“Supporting Refugees in the Vote”: Refugee Action Coalition Forum Calls for Policy Change

The Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) held a forum in Surry Hills on Monday to discuss how refugees have repeatedly been used as political scapegoats, the implications of the upcoming federal election for refugees and what activists and the general public can do to support them.

The panel of speakers included Zaki Haidari, a Hazara Afghan refugee on a temporary visa, Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and former Manus refugee from New Zealand, and Matilda Fay, an RAC and UTS staff activist.

Haidari, who holds the Safe Haven Enterprise visa and has lived in Australia for ten years, separated from his family and with no guarantee of future stability, began by describing the “disastrous situation” of the refugee crisis.

“The power that [authorities] the use and the way they use it is just inhumane,” he said.

Haidari argued that refugees alone cannot oppose institutions of authority, having been “dehumanized into very small things”.

He pointed to Australia’s recent history of harsh treatment of refugees, such as bridge visas in 2013 which denied refugees the right to work and access to formal education, the backtracking policy in 2014 which forced Indonesian refugees on boats to turn back despite the personal dangers, and the Morrison government cuts in 2020 in humanitarian reception from 18,750 places to 13,750.

Haidari encouraged participants to take action and “use your power” in this upcoming election because “power gives hope, and these people need hope to move forward.”

“All the refugees are asking for is safe and permanent housing and to be reunited with their families,” he said.

Boochani, meanwhile, pointed to Australia’s marginalization and inhumane treatment of refugees.

“30,000 people are in the [refugee] community, and they were tortured. The system is always chasing them,” Boochani said.

“[Even after] they are free, the system tortures them. Sometimes this torture consists simply of sending a simple letter, threatening deportation or threatening never to obtain a permanent visa”.

Boochani referred to the 2019 election when thousands of refugees on Manus Island “thought Labor would win and change would be made”.

“But that never happened. It was a dark day. I myself, probably for the first time, gave up hope when the Liberals won the election…I thought, these people can’t stay in this situation for another three years,” he said.

Boochani concluded by pointing out that although “the lives of refugees are more affected by politics than anyone [else]they don’t have the right to vote”, and they are thus stuck in a “cycle of hope and disillusionment”.

“We really have to fight – this time the Australian people have to do something for human rights,” he said.

Fay reiterated the need for public action: “It’s important that when we hear people’s stories, we don’t just sit and listen, but get involved.”

She discussed the RAC’s approach, which will extend beyond the upcoming elections. “What really drives RAC are the campaigns, the rallies, the protests. We must continue to build a movement that no government can ignore.

Fay reiterated the RAC’s concerned stance on the New Zealand deal reached in March, which would guarantee the resettlement of 450 refugees in New Zealand over the next few years.

“450 people is not enough.

“We must fight to completely dismantle offshore detention. What will win these changes is the same thing that got us to where we are now: consistent campaigning, consistent public pressure,” she said.

A participant in the room took issue with the panel’s “reluctance to criticize the PLA”, pointing out that “there are people on the conservative side who support the refugees”. He said the “refugee issue” should not become “a partisan issue”.

Haidari agreed that the refugee crisis “is not just a problem for leftists; it’s a matter of human rights” and that “we should reach out to the wider community”.

However, Behrouz argued that the liberal party has not adequately addressed the issue. “[The Liberal party] established their campaign on “national security”; they have tortured people for what they claim is “national security”… [whenever] something bad happens[s] in Australia, they blame the refugees, because the refugees are dehumanized, marginalized, and people don’t hear them. We need to question this mechanism.

“If we don’t create political change, they will continue to do so. This government has shown that it is capable [of doing] any kind of inhuman politics,” Behrouz said.

The Panel encouraged participants to support refugees at the polls. The federal election is May 21.

A recording of the forum is available here.

Refugee Action Coalition’s report to major parties on refugee policy.

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