Australasian Spartacist No. 233
Australian Imperialist Torture in the Pacific
Full Citizenship Rights for Manus, Nauru Refugees!
In late November, Papua New Guinea (PNG) Navy officers and police stormed the recently closed Australian-operated Manus Island Detention Centre (MIDC), viciously beating refugee protesters who had refused to leave. Many were injured in the attack as police confiscated their phones, destroyed their few possessions and herded them onto buses for transportation to “alternative accommodation” in Lorengau, a small town on the remote, malaria-infested PNG island. Hundreds of refugees were relocated to the Lorengau camp, which is widely recognised as being unfit for human habitation. On top of the wretched living conditions, the refugees also fear for their safety following confrontations with and threats of violence by some within the small, mainly Melanesian local community.
The forcible removal of refugees followed a three-week stand-off in which refugees courageously refused Australian government demands that they accept “relocation.” The centre was formally closed on 31 October following a PNG Supreme Court ruling last year that the facility was illegal because it denied asylum seekers their liberty.
At the beginning of November electricity, running water, medicine and regular food supplies were cut off at the MIDC. PNG authorities also destroyed makeshift water catchments and threatened locals who assisted the refugees. Crammed into rooms and tents in unbearable heat and suffering from starvation, dehydration and the increasing threat of disease, the exhausted refugees demanded freedom in a safe environment. In response, the Australian Liberal/National Coalition government waged a systematic campaign of vilification, lies and cover-up. The stone-cold racist immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said that claims of violence against the protesters were “inaccurate and exaggerated.” Prime Minister Turnbull cheerily hailed the forced removal of the men to Lorengau.
Outrageously during the stand-off Turnbull rejected New Zealand's (NZ) offer to resettle 150 refugees because, he said, it would encourage “people smugglers." While criticising Turnbull for not accepting the NZ offer, Labor leader Bill Shorten made it crystal clear where the ALP stands, declaring “Australia is not and must not be a resettlement option.”
The lives of refugees, many of whom have fled countries devastated by blood-drenched wars waged by the U.S. and Australian imperialism, are of no consequence to the bourgeois statesmen and women who inhabit the Australian parliament. Labor and Liberal/National Coalition governments alike have been eager to oversee jackal Australian imperialism’s part in the subjugation and exploitation of millions across Asia the Middle East and beyond. Today’s reactionary “border protection” regime is an integral part of Australia’s decades-long role as a bastion of white, capitalist privilege and junior partner to U.S. imperialism in Asia and the Pacific. Degrading and tormenting refugees serves a purpose—to whip up poisonous nationalism through which the bourgeois rulers strive to instil loyalty, if not submission, to the state and compact the population behind their racist and exploitative class rule. In opposition to the government’s racist immigration laws we demand all refugees be released. Close the detention camps! No deportations! Full citizenship rights for all who have made it here, including those on Manus Island and Nauru!
Bipartisan Racist Oppression
The Manus Island refugees’ heroic resistance sparked solidarity protests across the country and drew international attention to Australia's barbaric treatment of refugees. Under the current Australian government’s “Operation Sovereign Borders,” asylum seekers who come by boat are considered “illegal.” Denied the right to set foot in Australia, they are intercepted on the ocean by Australian naval forces and turned back towards Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Meanwhile, those captured on the high seas and transported to islands outside of Australian territory (for example under the previous Labor government’s “Pacific Solution Mark II”), remain imprisoned indefinitely in squalid camps on Manus Island and Nauru. Under threat of deportation back to the countries they fled—where they can face imprisonment and/or death—these refugees are stripped of any rights. Many have existed in these camps in a Guantánamo-style twilight zone for years.
The Australian government has spent $10 billion in the last three years alone persecuting these desperate people. Families have been ripped apart. Reports of sexual abuse and assaults on women and children are suppressed. Physical and psychological torture by guards and medical neglect are the norm. There are epidemic rates of depression, self-harm and attempted suicide. Six men have died at the MIDC. Last year a young Iranian refugee, Omid Masoumali, died in a Brisbane hospital after he set himself alight on Nauru.
Things are hardly better for those refugees incarcerated in the notoriously brutal compounds in Australia, such as Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre. Nor for the tens of thousands on the temporary bridging visa E, judged to have been in Australia “unlawfully” and awaiting the outcome of refugee claims. Many cannot access healthcare or legally work. Living as an under-class on the fringes of society they are subject to a draconian and punitive “code of behaviour,” which exists over and above the legal system. One bridging visa holder has been incarcerated for more than two years for drinking a beer on a train. Meanwhile, the government recently stripped all welfare and housing support from asylum seekers who had been transferred to Australia for medical reasons. Labelled a “burden” on the welfare system, these people were also placed on bridging visa E for deportation.
The government's abuse of refugees follows the deeply racist traditions of Australian capitalism. From the bloody destruction of Aboriginal populations, to the exclusionary White Australia policy, to colonial domination in the Pacific, the Australian capitalist rulers have an unbroken record of brutal racist terror. The ALP is the historic party of White Australia par excellence. In 1992, mandatory detention was first implemented by the Keating Labor government. Since then, vying for the racist vote, successive Liberal/National Coalition and Labor governments have enforced ever more insular, repressive and blatantly racist immigration policies.
Imperialist Destruction in the Region
The Australian capitalist rulers’ use of their Nauru and PNG neocolonies as dumping grounds for refugees, in exchange for financial handouts to their cash-poor regimes, throws a sharp light on Australia’s sordid role in the region. At the beginning of the 20th century the tiny island of Nauru had massive deposits of phosphate, a valuable commodity used for fertiliser. Following World War I (WWI) Nauru fell under British rule and was jointly administered by New Zealand and Australia. The island’s phosphate was aggressively strip-mined and shipped mainly to Australia. When the reserves were exhausted Nauru was left as little more than a jagged moonscape unsuitable for any form of agriculture or even recreation. At the point of independence in 1968, the island was deemed uninhabitable. Eventually the economy collapsed. Today the population suffers extreme levels of diabetes and heart disease and Nauru is a dependent “client state” of Australia.
Australia’s role in PNG has been no less destructive. In 1884, Germany annexed the northern parts of New Guinea and Britain claimed the southern parts. Australia took over British New Guinea in 1906. Its army occupied German New Guinea during WWI and took control of all of New Guinea following the war. Thereafter Papuans were to suffer racist Australian “protection”: they were deprived of rights, subject to forced labour and forbidden to travel outside the country, especially to Australia. Following World War II, having “pacified” the country by punitive expeditions, massacres and the burning of villages, a thin layer of white planters, police, administrators and the feared Kiap (patrol officers) enforced a brutal regime of indentured servitude in the mines and copra plantations. BHP’s huge Ok Tedi gold and copper mine was run on apartheid lines.
Following PNG independence in 1975, Australian capitalism continued to dominate the country as a neocolonial overseer as large Australian mining companies, such as BHP, plundered the country’s resources while trashing the environment. To protect these fabulous profits and put down labour unrest and landowner protests, PNG police have been funded and trained by Australia. In 1989, the giant Australian-owned Panguna copper mine on the PNG island of Bougainville was shut down when independence fighters began waging a guerrilla war. In the ensuing seven-year conflict up to 20,000 Bougainvilleans died due to a crippling blockade and PNG police and military actions, all of which were directly brain-trusted, financed and armed by Canberra. PNG state forces continue to carry out brutal repression, such as the shooting last year of PNG students protesting government corruption. It is these same Australian-backed PNG state forces who have repeatedly assaulted refugees. Last April PNG defence personnel stormed the MIDC, firing bullets at buildings housing refugees.
Touching Faith in the Capitalist State
Aiming to silence criticism and stymie pro-refugee sentiment, in 2015 the government passed the Australian Border Force Act. Under this law, any staff member within the offshore detention system who speaks out about conditions in the camps is liable to two years in prison. The government has also attempted to enforce a media blackout. Despite the chilling impact of these measures, many continue to defy the Act. For example, in June 2016, psychologist Paul Stevenson stated that in 40 years working with the victims of terrorist attacks and natural disasters, the conditions in Australia’s offshore camps were the worst “atrocity” he had seen.
By savagely punishing desperate asylum seekers the bourgeoisie aims to inure working people to the idea that loss of rights and horrific treatment, particularly for brown, dark-skinned and other non-European derived people, is the norm. At the same time they hone police-state measures, to be used against social struggles at home. Indeed, demonstrations across the country in solidarity with the Manus Island protesters have been increasingly met with a heavy police presence. Ominously a protest in Melbourne was attacked by fascists, and then by the cops, leaving at least one protester bloodied. The government’s relentless anti-refugee attacks and anti-Muslim “war on terror” have emboldened all manner of racist and fascist forces. Fascists pose a deadly danger to the workers movement and all the oppressed. They must be stopped by determined contingents of the organised working class, alongside all the fascists’ intended victims. This would be a step along the road to sweeping away the capitalist system that spawns this deadly menace.
It is a good thing that thousands have come out to solidarise with refugees. The main demands of the recent protests raised by various reformist groups such as Solidarity, Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and Socialist Alliance (SA) have been “Close the Camps” and "Bring them here!" Conspicuously absent have been demands for full citizenship rights for all who have made it here. This is no accident. Above all these reformists craft their demands to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the hope of attracting the church goers and small ‘l’ liberals who have come out in large numbers to protest. Unsurprisingly, the whole thrust of the demonstrations thus far have been to channel anger into futile appeals on the government and Labor “Opposition” to act on behalf of refugees while seeking to pressure the small bourgeois Greens party to the left. Most open in this regard is Solidarity who are key players within the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC).
Solidarity and other reformist groups have for years called for a vote to the Greens in federal elections. In every demonstration, Solidarity and the other reformists who inhabit RAC provide the Greens with a platform, and without criticism, to posture as bona fide defenders of refugees. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Greens uphold the capitalist system, including defending the borders of Australia. Their main concern about the mistreatment of refugees is that it may discredit Australian imperialism on the international stage, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. Lest there be any doubt, it was the Greens who propped up the Gillard-Rudd minority Labor government of 2010-13, even after it introduced its draconian offshore processing regime and re-opened the Nauru and Manus Island centres.
Promoting the illusion of a kinder, fairer capitalist state, in 2009 SAlt, SA and the Socialist Party (SP) signed a statement that called for refugees to be allowed to “live in freedom in Australia while their claims are processed.” The wretched SP continue to raise a qualitatively similar demand today. Thus on bended knees these reformists accept that the racist capitalist state should have the power to decide who, among those already living here, is not to be “accepted.”
Such touching faith in the capitalist state was sharply revealed two years ago when these same left groups came out in support of strikes by the Australian Border Force (ABF). Along with the police, military, and prisons, immigration officers form part of the armed fist of the state, which exists to suppress the working class and anyone who challenges the bourgeoisie's rule. The ABF enforces the bosses’ racist immigration laws, including by patrolling air and seaports and carrying out deportations and onshore detention. Support to ABF strikes is consistent with the reformist view that the capitalist state can be made to serve the interests of the workers and oppressed. However, Marxists know that any hard-fought defence of workers’ rights, and the rights of the oppressed, will face the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state.
Successful “strikes” for better conditions for border force, screws and cops simply mean they are better armed to repress the struggles of workers and minorities. In embracing customs and immigration officers as union brothers the reformist left are tailing and covering for the pro-capitalist union tops who organise these and other state forces into the unions. In contrast we seek to bring to the working class the understanding that it must organise independently of the bourgeoisie and its state. In sharp political opposition to the current misleaders and their left tails, class-struggle militants in the unions would seek to mobilise the proletariat to oust the cops, screws, immigration officers and security guards from the unions.
We Need a Multiracial Revolutionary Workers Party
Capitalists around the world, including Australia, are slashing jobs and carrying out anti-union attacks. Anti-immigrant racism divides the working class in the face of capitalist attacks and must be fought by the organised workers movement. Workers must be won to the understanding that they share a common class interest with the workers of all countries and all nationalities against the capitalist class enemy. Mobilising the workers movement in defence of refugees and immigrant rights is crucial to defending the multiracial working class, which needs unity in struggle to fight the bosses.
The main obstacle to such a program is the ALP-loyal, sell-out trade-union leadership, who propagate the nationalist lie that there can be a unity of interests between workers and the capitalist rulers who get rich by exploiting workers’ labour power. While unions such as the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) have joined protests in defence of refugees and previously stated their opposition to mandatory detention, offshore processing and deportations, the leadership pushes vile protectionism, demanding "Aussie resources, local jobs," and helps promote anti-immigrant hysteria by giving support to the government's "border protection" measures.
In opposition to nationalist Laborism we seek to build a multiracial revolutionary workers party like the Bolshevik Party led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Such a party would act as a tribune of the people, taking up the struggle against every manifestation of capitalist oppression. In contrast to the reformist left, we Marxists do not seek to advise capitalist governments on more “progressive” immigration policies. All immigration laws in defence of the nationally-based bourgeoisie’s rule are necessarily racist and chauvinist. Our perspective as Marxists is to build a party that can mobilise the multiracial working class in struggle against all of the government's racist immigration laws. The fight for full citizenship rights for all who have made it here is part of the struggle to sweep away the brutal rule of capitalism. It will take a series of socialist revolutions around the world to open the road to the construction of classless, egalitarian societies based on material abundance where all will be able to live free from oppression. For a workers republic of Australia, part of a socialist Asia!