Australia polls force refugees into spotlight

Australia’s election has come down to the wire as both major parties, the right-wing Liberal Party and the centrist Labour Party, battle it out for a parliamentary majority.

The election in one of the least densely-populated countries in the world has, however, centred on immigration. This comes despite the fact that both leading candidates for the top job, Tony Abbott and Julie Gillard, were born on the other side of the world, in the United Kingdom.

Australia takes around 6,000 UN-sponsored asylum seekers each year. Some of these are from Burma – mostly political exiles or refugees from Thailand-based camps – but there is considerable concern about the conditions which a group of Rohingya who arrived by boat last year are being held in.

There is also, according to Ian Rentoul from the Refugee Action Coalition of Sydney, concern about the continuation of “racism” from the two main parties. For many refugees, UN sponsorship is not an option; they, like the initial Europeans, had to come by boat to the country, many at the mercy of traffickers.

The group of 42 Rohingya earlier this year held a hunger strike to protest the length of their detention and the poor conditions in the detention centre, which Rentoul claims involve water rationing, waiting for up to an hour and a half in the severe heat of northern Australia for food, and overcrowding. Asylum seekers are housed for long periods in detention, which is often attributed to the deteriorating mental health of inmates.

Rentoul told DVB that “the racism of the Labour party is quite disguised”, but that “the racism of the Liberals is very much on display”. Liberal leader Abbott is famous for statements such as “the great prize of Australian citizenship is insufficiently appreciated and given away too lightly”.

Rentoul had been in contact with the Rohingya in detention but lost contact after telephones were confiscated and banned during searches of the detainees’ rooms. He added that when he last spoke to inmates, they were in considerable fear of the detention centre authorities.

The Liberal Party has evidently struggled to come to terms with the country’s racism and the genocide of its Aboriginal inhabitants. The previous Labour government of Kevin Rudd finally apologised in 2008 for what is known as the “stolen generation”, when thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly stolen from their parents and ‘adopted’ by institutions to ‘re-educate’ them and wipe clean their culture and identity.

Despite the symbolic gesture by the Labour government, which took Australia through the global financial crisis without falling into recession, the majority of Aborigines still live in Third World conditions, whilst Caucasian Australia has some of the highest living standards on the planet.

A senate motion by the Green Party’s Bob Brown to offer compensation to the victims was lost by a huge margin of 65 to four, and most major politicians deny that a genocide ever occurred. This is despite the fact that when Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, Australia’s Aboriginal population was estimated to be around one million, whereas now there are less than half that number, and their average life expectancy is estimated to be between 10 to 20 years younger than a white Australian.

Rentoul said that the detention centres, some of which are in Darwin and some in the Christmas Islands, and one on the Pacific island of Narau, are purposefully isolated: “They don’t want people to know about the conditions in there [the camps], to make sure there is no public or media scrutiny”.

He continued that should Abbott win, he has pledged to make visas for refugees temporary, as well as removing the rights of appeal for asylum seekers held offshore, and reopen the Narau offshore detention centre to remove those held on Australian soil.

“So there is a capacity [to adversely affect immigrants], both for the Liberal party who have made it very clear that they want to make conditions worse, and for the Labour Party.”

He added that “there is still a visa freeze on applications for the Afghan migrants”, who are fleeing a war that Australia, under Rudd and the previous Howard administration, has been actively fighting in.

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