Is #LetThemStay Australia’s anti-apartheid moment?

LetThemStay Refugee Rally Sydney, February 8, 2016.Flickr/ Andrew Hill. Some rights reserved..Something incredible is happening in
Australia this summer.

The immediate catalyst was a High Court case
over the fate of 267 asylum seekers – including 54 children and 37 babies –
that had been receiving medical treatment in mainland hospitals. When the High
Court determined that it was lawful for the government to send these asylum
seekers back to indefinite detention in Australian run camps on the Pacific islands
of Nauru and Manus, it provoked an explosive response from refugee rights
campaigners across the country. For refugee
activists across the country, suddenly it feels as if change is possible.

Offers of sanctuary poured in from religious
institutions, state premiers, and the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Meanwhile,
healthcare workers vowed to refuse to allow children in their care to be sent
back to Nauru.

A flashpoint emerged at the Lady Cilento
hospital in Brisbane, where a 12 month old baby was hospitalised for severe
burns suffered while in detention in Nauru. For ten days, a 24 hour picket
involving hundreds of healthcare workers, unionists and community members
surrounded the hospital to support the staff. The government was forced to back
down and release Baby Asha and her mother into community detention.

Under the banner of #LetThemStay, the
movement is spreading. Teachers, childcare workers, nurses, doctors, university
staff and students have been staging local protest actions across the country.
Tens of thousands have participated in marches and vigils. Letters are being
written, petitions signed, banners dropped off bridges, from boats in Sydney
harbour and off the Melbourne Arts Centre spire.

For refugee activists across the country,
suddenly it feels as if change is possible.

And change it must. Australia is leading the
world in its punitive treatment of asylum seekers, indefinitely detaining all
asylum seekers arriving by boat in government-sponsored offshore detention

From these camps, there are rampant
allegations of sexual abuse of women and children, denial of adequate health
treatment and, in one instance, the alleged murder of a young man called Reza
Berati by G4S security personnel. Brian Owler, president of the Australian
Medical Association, recently described offshore detention as a
‘state-sanctioned form of child abuse’ and as leading to ‘extreme levels of
physical, emotional, psychological, and developmental distress’ for both
children and adults alike. 

Paving the way for Fortress Europe?

International Alliance Against Mandatory Detention Cambridge, 2015.But Australia’s tough border procedures are
more than just an issue for people seeking asylum in Australia. 

Brian Owler, president
of the Australian Medical Association, recently described offshore detention as
a ‘state-sanctioned form of child abuse’. Across Europe,
Australia’s asylum seeker policies have been considered as a possible way
forward for dealing with the current influx of refugees from Syria, as well as
ongoing flows of refugees and migrants from Africa. Briefings on Australia’s
asylum seeker policy have been prepared and put before the European Parliament,
while some think-tanks have put Australia forward as an example from which the
EU can learn.

Last October, former Prime Minister Tony
Abbott helped this situation along by using an address in London to commend his
government’s approach to immigration. In this speech, Abbott argued that people
fleeing across more than one border – including Syrian refugees – were
‘economic migrants’ and he urged European leaders to study the Australian
experience or face ‘a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite
possibly changing it forever.’

While many in Britain and Europe dismissed
Abbott’s comments, he nonetheless found an audience amongst Europe’s far-right.
UKIP leader, Nigel Farage called Abbott’s stance on asylum seekers ‘heroic’.
And then there were the comments of notorious right-wing columnist, Katie
Hopkins, who likened Syrian refugees to cockroaches and suggested that gunships
be used to stop them, before going on to say that ‘It’s time to get Australian’
on refugee boats in the Mediterranean. 

The International Alliance Against Mandatory Detention: a call to action

International Alliance Against Mandatory Detention London, 2015.In the face of this situation, those of us
who live outside of Australia need to stand up in the name of human rights and
social justice, to support those asylum seekers being treated by the Australian
government as political refuse and to amplify the voices of many thousands of
refugee activists.

Nigel Farage called
Abbott’s stance on asylum seekers ‘heroic’.

We believe the time has come for Australia’s
anti-apartheid moment.

The tide is changing on an Australia that is
clinging desperately to its White Australia past. People inside and outside of
Australia are standing up and challenging a system that seeks to construct
physical and imagined borders that separate people based primarily on their
race and creed.

It is for this reason that the International
Alliance Against Mandatory Detention was founded just over a year ago. The
Alliance is a network of Australian activists working and studying in cities
across the world. We have chapters in London, New York, Geneva, Berlin,
Santiago, Phnom Penh, and dozens of other locations, including our very own
chapter in Cambridge, UK.

Here in the UK, we have held embassy
pickets, candlelight vigils and photo petitions. We have participated in
divestment campaigns against companies which profit from detention. We have
built alliances with local refugee activists to build awareness of what is
happening on Nauru and Manus. We have also released a series of videos calling
on the Australian government to immediately close all detention centres, return
all asylum seekers to mainland Australia, reopen community processing
facilities and reconsider the policy of mandatory detention.

The Alliance finds inspiration in the
history of other international solidarity movements, but especially from the
British-based anti-apartheid movement. The Alliance
finds inspiration in the history of other international solidarity movements,
but especially from the British-based anti-apartheid movement.
Politicians like Jeremy Corbyn cut their political teeth standing outside the
South African embassy, in opposition to that country’s system of apartheid.
While these international solidarity activists did not win the anti-apartheid
struggle – that was won by South Africans – they did amplify the voices of
those struggling for justice. They stood up, and through their actions of
solidarity, they were part of changing global history.

The Alliance takes as our core aim the
disruption of Australia’s international image as the carefree, lucky country.
We want the world to know that as a leader in human rights abuses, Australia
does not show a way forward for supporters of freedom and civil liberties.

Just as happened in South Africa, the ideas
behind a system can seem so unflinching, so permanent, so untouchable – right
up until the moment they fall.

On March 19-20, we will be joining the call
for a global day of action against Australia’s mandatory detention regime, and
we encourage fellow Australians abroad to join us, wherever you are.

As asylum seekers fight each day to be
treated as human beings, they need to know that we hear their voices. And
Australian politicians also need to know that the world is watching. This is a
fight for justice for the countless lives that are being destroyed by
indefinite, mandatory detention.

Will you join us?

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