Shut down the penal camps! Withdraw from US led wars! Unions must defend refugees!

20-02-2016 – As we go to press, the protest by refugee supporters outside the Lady Cilento Hospital in South Brisbane has won a partial victory. Baby Asha, a one year old girl and her mother were transferred from the hospital to “community detention” in Brisbane, rather than be sent back to the hell-hole of Nauru. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed that this was not a back down in the face of protests, and that the issue had been “hijacked” by refugee advocates.[1] The Liberal Party Minister went on to state that the baby and her mother could yet be returned to Nauru. The 10-day picket by refugee supporters has once again highlighted the barbarous practice of the detention of children, and indeed adults, in off-shore detention centres which are little more than penal camps specialising in the imposition of unbearable torment.

Baby Asha was amongst 80 children which was part of a group of 267 refugees which faced imminent deportation to Nauru.[2] Australia has already become notorious internationally for its appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. As if to further entrench Australia’s backward status, the case of Baby Asha followed a High Court ruling that the Australian government has the power under the constitution to detain people in other countries, and that such conduct was within the law! [3] If ever there was an exhibition of the limits of the rule of law under the profit system, this is it. When the detention and effective torture of innocent people fleeing desperate situations is found to be legal, the entire system condemns itself. It is a dead end seeking justice in such courts. These are the very courts before which working people cannot afford the small fortune required to either defend themselves, nor bring a case before them. It is another lesson reaffirming the negative case with regard to the alleged neutrality of the capitalist state.

The barbarous practice of the rape and/or sexual assault of refugees by detention centre guards on Nauru and Manus Island rightly horrify all those with a bare minimum of human compassion, on top of the already atrocious situation of incarceration without committing any crime. Combine this with reports that asylum seekers on Nauru are told that they will never be settled in Australia. The psychological trauma this could trigger is almost unimaginable. The scale and extent of the pain inflicted on those who have harmed no one and are looking for a safe place to live, is difficult to believe IF one looks at the situation in isolation. However, it can and must be explained if we are to move towards a strategy which can finish it.

Groups such as the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) perform laudable work organising meetings, rallies and pickets in an effort to put an end to the abominable treatment of those seeking protection. However, the valuable organisational work RAC performs is undermined by a political outlook which tends to focus on appealing to the humanity and compassion of people from all walks of life, from the rich to Union officialdom, from workers to politicians, from the churches to the business elite. All those “who care” are encouraged to take part. The approach tends to be one which assumes that the sum total of a movement is greater than its constituent parts. The political outlook is that of a “broad” or “popular” front. Workers plus Union officials plus church ministers plus students plus liberal political parties or groups and so on add up to – an unstoppable movement, or so the conventional wisdom goes. However, if the strategy should be a mere matter of one plus one, simply building in a linear fashion until “everyone” is on board is all that is required. Unfortunately, politics does not work solely by the method of simple arithmetic. If this was the case, there would be no need for science, nor study, nor theory.

No matter how complex modern day society has become, it is a basic Marxian precept that it rests on the turbulent relation between labour and capital. This is not only the case for the historically required workers insurrection, but the reality for political struggles now, including the struggle for refugee rights. One of the main reasons why there is a deepening of the cruelty towards refugees and asylum seekers now, as opposed to the 1970s and 80s, is that the capitalist economic system is in far worse shape than it was in previous decades. It is true that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) introduced mandatory detention in the early 90s, but world capitalism entered a precipitous decline beginning in 2008, and has yet to recover, if it ever will. Accordingly, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers worsens almost in direct relation to how far the rate of profit for the “captains of industry” declines. The capitalist class, and its political machines, are acutely aware of how much they need to increase racism and nationalism in a time of economic crisis, to prevent workers from uniting against them. If skilful enough, the financial elite can divert all anger at the deteriorating living conditions towards “the other” – refugees, migrants, or anyone “not from here”.

All this is well known to the left parties which buttress RAC, such as Solidarity (SOL), Socialist Alternative (SALT) and Socialist Alliance (SALL). Despite their sworn allegiance to Marxism, however, in practice such groups commit the cardinal error of entering an unprincipled bloc with the liberal wing of the ruling class – either in the form of pro-capitalist Union officials, or self-serving political parties and groups such as the ALP, the Greens, or GetUp! What this means for the refugee rights movement is that almost all of the actions initiated by RAC, while necessary in themselves, become politically subordinate to forces which aim to prevent any systemic challenge to capitalist rule. Such actions are thus confined within a liberal framework – the shell of pleading for reprieves from “our” politicians and other elites. Far from applying “pressure” to the system, such actions strengthen the very “democratic” façade which, with a federal election looming, will be wheeled out once again. Refugees, however, continue to suffer regardless.

Occasionally, the forces of the “left” wing of the capitalist class directly involve themselves in the struggle for refugee rights – precisely in order to restrict the political demands, or even to garner support for their political ends. A classic case was the picket at the Lady Cilento Childrens Hospital in mid February. While this action involved many people who wanted to contribute, and did temporarily prevent a deportation to Nauru, it was also politically handed over, at crucial times, to operatives of the ALP, GetUp! and the conservative Union bureaucracy, including representatives of the Queensland Council of Unions. (QCU). The takeover of the movement by such forces was both a help and a hindrance. Numbers swelled, and protestors were heartened by some backing (finally!) by some Unions. However, it soon became apparent that the real aims of the QCU, the ALP, GetUp! and the Greens were both the upcoming Brisbane City Council and Federal Elections, and the political containment of the refugee rights movement in an election year. Some Union officials gave fine sounding speeches, it is true, but it was not backed by Unions mobilising workers. For example, members of Together/ASU – the main public sector Union in Queensland – were not even sent an email about the action!!

The left parties who predominate the organising committees of RAC (SOL, SALT, SALL) were either oblivious to this manoeuvre, or willingly took part in it. Moreover, their strategy remains that of building the broadest possible front on the lowest possible common denominator. They apply their theory that the broader the movement, the more politically powerful it is. This is an inversion of reality. The broader the movement (in terms of the left and right joining hands), the more powerless it becomes – and the refugee rights movement is forced to refight its battles over and over and over again. Parties and groups representing a section of the “left” wing of the ruling class (i.e. the ALP, GetUp!, the Greens, Union officialdom etc) cannot “free the refugees”, or anyone else for that matter. This is because these forces have a material interest in preserving, not abolishing, the real source of refugee oppression – the capitalist economic casino.

The theme of this year’s Palm Sunday rally is “Stop the War on Refugees”. This is rich coming from RAC and its SOL, SALT and SALL apparatchiks. These groups have stood solidly behind the US led imperialist wars of regime change in Libya and Syria, wars which have created untold numbers of refugees. They were also silent when NATO installed a fascist junta in Ukraine, to undermine Russia. Such groups whine about “Russian imperialism”, which is an implicit endorsement of the NATO juggernaut. They are even more silent while the US is relentless with its hostile provocations against Red China, especially in the South China Sea, but also against the DPRK (North Korea). This is the golden thread which binds these left parties to the nationalist Union bureaucrats, the ALP, the Greens, and “community” groups such as GetUp! – “grassroots community activism”, in the service of imperialism. GetUp! is at least halfway honest about where its funding comes from – some Union leaderships, but it also admits being a part billionaire financier George Soros’ death star like constellation of regime change NGOs, such as and[4] SOL, SALT and SALL, who do not receive such funding, nonetheless continually deny ever politically backing US/UK/FRA/Turkish/Saudi/NATO armed jihadists in Libya and Syria, while at the same time being the loudest voices calling for the overthrow of the African or Middle Eastern states targeted by the US Empire. Neither have SOL, SALT or SALL raised virtually any call for the withdrawal of Australian troops from the Middle East. Indeed, while Australian troops assist the US empire in the horrific game of regime change – an aim they share – why would they?

What this means for the vitally important refugee rights movement is that while it remains politically subordinate to imperialism domestically and internationally, it will remain a plaything in the hands of those we should be protesting against. Thankfully, the intervention of the Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces on the side of the overwhelmingly popular Syrian government has tipped the balance in Syria in favour of the world proletariat. As we write, a ceasefire between the US led forces and their armed mercenaries, and the anti-imperialist forces of Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah is being etched out. Regardless of whether it holds completely, the situation on the ground is that the NATO powers have been soundly defeated in Syria. Hundreds of thousands have paid with their lives for this victory, something that should never be forgotten. But it is another example which demonstrates that the US Empire and its murderous reign at the apex of world capitalism does not always win. This is something we need to keep in mind as we struggle for refugee justice.

We would suggest that the refugee rights movement’s tasks are threefold. Firstly, it needs to seek to combat the influence of liberal capitalist elements (the ALP, Greens, Union officials, GetUp! etc) and not cede leadership to such elements when they barge their way into the movements to bolster an election campaign or to back yet another US led war. This means seeking to politically combat left parties which act as proxies on the ground for more conservative political forces. The aim should be the mobilisation of all working class forces and their supporters independently, not only from the major parties, but all political groups working for them, be they paid or unpaid.

Secondly, the refugee rights movement needs to orient to the mobilisation of Unions in defence of refugee rights. This is not just because the movement backs anyone who is progressive, but because the mobilisation of labour is one of the few things that has the possibility of winning lasting gains for refugees and asylum seekers. We must reiterate that the main reason why the unspeakable abuse of refugees recurs is to divide the working class yet further, in order to prepare for further attacks, as the capitalist system slides deeper into recession. Unions will not be able to defend themselves if they do not defend refugees. The main obstacle to the mobilisation of workers and their Unions are the self-serving Union officials, who seek only to extend their well-remunerated careers, rather than fight for the cause of working people. Such officials must be positioned so that they MUST call meetings of members and start organising. Refugee rights supporters should not accept no to a demand for a meeting of members and delegates to address urgent issues.

Thirdly, the refugee rights movement needs to oppose all imperialist wars, which generate and exacerbate an already dire refugee situation internationally, as a result of the ongoing failure of free market capitalism. Today this means opposing the US led war on Syria, NATO belligerence in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and US warmongering against Red China. It means demanding that all Australian troops be withdrawn from the Middle East (Iraq, Syria) and be withdrawn from all war games with the US aimed at China and the DPRK. Anyone of these conflicts could spill over into a world war – an unprecedented nightmare for refugees and the world’s working people. The struggle to end war should be simultaneously a struggle for socialism – a collectivised world economy where working people are free to move based on an international division of labour.



Workers League

PO BOX 66   NUNDAH   QLD   4012



[1] (20-02-16)

[2] (20-02-16)

[3] (ibid)

[4] (20-02-2016)

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