The Struggle For Refugee Rights Can Be Won


I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we’re meeting on the ancient land of the Gadigal people — land that was never ceded. There’s a clear link between Australia’s dispossession of indigenous people and its relentless persecution of refugees.

Congratulations to the organisers for making today happen. It’s enormously heartening so many people are here.

We’re here to say that enough is enough. Enough of this madness against refugees. Enough suffering. Enough despair. Enough of this blight on our society. We’re here to tell the major parties to end their cynical war on asylum seekers.

Friends, I don’t think I need to convince anyone here that we have to oppose Abbott tooth and nail.

But we also have to ask this — oppose him to put in who? It was Labor that established mandatory detention in the first place. Peel off Scott Morrison’s rubber mask and you’ll find a face underneath that looks a lot like Chris Bowen. Different styles, same basic ideas. Only the Greens have held the line on refugees and all honour to them for it.

If we let governments persecute defenceless people just for asking us for help, then imagine what precedent that sets for the treatment of other marginalised people — the unemployed, disabled people, single parents, indigenous Australians.

But we know that the minute we call for justice for refugees, the major parties’ hypocritical apologists will line up to lecture us about how “simplistic” or “naive” we’re being about what they call a “complex problem”.

Let’s not be taken in — those lectures serve no other purpose than to justify politicians’ cowardice. Tell Reza Berati how complex it is — he was brutally killed on Manus a few weeks ago. Tell it to the men who dug their own graves on Nauru. Tell it to Ranjini, locked up in despair in Villawood as we speak, never to be released.

Here’s the truth: refugees aren’t the problem; the Coalition and the ALP are. If countries like Germany or the UK can host far more asylum seekers per capita than us, and without mandatory detention and offshore processing, then we can too, just like we did before 1992. And when we do, we’ll free up billions and billions of dollars which could be used to make our society better, and not to break people’s lives like we’re doing now.

How do we get to there from here? First off, we need to see through this hollow talk of "saving lives at sea".

Why do refugees die at sea? Not because it’s somehow impossible to get here by boat from Indonesia. Only because our people-smuggling laws force them to use old and unseaworthy vessels. If our laws didn’t do that, there’d be no reason people couldn’t get here safely. No reason at all.

Labor and the Coalition obviously won’t accept those arguments: they have blood on their hands; they won’t budge. What we need is to create a groundswell in our society that’s broad-based and powerful enough to shift public opinion so that it becomes impossible for any politician to successfully sustain an anti-refugee agenda.

That’s an ambitious project, but there’s nothing unrealistic about it. The essence of public opinion is that it changes. But for it to change, we need a broad-based movement.

Friends, the seeds of that movement are here. Each one of us holds the key to welcoming refugees in Australia. The political ideas that ordinary people exchange among themselves are far more powerful — far more — than anything a career politician can say at a news conference before they’re whisked off in their Commonwealth car.

So, we need to be outspoken. We need to unapologetically insist that refugees are welcome here, and give confidence to the people around us to do the same. We need to expose the viciousness with which the major parties use refugees as scapegoats to distract us from their own indifference to creating a better society. We need to organise local initiatives in our own communities that unite people to build the momentum for change. We need to come together at more demonstrations, to put a public face to our campaign.

We can start with the demonstration we’re organising on 13 April, Palm Sunday in Hyde Park. Please consider coming.

We’re in a dark chapter of this country’s refugee history. But make no mistake: this campaign will win — just as so many other movements for justice and a better world have finally won. We have a long struggle ahead of us, but we will win.

We’ll win not because there’s anything especially generous or welcoming about Australians. Claiming there is just plays into the stereotypes that get used in a racist and jingoistic way to attack asylum seekers.

We will win because processing refugees in the community is the only acceptable long-term option that Australia has. The depraved system we have now rests on lies and contradictions. We’ll eventually crack those lies and contradictions so far apart that the whole murderous architecture of mandatory detention and offshore processing will collapse like the pitiful and shoddy lean-to it is.

Members of the Refugee Action Coalition are here — come and talk to us about how you can help us campaign for justice for refugees. Together, we will put an end to this madness. We will close the camps; we will end mandatory detention; we will install a more just and a more decent treatment of asylum seekers in this country — and we will all be the better for it.

But we’ll only do it if we act, if we act together, and if we start acting now. Thank you.

See NM's photo essay from the Sydney rally here.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.