Meet the Socialist Refugee Running for Australia’s Senate

Aran Mylvaganam, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, came to Australia unaccompanied in 1997, at the age of 13. Having spent much of the last two decades as a community and union organizer, he is now standing as a Senate candidate for the Victorian Socialists.

Aran Mylvaganam is a former refugee — and his campaign has made a point of focusing on the city’s refugee population. (Aran Mylvaganam for Senate)

Something special has been happening in Melbourne in the lead-up to the federal election: hundreds of people who can’t cast ballots have nevertheless been campaigning. Most political parties show no interest in organizing them, but Aran Mylvaganam’s campaign is different. Standing as the Victorian Socialists’ Senate candidate, Aran is a former refugee — and his campaign has made a point of focusing on the city’s refugee population. Without the right to vote, let alone stand as candidates, many of them hope that becoming part of the campaign will amplify their voices.

In 1997, Aran came to Australia from Sri Lanka as a thirteen-year-old unaccompanied refugee, going on to cofound the Tamil Refugee Council. He has also fought for workers’ rights as a union organizer with the Finance Sector Union and the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). He views the election campaign as an extension of his activism over the last decade. A day in Aran’s campaign is an insight into the lives of tens of thousands of people that the major parties routinely ignore at best, and attack at worst.

Building a Life While Stateless

Across the country, there are more than thirty thousand people on bridging visas, issued while their immigration status is being evaluated or challenged. Many more are on temporary protection visas, which generally acknowledge that the holder is a refugee but require them to reestablish every few years that they deserve protection.

The result is a permanently unsettled life and an uncertain future. “We have lived our entire lives as refugees,” says a young woman during one of Aran’s many house visits. “And we are still refugees here. I’m very concerned about my children facing the same life.” Most of the people we speak to don’t want their names to appear in print, for fear of jeopardizing their visa status.

In St Albans, in Melbourne’s west, there’s a family of five who share a four-bedroom house with another man, Thusi. Sparsely furnished and with tiled floors, the rent is $2,000 a month. The father has to provide for his whole family, but, like most people on bridging visas, he can find only menial jobs. Both of his brothers are disappeared. They were members of the Tamil Tigers, the national liberation movement that dominated the politics of the north and east of Sri Lanka from the 1980s until it was wiped out, along with tens of thousands of civilians, by the army in 2009. The mother was also a Tiger twenty years ago. “We want to get equal rights like everyone else,” she says. “We want to live a normal life. We know Aran will be a voice for us.”

Thusi arrived by boat in 2012, when he was twenty-two. The government has rejected his refugee claim as well. Having been born in India to refugee parents, he is not a citizen of any country and has never set foot in Sri Lanka. “The government said it would deport me. But I ask where will you deport me? I’m stateless.” Thusi was a union delegate at Bingo recycling, a workplace that has seen many grievances over the years. That’s how he knows Aran, who organized the place when at the AWU. That previous collaboration is why Thusi today takes ten Victorian Socialists yard signs to put up at friends’ houses.

A few blocks away, ten people have gathered to listen to Aran speak. They are also on bridging visas, and their Australian-born children are stateless. According to members of the gathering, there are probably another hundred in the area on bridging visas — and that’s just the Tamils. Everyone takes yard signs to put up and writes their details down on a volunteer list. Few would consider themselves socialists — Tamil nationalism still dominates more than a decade after the defeat of the liberation war. Yet they are precisely the sort of people who could form the basis of a socialist party. All that’s needed are more organizers and leaders like Aran, who are willing to engage in the sort of patient, educative, and collaborative work that links everyday hardships with grassroots organizing, informed by a critique of capitalism, and socialist policies.

The Victorian Socialists

Formed in 2018, the Victorian Socialists contested the Victorian state elections, hoping to win a seat in the upper house. The fledgling party came fourth out of eighteen on first-preference votes in the five-member Northern Metropolitan district of Melbourne. Preference deals, largely between right-wing micro-parties, delivered the seat to a candidate who had won a fraction of the Victorian Socialists’ vote.

What really stood out, however, was the party’s ability win strong votes of up to 10 percent, both in inner-city areas dominated by the Greens and in outer-suburban blue-collar Labor heartlands. In that campaign, hundreds of volunteers knocked on nearly one hundred thousand doors, letterboxed more than three hundred thousand homes, and put up fifteen thousand posters. Seven hundred people volunteered to staff booths on election day. Since then, the party has maintained its vote and secured the election of a local councillor in Melbourne’s west.

The party is more ambitious in this federal election, running in eleven federal seats in the north and west of Melbourne. Kath Larkin, a party organizer and the candidate for the inner-north seat of Cooper, says that 250 to 300 volunteers have been active during pre-polling; she is hopeful that 700 or more will mobilize on election day. Of those, she expects up to 200 will be refugees.

The party’s messaging is straightforward: “People before profit.” The total wealth held by the top 20 percent of Australians was ninety times greater than that held by the bottom 20 percent, according to estimates published in a 2020 joint study by the Australian Council of Social Service and the University of New South Wales. Oxfam claims that the 47 billionaires in Australia doubled their collective wealth during the pandemic to $255 billion.

Victorian Socialists’ policies would transform this state of affairs by imposing a one-off 50 percent wealth tax on personal assets over $10 million, an 80 percent wealth tax on personal assets over $40 million, and a one-off 99 percent wealth tax on all personal assets over $100 million. The party’s platform also advocates for rebuilding the welfare state, strengthening unions, supporting indigenous sovereignty, and a range of other demands that, taken together, would build a socialist Australia.

The most important element of a socialist party, however, is not its platform but its commitment to organizing and leading people to fight for justice now. In this sense, contesting elections is also about building solidarity that can last after the votes are counted.

You can see this in Aran’s campaign. A common refrain is that insecure visa status makes it impossible to get anything other than bottom-of-the-ladder jobs. Employers often see temporary visa holders as an opportunity, paying them illegally low wages. In one instance, someone that Aran helped was being paid $8 per hour as a kitchenhand, $12 lower than the minimum wage. Other employers refuse to “invest”; that is, they won’t to offer jobs that require training to people who may be deported in a few months or a few years.

It’s a clear demonstration of the connection between racism and fighting for rights at work. As Aran constantly argues, racism and other forms of bigotry are not just bad for their targets and victims but for the working class as a whole.

“The Victorian Socialists campaign is about bringing to life a slogan I learned in the union movement: ‘Touch one, touch all,’” he says. “No matter what your skin color, your religion, your gender, or your age, we want to bring working people together to fight for our collective rights and to reduce the wealth inequality that is a stain on our society.”

Serving the People

The phone rings frequently; Aran has at least ten missed calls from the first half of the day. This is because when he’s meeting people, he’s not just asking them to vote for him. He’s organizing, helping to solve problems, and giving out advice. It’s an ongoing attempt to make the case that individual, personal problems are political problems that can only be solved with the courage and determination that collective solidarity builds.

Mano has also joined Aran for the second half of the day. An activist with the Tamil Refugee Council and a member of the Tigers for a decade, Mano is legally blind and, according to Aran, “one of the best organizers you will see.” He’s on a soon-to-expire Safe Haven Enterprise visa, another type of temporary protection visa that requires the holder to work or study in regional Australia, away from the established support networks of the cities.

“I’d been in contact with Aran at the end of 2012, when I was in Wickham Point [a refugee prison in Darwin, now closed]. There were hundreds of us there. Many of us were being deported back to Sri Lanka by the Labor government,” Mano testifies. As he continues to explain,

We found Aran’s phone number online, got in touch with him, and tried to get him to stop the deportations. The government succeeded in deporting some people. But thankfully, because of the work done by Aran and other activists in Sydney, we were not deported, and we were eventually released into the community. When we got out, a lot of us were released into empty homes. It was Aran who then helped. Not only me. I heard from a lot of people sleeping on floors at that time and they all told me that it was Aran who delivered furniture for them.

In a similar vein, other Victorian Socialists members campaigned over the last 18 months to secure freedom for the Medevac refugees who, until April this year, were imprisoned indefinitely in the Park Hotel, in Carlton.

A Senate seat would be a tremendous platform from which to build a bigger socialist movement, and a Senate office would make a perfect organizing space for grassroots community and union campaigns. Lacking the funding and infrastructure of the major parties, it’s unlikely that the Victorian Socialists will win. But this won’t make the campaign a failure. “In the end, what matters is who is organizing,” Aran says.

This election is a good opportunity, but the campaign can’t end on election day. It ends when we get freedom for all the people we talked to today. It ends when we have a world that works for everyone.