ALP’s approach to refugees because to acknowledge the nature of this approach is to admit that the leadership’s opposition to racism, homophobia and gendered discrimination has not extended to opposing these evils at our border. If it had, we would not have incarcerated and turned back refugees fleeing persecution on the basis of their ethnicity, their sexuality and their gender.
Salvation for those on Manus, Nauru and in onshore detention will not be granted by Parliament House and ALP Head Office easily. We will need to fight tooth and nail through activism outside the ALP and advocacy within it to turn the page on our party’s treatment of refugees and thereby increase the pressure on the government to end immigration detention. The Tele-Town Hall offers rank-and-file members the chance to take the first step in leading the Federal Caucus to a compassionate and humane approach to immigration. By attending and registering to vote on our resolution here, you will be playing your part by declaring that our party must not co-sign the death sentences of the asylum seekers and refugees in detention. I hope to see you there.