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The Return of Refugee Politics


Like shades of the rampant xenophobia that occurred just before and after 9/11 here in Australia, the issue of immigration, or more specifically refugees arriving by sea, has once again become a dominant narrative for politics and news media in Australia.

What the arrival of 78 Sri Lankan refugees, now in limbo on an Australian customs ship while the government attempts to cajole Indonesia to take them, has done is to provide a timely distraction for the Labor Government as it did previously for Howard’s Liberal Government in a time of growing discontent. However this time Labor may have backed itself into a corner it can’t get out of.

Border security rhetoric reached its height under the Howard government, with refugee arrivals skewed as a potential terrorists. A veiled racialized border policy led to draconian detention arrangements for refugees who made it into Australia’s territory and also allowed for an increase in funding and militarization of borders. The dirty politics of subtle, understated race politics appealed to the xenophobic and racist past of dominant Australian society, stirred by neoliberalism, entrenched by 9/11 and encouraged by a conservative Prime Minister whose values and attitudes were of right out of the ‘golden’ time of the 1950s and 1960s.

After the election of the Rudd Government in 2007, there was a signaled shift in response to refugees, with a dismantling of the ‘Pacific Solution’ where refugees were detained on neighboring pacific islands such as Nauru who took refugees in exchange for much needed investment and aid. With emerging challenges on the horizon, the Rudd Government has decided to take the low road by resorting to the politically potent issue of refugees.

As Australia emerges from the GFC relatively unscathed, many Australians are facing increasing interest rates as the economy ‘strengthens’. In a population where the housing market bubble has yet to burst, while the economic ‘crisis’ might be over, for many who have jumped into the housing market, hard times are set to follow. Along with this, the pressing issue of climate change leading into the Copenhagen conference has been removed from the media discussion. The Rudd government not only failed to pass its Emission’s Trading legislation (flawed as it was) it has failed to meaningfully take action on the issue. Rather than have the electorate contemplate how and why its getting harder to pay the bills when the economy is ‘improving’, or wonder why so little is being done on climate change, a complicit media happily plays along with the return of refugee politics.

Unfortunately for those 78 people waiting at sea, Rudd now has to continue to play hardball, less he gives the opposition a foot in the door on the issue. So the excessive response will continue, further destroying Australia’s human rights record, while reigniting a ugly form of xenophobic and racist politics that channels anger and attention away from important issues of economic justice and equity; of avoiding irreversible environmental damage; and of expanding rather than diminishing humane treatment and consideration to those fleeing conflict and harm.

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