Burnside’s appeals to the powerful won’t win refugee rights

Julian Burnside is a long-term supporter of refugee rights as a lawyer and is a general opponent of the demonisation of refugees. However, his recent proposal for a “Tasmanian solution” is a mistaken attempt to accommodate to government and business views on refugees and appeal to their economic interests.

Burnside proposes making the whole of Tasmania a place of community detention where refugees can be housed, claim Centrelink benefits and work.

He argues that government and business would gain economically from the plan. It would save the federal government $2.5 billion a year and help stimulate the Tasmanian economy, as refugees would spend their Centrelink payments there. Julian Burnside's appeals to the powerful won't win refugee rights

Burnside makes some interesting points about the cost of offshore processing and the contribution that refugees can make to Australian society. He points out that even if every asylum seeker stayed on full Centrelink benefits, it would only cost about $500 million a year rather than the $3 billion for current detention policies.

He argues that alternatively refugees could fill labour shortages in rural areas. Refugees do contribute immensely to Australian society. However, Burnside’s plan concedes to the idea that we should only accept refugees if they suit the needs of business or the Australian economy. This threatens to undermine the entire purpose of the refugee program which is not based on what refugees can give destination countries but on the right of people fleeing danger to find safety. It is a specifically humanitarian program designed so that people fleeing persecution, torture and trauma have somewhere to turn.

Burnside’s attempt to find a practical solution that the government will agree to leads him to a compromise on mandatory detention. Burnside argues that the Tasmania Solution, “is one way I can think of where you can maintain the fig-leaf of mandatory detention while allowing people to live in the community.”

But the refugee rights movement needs to clearly tackle the necessity of mandatory detention as part and parcel of measures to deter and punish refugees. Mandatory detention is cruel and unnecessary. Asylum seekers once lived in Villawood or Broadmeadows in community hostels rather than the detention centres that exist today.

However it also plays an ideological role in reinforcing that refugees are dangerous, and possibly criminal. Making an argument for community processing is particularly important when the new Liberal Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is revoking bridging visas of refugees with criminal records to inflame community paranoia.

Political interests

Burnside’s plan misses the crux of the refugee issue—it is not economic gain or public opinion that drives government refugee policy but their political interest in using refugees as scapegoats for working class concerns about housing and jobs.

Successive Liberal and Labor governments have used racism against refugees to win votes and conflate the “problem” of refugees with real working class concerns. In the recent federal election Liberal Party election material attacked Labor for spending $6.6 billion dealing with “illegal boats” and concluded: “That is money which should have gone into improving hospitals, schools and roads”.

Working class people face real concerns about the cost of living and the refugee rights movement needs to break governments’ attempt to glue together refugees and economic concerns. The majority of society do not benefit from racism.

Burnside’s solution reveals the danger in appealing to those at the top of society who benefit from enforcing racist refugee policies. Trying to find commonalities with a government which continues to stoop to new lows in punishing refugees means compromising on our opposition to refugee policy and makes it harder to win broader support for refugee rights. We need a movement that is clear in its opposition to punishment of refugees and that is prepared to fight the government over it.

The refugee rights movement under Howard demonstrated that it is possible to win over ordinary Australians, who have no interest in upholding the current refugee policy.

The movement drastically changed public opinion and made offshore processing an electoral liability for Howard. Newspoll records show that between 2001 and 2004, the number of people who thought some or all asylum boats should be able to land went from 47 per cent to 61 per cent.

But Burnside’s plan orients the movement in the wrong direction by looking to accommodate with the government that enforces the policy. The movement needs to be built from the ground up in local committees, schools, universities and workplaces to force change. We can’t win by compromising with current policy, but we can defeat the policies with a mass movement from below.

By Feiyi Zhang


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