Effective refugee activism

How the refugee movement is closing the offshore processing centres.

When you take a look at the current refugee crisis in Australia it can be incredibly overwhelming to think about how we can actually make any positive changes. You may have thought along the lines of how is going to a protest going to get people out of detention? Or, how is signing a petition going to improve the lives of refugees? Your scepticism is completely understandable, but I’m here to tell you these actions do create change. Because it has been done before.

18 years ago, amidst an atmosphere of public distain towards refugees, figures such as Pauline Hanson were able to force their way into positions of power. This spelt disaster for those seeking asylum in Australia. The late 90’s saw the implementation of Temporary Protection Visas by immigration minister Philip Ruddock, expansion of detention centres and the opening of Woomera detention centre in November 1999. The situation for those seeking asylum in Australia worsened in September 2001, with the implementation of “The Pacific Solution”. This ‘solution’ saw that, instead of being allowed to reach mainland Australia, all unauthorised asylum seekers were to be sent to detention centres in the Pacific Islands. Following a series of tragic events resulting in the death of asylum seekers, public distain for the treatment of asylum seekers began to grow. In July 2002 the UN Report on Mandatory Detention was released, outlining the injustice and suffering being caused through the Australian government’s policies.

In response to the governments treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia, Refugee Action Collectives (RAC) began to pop up all around the country. The actions these groups took in connection with the unions and the larger public were ultimately successful in helping to close detention centres and improve the lives of asylum seekers. But how did they do this?

The short answer to this complicated question is that people power and unions forced the government to change their policies. The details are more complicated, however, it is overwhelmingly clear that the actions of activists played an vital role in creating positive change.

As the public became more aware of the realities faced by asylum seekers trying to reach Australia, campaign groups across the country formed to fight the government’s policies and treatment of refugees. Groups such as ‘teachers for refugees’ and ‘nurses for refugees’ were created in work places, and the movement slowly gained union support. Leaflets explaining the horrific conditions and situation for refugees aimed at swaying public and union support were circulated to help the movement gain traction. Public speeches from union members and eventually members of the Labor party spoke out against the treatment of refugees. Even hunger strikes and snap actions by activists had an influence in making change. Eventually the combination of these direct actions, the spread of information and union pressure wore down the liberal government and created positive changes. Public pressure and the union movement was able to break Labor’s support for offshore processing. With the bi-partisan support for offshore processing broken, Nauru was closed with the election of Rudd.

So, what exactly was changed through these actions?

Multiple detention centres were closed, including Curtin detention centre in August 2002, Woomera in April 2003, Port Hedland in June 2004, Baxter in August 2007 and the last refugees left Nauru in February 2008. Temporary protection Visas were removed under the Rudd government in 2008. However, many of these changes have been undone, such as the re-introduction of TVPs in 2013 and the reopening of many detention centres.

It’s important to note that before the above positive changes occurred, John Howard had the same rhetoric as Turnbull saying “refugees will never step foot on Australian soil, they have to go elsewhere” – but other countries were not prepared to take on what was seen as Australia’s responsibility. In 2005 almost everyone on Nauru was brought here to mainland Australia, with whole families still living here today. If the policies of the Howard government were able to be changed despite this disheartening rhetoric, the current Turnbull government can also be forced to change.

Looking at the past we can see that activism has a massive impact on the decisions of the government. A shift in public opinion needs to be followed up by mass public action forcing the government to change their policies towards refugees.


As this is queer Honi, I thought it might be relevant to talk a bit about the plight of LGBT refugees.

The Australian government is responsible for the historic violence against queer people, from the violent breaking up of the first Mardi Gras to the recent plebiscite, where elected officials were allowed to have a say who should and shouldn’t exist. It is the same government which is also responsible for sending queer refugees to offshore detention in places where it is illegal to be gay. Where they face the same discrimination that they risked everything to escape from.

We exist under the system of capitalism, which is a system that allows racism, homophobia, sexism and all kinds of oppression to exist – it thrives on exploitation. Under capitalism people are exploited because of their skin colour, not allowed to be together because they won’t produce more workers for the system to exploit, or are paid less for their work because of their gender. Capitalism is a system that, to function, must divide ordinary working people. It tries to divide us by our sexuality and our gender, and it tries to divide us through racism and refugee bigotry. But we can, and will, fight this- students and workers united stand together to fight the ruling class and everything they stand for. Capitalism is not a system that works for the majority- and the only way we will ever have true liberation for all is to escape from this system of oppression. So yes, we need to fight as hard as we can to free the refugees, but we also need to smash the state, destroy nationalism, fight against all racism and stop being complacent in a system which does not care about ordinary people. We have seen change through mass movements in the past, the people united will never be defeated.

This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.