Migrant-Led Movements Are Leading the Charge Against Australian Border Barbarism

Australia’s sadistic border regime doesn’t stop at its offshore detention camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. As those island prisons are wound down, a new asylum-seeker-led organization is campaigning for basic rights for those living in precarious situations inside Australian borders.

A general view of protestors outside the federal court holding placards in support of the Tamil asylum-seeking family on September 18, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. Asanka Ratnayake / Getty

Last Saturday, hundreds of people seeking asylum hit the streets to fight for their rights in rallies in Sydney and Melbourne. They are part of a movement that emerged in the middle of this year and has taken almost everyone by surprise.

In Australia, the campaign against the internationally renowned cruelty of our border regime normally consists of dedicated but rather formulaic demonstrations of Australian citizen supporters. In stark contrast, rallies planned by the group Justice for Refugees, a group of people seeking asylum organizing across Australia, have mostly consisted of people seeking asylum themselves. This new phenomenon has caught the wider left in Australia off guard, with most progressive activists and journalists seemingly oblivious to their struggle.

The majority of those taking part in these rallies are from the so-called legacy caseload, a group of approximately thirty thousand people who arrived by sea to claim asylum between 2012 and 2014 from a variety of countries around the world, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka. These are people who were prevented from making applications for protection until 2017; then, when they were finally granted this right, they were forced into the “fast-track” process, a heavily flawed, fundamentally unjust system designed to effectively deny real appeal rights to applicants.

There are thousands of people in Australia on temporary visas called bridging visas who have either not received an initial interview with immigration authorities or have had their claims refused and are slowly progressing through “appeal” processes in the farcical “fast-track” process. Income and other forms of support have been progressively stripped away from this group, forcing people into homelessness and destitution. NGOs supporting this cohort hear regular reports of mental health breakdown, hunger, sleeping on the streets, self-harm, and suicide. Increasing numbers of people are at the final stage of this process. Their cases are due to be heard by the Federal Circuit Court over the next couple of years. Following these hearings, thousands of people are liable to be deported.

Even those with successful claims are not granted permanent protection but are given three-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) or five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visas. People on these visas are unable to build a life in Australia. They have to reapply when their visas expire, and they have no rights to travel or family reunion, meaning many haven’t seen their children, parents, or partners for eight years.

The Cruelty of Temporary Visas

The rallies last weekend were focused on four major demands: 1) permanent protection visas — not TPVs; 2) family reunion rights; 3) fair processing of asylum claims; and 4) an end to offshore and onshore detention.

As a united coalition representing people on temporary and bridging visas, Justice for Refugees recognizes that the injustices faced by people seeking asylum under Australia’s border regime stem from a common root of government inhumanity and that any concerted fight back needs to be a movement of solidarity across ethnic groups and legal situations.

While in previous years there have been small one-off rallies organized by people seeking asylum, this is the first time we have seen sustained self-organization and major mobilization of this cohort on the streets. One of the most notable things about these protests has been the leading position of children and teenagers.

The Melbourne rally in September, for instance, saw child after child get up to speak on behalf of their families. These children have gone to school in Australia and have the confidence and language abilities that their parents sometimes lack. They talked about the insecurity they face as people without permanency, lacking the rights that come with residency. According to the organizers, once they provided the platform to speak, more and more people approached them wanting to tell their stories.

Because of their extremely precarious status, many people seeking asylum have been scared that speaking out will jeopardize their claims. This fear is starting to break down, and these rallies are building people’s collective confidence.

Previous Justice for Refugees rallies were organized in something of an ad hoc fashion, with word spread through existing networks and mainly attracting people from Iraq and Iran. This round of rallies has seen a concerted effort to reach out and expand this base to other ethnic groups. The organization is daily becoming more politically sophisticated, laying down formal democratic structures, making important alliances with broader activist and trade union groups, and receiving training on political advocacy tactics.

Justice for Refugees has emerged at a time when the gradual wind-down of Australia’s offshore detention regime on Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) has accelerated. According to the government’s figures, from a high point of 2,450 across both countries, there are now just 258 people seeking asylum on Nauru and 208 in Papua New Guinea. Under a deal brokered between Obama and Australia’s former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, more than 600 people have traveled from these camps to the United States, where they’ve received residency, with more slated to follow. This is the deal confirmed in a now infamous phone call where Trump admiringly told Turnbull, “You are worse than I am.”

More than two-thirds of those left languishing in offshore detention have applied for a medical transfer to Australia. Last week, all eyes were on Australia’s parliament, where independent senator Jacqui Lambie made a secret deal with the government to repeal the “Medevac” legislation, which had given an independent panel of doctors the power to override government denial of medical transfers to Australia when necessary. Rumors now abound that Lambie’s deal was for the government to take up New Zealand’s long-standing offer to resettle people seeking asylum from offshore detention. While the repeal reinforces the government’s dictatorial control over the lives and health of people in offshore detention with potentially disastrous consequences, the movement of people to Australia is not likely to cease.

Making the Case for Permanent Residency

We are now in a situation where there are more people who have been transferred for medical reasons to Australia than remain in Nauru or PNG. These are people that effectively join the ranks of the “legacy caseload” and other “undocumented” migrants in precarious positions in Australia.

As numbers shrink offshore, the broader movement needs to pivot to campaign for the rights and permanency for people here. While those supporting people seeking asylum — left and liberal alike — have become comfortable with slogans such as “bring them here,” “let them stay,” and “free the refugees,” a discourse that does not center the agency of citizens and their ability to make more or less generous decisions about Australia’s border policy may prove less comfortable.

As suggested by Tim Nelthorpe, we are increasingly seeing the organization of migrant workers across Australia’s farming sector. These workers are demanding both industrial rights and a significant revision of Australia’s border regime, to end exploitation and create pathways to permanency. Both this movement and “Justice for Refugees” are led by undocumented migrants, disrupting the liberal left’s self-image as alternate national managers and as white saviors.

It’s incumbent upon unions and organizations that advocate on behalf of people seeking asylum to work in solidarity with undocumented migrants: this means making a decisive break with the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Excepting Kevin Rudd’s brief first prime ministership, the ALP have been joint partners with the conservative Coalition parties in deepening the cruelty of Australia’s border regime over the past two decades. Since the elevation of Kristina Keneally to the Shadow Immigration portfolio, the ALP has been waging a campaign against so-called “plane people”: riffing on the derogatory term “boat people,” Keneally’s designation targets those who have arrived by air. It’s a trope designed to outflank the Coalition government from the right, attacking them for “losing control of our borders” by letting in “bogus asylum seekers” from China and Malaysia. These “plane people” are the NUW/UWU farm members who are fighting for their rights, yet the union movement has remained silent on the ALP’s racist undermining of their campaign.

Indeed, the ALP still support the offshore detention regime, including illegal boat turnbacks, and have refused to repeal the corrupt “fast-track” process for “the legacy caseload.” Unions and left organizations need to create conditions for solidarity to emerge, dismissing the rhetoric of the “genuine” vs. “non-genuine” refugee in forceful terms.

In the long term, as climate chaos creates millions of “climate refugees,” a struggle against borders will be crucial to fighting systems of climate apartheid: a world in which the rich can live behind walls in climate-controlled enclaves while large sections of the planet become uninhabitable for the rest of us. Resisting climate apartheid needs to start with struggles in the here and now that challenge the border regime. Real solidarity with undocumented migrants and those denied permanency, whether they arrived by plane or by boat, is crucial to this fight.

While the Left’s interest has been turned to legal battles, parliamentary maneuvering, and secret deals, new movements from below are emerging that could significantly shift Australia’s border regime. It’s time to pay attention.