Labor’s delays leave refugees in limbo

More than 1500 refugees and asylum-seekers rallied from across the country at Parliament house, Canberra, on 8 September to demand permanent visas for all refugees and asylum-seekers still in limbo on temporary protection, safe haven and bridging visas.

Labor has long promised that all those on TPVs and SHEVs will be granted permanent visas but there is no timeline from the Albanese government. Immigration Minister Andrew Giles repeated Labor’s promise from inside Parliament house as the rally became more restless and increasingly angry.

But Giles still offered no timeline, simply a pledge to “meet our commitment as soon as possible”.

It took the Rudd Labor government five months to announce permanent visas to all those on TPVs in 2008. It should have been easier this time. But Albanese’s five months is up in October.

Predictably, the Opposition immigration spokesperson, Karen Andrews, has accused the Labor government of “removing a key pillar of Operation Sovereign Borders”. It’s the argument that the Coalition has trotted out since Abbott was elected in 2013.

Labor should have smashed that idea but they are held back by their own timidity, and by their commitment to the fundamental deterrence policies of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Border politics

Labor is delaying the announcement because they are paranoid that more asylum boats will arrive after they dump TPVs and the Coalition will once again go on the offensive about boats and border security.

In 2008, after boats started arriving the Rudd government began the demonisation of people smugglers and went on to re-open the Howard-built detention centre on Christmas Island, which at the time was a designated “excised offshore place” that allowed it to be operated as an offshore detention facility just like Manus Island and Nauru. (The Gillard Labor government re-opened Manus and Nauru in 2012.)

Labor’s fear of boat arrivals is why it has turned boats back with gusto. It’s why new Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, ignored the social upheaval that had toppled a Sri Lankan dictator and visited Sri Lanka immediately after Labor was elected to provide $5 million to the government to place 4200 GPS trackers on fishing boats.

And it is why the new Labor government is providing scarce fuel, sourced in India, to the Sri Lankan navy patrol boats.

It’s why Labor is going ahead with a multi-million dollar contract with MTC, a private US prison and detention centre operator with an appalling record of human rights abuses, to run refugee matters on Nauru.

Albanese’s pre-election media grab that “You can be strong on borders without being weak on humanity” is an increasingly empty phrase. Labor’s grand compassionate post-election gesture was providing permanent visas to the high-profile Nadesalingam family from Biloela. But for hundreds of other families already in Australia, there is no such compassion.

Despite the promise to grant permanent visas, TPVs holders are still being denied permission to travel. Many have their futures on hold as they have been left waiting for months, and in some cases years, while their temporary visa reapplications are being considered.

Compare the treatment of refugees eking out an existence in the community with Labor’s Job Summit announcement on 2 September that it will “tackle the skills crisis” by increasing permanent migration by 35,000 places. It’s one more measure of Labor’s compassion and one more indication of Labor’s real priorities.

There are 10,000 asylum-seekers who have been rejected under the Coalition’s “fast track” assessment system, living even more precariously on bridging visas or unlawfully on expired bridging visas. Another Labor promise is the fast track system will be scrapped.

However, while Labor recognises the injustice of the fast-track system there has been no commitment to re-assess the rejected 10,000 cases. Labor’s “compassion” is not going to deliver justice for refugees.

Adding to the concerns is the possibility that the bureaucracy of the Home Affairs and immigration departments are resisting any change in policy. The fact the Labor has left Mike Pezzullo, Morrison’s hard man, as secretary of Home Affairs department was always an indication that Labor did not want to rock the immigration boat.

Meanwhile, the machinery of detention grinds on. Electric fences are being erected between compounds in the Christmas Island detention centre. Refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG are still in offshore detention limbo.

Labor’s compassion is strictly subordinated to its commitment to Operation Sovereign Borders. That’s what was important about the rally in Canberra on 8 September. It is the struggle outside Parliament that is needed to free the refugees.

By Ian Rintoul

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