What the US Immigrant Rights Movement Can Learn From Australia’s Asylum Struggle
The Trump administration’s new wave of anti-immigrant hate has drawn politically and practically from a recent trend internationally of closing borders, scapegoating refugees and using children as political weapons — the most comparable example being Australia.
Like most Western countries since the 1980s, the United States and Australia detain people seeking asylum. What sets these two countries apart is the level of cruelty and criminalization of asylum seekers, and now, the way each nation treats refugee children.
Some speculate that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even inspired Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy during a phone conversation in 2017, when the two traded tips and compliments about each other’s abilities to blame, ban and brutalize refugees.
Australia in particular continues to set new lows for immigration policy. Since 2012, the government has indefinitely incarcerated asylum seekers on two impoverished islands in the Pacific: Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Australia is the only country in the world that uses other countries to process its refugees, although the European Union looks set to implement a similarly cruel “regional processing” system.
Already 12 refugees in Australia’s care have died as a result of chronic medical neglect, the government’s inability to assure safety inside the detention facilities, and the daily unbearable, unending conditions that drove five of those 12 to commit suicide.
Like Trump, the Australian government imprisons children. While most children detained by Australia remain with their families, they are held for lengthy periods behind bars in mainland detention facilities as well as the offshore prison camps.
In many countries, there are safeguards that prevent children from being held in detention for more than 48 or 72 hours. In Australia, families currently spend an average of 449 days in detention. July will mark five years since the Australian government indefinitely detained 134 refugee children in the offshore camps. Forty of them have lived in detention their entire lives.
Incarcerating children is an unusual form of border control, which clearly contravenes local and international law and conventions, according to asylum researcher Professor Deborah Zion. Children detained in this way are routinely abused, from medical neglect to outright physical and sexual assault.
The negative effects of detention on the long-term mental and physical health of children are widely documented. Public opinion is often far ahead of what politicians and lawmakers do in office on this issue, with majorities in both Australia and the US roundly opposing the practices of detaining and separating children.
The very origin of Australia’s offshore detention regime actually lies in the exploitation of children.
In 2001, John Howard’s conservative government — the Australian prime minister, whom Americans may know best because of his enthusiastic commitment to joining Bush’s invasion of Iraq — claimed that refugees who arrived in Australian waters to seek asylum had thrown their children into the sea in a devious plot to be rescued by authorities and brought to the mainland.
The incident was a fabrication entirely concocted by the conservative government. They knew no children had been throw overboard, and they maintained their lie long enough to win a federal election that year, in large part because they campaigned on a tough border control platform.
The “children overboard” scandal set in motion Australia’s uniquely cruel offshore processing regime and helped maintain conservative rule in Australia until 2007 — during which time the government attempted to gut unions, ramped up the war on terror, wrecked the climate, and attacked indigenous Australians.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Trump has spent months playing with the lives of 700,000 young DACA recipients, abolishing their protected status and then using them as a cynical bargaining chip while the Republicans rammed through the worst tax breaks for the rich in US history.
While family separations have rightly captivated the country (and the world) these past weeks, the Republicans have quietly filed documents in a federal court case attempting to remove Obamacare provisions like covering people with pre-existing conditions.
Manufacturing and then using crises like these is a well-worn capitalist tool to deflect attention from controversial policy measures. They also help ensure that locally born people will look across the border for “enemies” and “infiltrators” — rather than at the politicians who are actually responsible for making their lives worse or the bosses who don’t provide enough jobs for everyone.
Another area in which Australia and the US lead the way is the use of smuggling laws to criminalize seeking asylum itself.
Bound up in the family separation policy is the fact that parents who bring their children across the border may now be charged with the criminal offense of people smuggling. If family members living in the US come forward to sponsor unaccompanied migrant children, they may also face arrest and deportation.
The “logic” is that anyone who helps children seek asylum is necessarily responsible for their exploitation, like the eight Guatemalan children who were forcibly trafficked to work on egg farms last year — a crime facilitated by ICE’s negligence, not smuggler parents.
In Australia, the same logic is used to justify offshore detention. In 2012, the Labor Party government went on a rampage against people smugglers who helped transport refugees from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to Australia. This followed a tragic boat crash in late 2010 that killed 48 asylum seekers. Graphic images of drowning refugees held the headlines for weeks.
Both of the major Australian political parties brandished their humanitarian credentials and vowed to stop accidents like this from happening — by promising to prevent refugees getting to Australian waters in the first place.
But Tony Kevin, a former diplomat who testified in and oversaw a number of inquiries into Australia’s handling of asylum boat sinkings, has shown unequivocally how authorities routinely ignore distress signals from refugee boats — meaning Australian government departments are the ones responsible for the deaths at sea.
Just like Trump, they manufactured a refugee crisis where there was none, and used it to justify a slate of harsh policies.
In 2011, the Labor government instituted compulsory five-year minimum sentences for people convicted of smuggling. Undoubtedly, there are smugglers who prey on refugees’ vulnerability and charge extreme fees for their boat journeys to Australia and border crossings to the US.
But often smugglers to Australia were simply impoverished Indonesian fishermen who didn’t actually know what they had been employed to do. Sometimes they were former refugees hoping to help others cross safely to Australia.
The truth is, prosecuting smuggling is simply an extension of prosecuting asylum seekers and migrants themselves. No one uses a smuggler unless they are out of other safe and “lawful” options.
If Australia increased its refugee intake and actually responded to sinking boats in time, refugees wouldn’t die at sea. And if it provided safe ways to bring refugees to the mainland in the first place, there would be neither the need for smugglers, nor the tragic immigrant deaths.
When Trump talks about the “very sophisticated child smuggling trade” today, it is a direct echo of the continuously repeated Australian sound bite “smash the people smugglers’ business model,” a refrain coined by the Labor Party’s Julia Gillard. (Incidentally, she is Australia’s first woman prime minister, which should lay waste to the idea that women in office are necessarily better for progressive causes.)
These two governments have created the very conditions that make a market for smuggling. And when Trump says he’s going to close those smuggling loopholes, what he really means is that he’s going to make migration more difficult and dangerous.
Trump’s use of the smuggler trope is perhaps more spurious even than in Australia, since the so-called smugglers he has lambasted recently are usually just parents trying to find safety for themselves and their families. Relaxing, not hardening, border control policies is the only solution for those who care what happens to refugees.
The Logic of Deterrence
Both US and Australian immigration measures like detention, separation and deportation are based on the strategy of “deterrence.” What deterring refugees means, at its core, is making the journey to seek and secure asylum more treacherous and violent than the situation the refugee originally fled.
This is how Australia’s “Pacific Solution” works: Make indefinite mandatory incarceration in tropical prison camps so vicious, hopeless and cruel that refugees would rather return to war, exile and even death than risk attempting to seek asylum in Australia.
The threat of family separations is designed to do the same thing, although this has not worked as Trump expected. This is because there are few deterrents horrible enough to prevent people crossing borders when they need to escape domestic violence, civil war and poverty.
If either country was actually interested in “deterring” refugees in any humane way, they would stop backing coups in Central America, bombing civilians in the Middle East, and creating a refugee crisis in the first place. As long as capitalism produces violence, it will produce refugees.
Building an Opposition
The current calls to abolish ICE are an excellent sign for the immigrant rights movement, and far more radical than the earlier calls for “comprehensive immigration reform,” which amounted to a compromise that would accept greater rights for (some) undocumented people already here in exchange for stronger border control.
It’s important to remember our history. ICE hasn’t been around forever, it’s a young organization founded only in 2003.
In addition to the island camps, Australia has a system of mandatory immigrant detention on the mainland. And like ICE, it hasn’t been around forever. Before 1994, Australia didn’t have this kind of compulsory detention. Some refugees were detained at authorities’ discretion, and the processing system and migrant hostels before 1994 were certainly nothing to celebrate.
But there was no razor wire or endless imprisonment of all refugees. If we lived without these structures before, there is no reason we can’t today. And if we could do away with ICE here and mandatory detention there, it raises questions about how essential and whether border control measures are necessary in the first place.
Of course, not everyone agrees with demands like abolishing ICE.
Although the Democrats have come out in full rhetorical force against the family separations, it should come as no surprise to readers of Socialist Workerthat such protestations about border control are relatively limited. And if history teaches us anything, we can’t trust that they will continue with their shouts of today when they’re back in office.
Just like in Australia’s recent history, Bill Clinton used the tragic Golden Venture refugee boat crash in 1993 to lambast smugglers and assert that immigrants were a threat to national security. He locked up more than 50 of the survivors for four years. The incident paved the way for his 1996 slew of anti-immigrant reforms.
Barack Obama left intact the ICE agency created in the Bush era and deported more immigrants than any other US president. He focused on “felons” rather than “families” — never mind that felons also have families.
But as immigration historian Carly Goodman argues, his deportation machine helped solidify the public perception that immigration and criminality are connected.
Bernie Sanders won’t even join the calls to abolish ICE, despite their growing popularity. Without question, the Democrats are less vicious than Trump on immigration, but they all believe in strong borders, and they will use violence to protect them when they see fit.
In Australia, the current Labor opposition is different from the Democrats. It’s a mainstream social democratic party with organic ties to the labor movement, and has some semblance of party democracy and accountability. Winning trade unionists and left-wing members to a pro-refugee position has had great social importance in the Australian movement, because they have the power to shift party policy.
The Democrats are a much looser, less accountable constellation. However, the Labor Party shares two things in common with the Democrats: In office, the party leadership fails to stand up for refugees, and even in opposition, they fail. Second, their base voters are usually more progressive on immigration than the policies they implement.
Closing the Camps
In 2007, the Labor Party ran on a platform of closing the offshore detention camps — and won.
During the six previous years after the conservative government launched the Pacific Solution, socialists, unionists, faith groups, students and other activists built a powerful social movement that turned the tide of public opinion and made refugee rights an inescapable discussion in every workplace, college and community. Crucially, the courageous resistance inside the detention centers also helped tear down the fences.
But five years later, the same Labor government reopened the offshore camps. The refugee campaign in Australia today is one of the most powerful social movements in the country. Through struggle, sections of it have learned that unless it builds a force that can hold the major parties on both sides of the aisle to account, it cannot hold onto anything it wins for asylum seekers.
This is a lesson for us.
Beyond the Democrats’ failure to protect refugees while in office, there is a grave danger in going to the polls hoping to vote this type of cruelty out of office. Movements collapse into the Democrats this way — and leave us incapable of fighting them when they disappoint us and fail to deliver immigration justice.
Sections of the Australian movement also learned the power of organized labor — with detention workers, medical professionals and teachers in particular taking a stand for refugee rights in their workplaces.
Because of workers’ involvement in production, we have immense potential social power to shut down the system until we win our demands, whether for immigrant rights or increases in teacher salaries.
Already we are seeing signs of this power in the US, with airline workers refusing to work flights that carry separated children and Amazon developers refusing to build technology that aids the surveillance and policing of immigrants. Striking teachers across the country showed us the way workers can fight and win.
The refugee campaign closed Australia’s offshore camps before. A new generation of activists is fighting now to free the children, close every camp and bring all asylum seekers to the mainland for humane processing in the community.
Their story tells us that we can crack open the border-control regime and win crucial demands with a mass social movement — the likes of which we must foment on both sides of the Pacific now.