Lessons from success of refugee movement under Howard

AFTER AN election characterised by both Labor and the Liberals using asylum seekers as political footballs, the refugee movement is faced with both opportunities and challenges.
The bi-partisan refugee bashing has made “stopping the boats” seem more mainstream. But on the bright side the swing to The Greens showed there are tens of thousands of people disgusted with Labor’s anti-refugee shift. Nonetheless, there is a huge challenge ahead if we are to push back against the attacks.
Under Howard, Refugee Action Collectives prioritised a mixture of direct action via convergences outside detention centres and hounding successive immigration ministers, mass protests, and education via fact sheets, forums, stalls and speaking tours of ex-detainees.
The Howard government joined the US’s Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq—at the same time it was locking up Iraqi refugees who were the victims of Saddam’s Hussein repression. Our leaflets “If you are anti-war, you must be pro-refugee” linked the issues and won more people to the refugee campaign.
Similarly, we built contingents for the anti-WorkChoices mobilisations— “Refugees need strong unions”, explaining why the refugee movement was against Howard’s anti-union laws and how Howard was locking up asylum seekers persecuted for fighting for union rights in Iran and Iraq.
From the very beginning the campaign sought to undermine Howard’s racism by connecting with the union movement, encouraging the formation of both union groups and Labor for Refugees to take up the argument in workplaces and inside the Labor Party itself. And while there were occasional tactical differences with more moderate sections of the movement, diversity—encompassing unions, lawyers, psychiatrists, actors, playwrights, artists and musicians, to suburban and rural activist groups—gave it strength. It’s urgent that these networks are rebuilt.
While the movement may not have decisively won the argument against mandatory detention per se or about people smuggling, remarkable victories were achieved—against kids in detention, long-term detention, temporary visas, and the Pacific Solution.
It is again crucial to break bipartisan support for mandatory detention, for offshore processing, and for trying to associate boat arrivals (and anyone who supports them) with people smuggling. Passing resolutions through union conferences and Labor branches is again vital.
It is timely that Labor for Refugees is re-activating. Excellent resolutions were passed at the Victorian State Labor conference. The pro-refugee resolution passed by the Blue Mountains Council, that noted Western Sydney was “the most culturally diverse community in Australia and has a proud history of welcoming new citizens” should be replicated wherever possible.
Hopefully pro-refugee statements by some country independents will encourage more local Rural Australians for Refugees groups to meet again. The thousands of people who mobilised and lobbied to get children out of detention will be horrified to discover that hundreds of children are back behind wire fences.
The campaign last time shifted public opinion to the extent that by 2007, the demonisation of refugees was no longer a vote winner. We need to do that again, so there really are no more Tampa elections.

Mark Goudkamp


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