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Queer refugees

Refugee rights are a queer issue too, writes Gabrielle Pei Tiatia.

This Thursday, September 18, marks exactly one year since Operation Sovereign Borders was introduced by Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party. In mid-June, Abbott proudly claimed his asylum seeker policy as a victory as it had been six months without any refugee boat landings on Australian shores. But what he failed to tell the Australian public is just how many boats were forcibly subjected to the dangerous operation of tow backs from the Navy. He failed to say what happened to the asylum seekers on these boats who attempted to reach Australia’s shores.And he also failed to mention that his racist, xenophobic, and homophobic policy has killed and injured more asylum seekers who have arrived by ocean than it has processed claims and resettled.

Australia may not be a large imperial force on the world stage, but it’s a superpower within the Asia-Pacific region, bullying neighbouring impoverished countries such as Cambodia and Papua New Guinea to take on Australia’s international obligations.  It is truly disturbing that this government thinks a policy victorious when it is responsible for the brutal murder of Faili Kurd, Reza Barati. The billions of dollars spent on Operation Sovereign Borders could have instead been used to fund government services and important public sectors such as tertiary education, instead of locking up asylum seekers in offshore detention centres which breed severe mental illness. Perhaps what is most atrocious is that this government is more than willing to exploit the world’s most vulnerable people and use them as a racial scapegoat to get through their viscous, neoliberal agenda that attacks us all.

Asylum seekers who have fled persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation suffer particular adversities. On top of the mental stress of being locked up indefinitely, many also suffer from the added anxieties of being locked up on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea), a country where homosexuality is illegal and can land you in jail for up to 11 years. This results in a catch-22 for asylum seekers – either forced to take the risk of coming out and being exposed to PNG’s laws, or to stay closeted to avoid exposure to these laws, but risk being returned to their country of origin from which they were fleeing.

Martin Bowles, the secretary of Immigration and Border Protection, said earlier this year that although there are queer asylum seekers locked up on Manus, not one person is to claim refugee status on the basis of their sexuality. This is a bizarre statement, considering not one person has been through the process of making their claims for refugee status.  Although no claims at all have been processed under this government, claims for queer asylum seekers under past policies have been extremely problematic.  Coming out is one of the biggest steps for any queer-identifying person to take and it is usually done so with careful consideration of when and whom you disclose your identity to.

According to an Amnesty International report, a lesbian asylum seeker from Uganda in 2011 was denied protection because although she had been in a long-term relationship with another woman, she supposedly lacked interaction with the queer community back in Uganda and was consequently deemed to have “merely adopted the persona of a homosexual”. Asylum seekers are not only made to forcibly disclose their sexuality to strangers, but also have to ‘prove’ they are queer by answering intimate questions about their relationships and their engagement with the queer community in their country of origin. They then have to prove that being queer is the reason they’re seeking asylum – a horrifically daunting process.

More than any other issue, the Abbott Government has staked its political credibility on ‘stopping the boats’. Make no mistake, behind Abbott and Morrison’s tough facade is a sheer desperation to hide the inevitable self-crumbling of their quick-fix policy. This government has already spent $7.2 billion on expanding and maintaining offshore detention centres, but has slashed $2.8 billion from the public university sector.

The enemy isn’t those who come by boat, but the politicians sitting in parliament with warped priorities. Resistance within detention is absolutely fundamental to destroying Operation Sovereign Borders, but as pro-refugee students, we have the responsibility of standing in solidarity with asylum seekers by constantly voicing dissent to anti-refugee racism and to make refugee bashing an electoral liability for either major parliamentary party