Labor takes aim at people smugglers, but their detention policy is the real crime

At Labor’s national conference in December, Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen managed to drag Labor’s refugee policy even further to the right.

While a Labor for Refugees’ resolution to end mandatory detention was narrowly defeated, Bowen’s resolution to allow third country processing of asylum seekers was carried. This means that the Malaysia Solution is now covered by official Labor policy.
Just afterwards, an asylum seeker boat sank on its way to Australia from Java. Around 200 lives were lost in the tragedy. Bowen did nothing to assist either the survivors or the relatives of those drowned living in Australia.
But cynically, and so typically, he used the tragedy to try and pressure the Coalition into agreeing to support the Malaysia Solution, in exchange for Labor agreeing to re-open a detention centre on Nauru.
Abbott’s subsequent refusal to “play ball” has nothing to do with human rights concerns about refugees in Malaysia, but rather is a cold calculation that the Coalition can continue to gain electoral advantage out of refugee-bashing.
The Coalition did agree to meet Labor on Christmas Eve—but it came to nothing, except that it put Labor’s abject capitulation on display and give Abbott another opportunity to insist on the re-introduction of temporary protection visas (TPVs).
As long as this stand off continues, asylum seekers will be processed in Australia. But there are still two determination systems for refugees: one for those who arrive on the mainland (usually by plane) and the other for those who arrive by boat on excised territory and are regarded as off-shore entry persons (OEPs).
The outcome of all of this is that thousands of refugees are still left stranded in detention.
Last November Bowen announced an increase in releases from detention via bridging visas. He even gave a figure of 100 a month, or more. But three months later and the best count is that only 185 have been released on bridging visas. Two hundred and thirty-four have been released into community detention.
But there are no rules and the arbitrary nature of the Immigration Department’s decisions is causing even more stress as some people get out and others are left to rot. In late January, 150 Hazara asylum seekers launched a hunger strike at Pontville in Tasmania to try and get some answers. But all they got was hot air and excuses.

People smuggling
At every turn Chris Bowen uses the spectre of “evil” people smuggling to try to sell Labor’s commitment to Malaysia and to mandatory detention. Bowen talks incessantly of “breaking the people smugglers’ business model” (although he has never been able to articulate what that is). It is a not-so-thinly disguised attack on refugees.
At the Labor conference, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor absurdly likened people smugglers bringing asylum seekers to Australia with human trafficking and slavery. But asylum seekers want to take the boat, they’re not forced against their will.
O’Connor also attacked the so-called “base criminal motives” of people smugglers. Now, it is without doubt that people smugglers make a profit—but since when has the Labor Party considered that to be a “base criminal motive”? In any case, there are many examples of people smugglers offering free travel or financial aid to families with sick children.
In December, Labor and the Coalition combined forces to change the law to prevent a legal challenge that questioned the very idea that there was in fact anything criminal about people smuggling. The Victorian Court of Appeal had been about to consider the argument that transporting people who had a right to enter Australia was not unlawful.
Among human rights groups, lawyers and even judges, the tide is certainly turning against the mandatory sentencing element of the people smuggling laws that demands even the poor Indonesian crew of asylum boats are sentenced to a minimum of five years in jail.
Since Kevin Rudd denounced people smugglers as “vile scum”, Labor has used such rhetoric to demonise asylum seekers. But as long as asylum seekers fleeing persecution need to get to Australia, they will have to use informal travel arrangements sometimes with fake documents or none at all.
To get a genuinely humanitarian refugee policy, we will not only to campaign to end mandatory detention, but also to scrap mandatory sentencing and end the criminalisation of people smuggling.

Ian Rintoul


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