“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the mean of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, Those goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. Those goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.”
– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Sex with underage girls. Rampant violence. Tables awash with gambling money. No, it’s not the latest Netflix blockbuster, but allegations against the 370 men detained on Manus Island. the claims.... some of them by Australian intelligence - are yet to be proven, or disproven, but it smacks of yet another outrage against vulnerable, desperate people whose only ‘crime’ is to have sought asylum and a safe haven. You can’t help but be sceptical of the claims. Smear campaigns against refugees is nothing new… but more of that in a moment. And the timing of the leak is suspect. If this behaviour was rife, how come it’s only just been revealed hot on the heels of PM Jacinda Ardern offering - to Australia’s immense displeasure - to resettle 150 of the men in New Zealand?
First up, who are these men? They are asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat from various strife-torn countries throughout the Middle East and Asia. In 2012, Australia began offshore processing of those seeking refuge on its shores under the rather chillingly named ‘Pacific Solution’. A washing-of-hands, more like, and certainly not a ‘solution’ for the refugees themselves. The policy was condemned from the start for its ad hoc nature, and for the removal of desperate people to facilities that were barely inhabitable, with unreliable water and power supplies, poor medical facilities, as well as the mental impact that remaining in limbo would have on a population already fleeing dire situations in their home countries.
Since July 2013, about 1500 people have been transferred to Manus, in Papua New Guinea, from Australia. As The Conversation reports, ‘The number of asylum seekers on Manus Island has slowly reduced over the years as people have either accepted packages to return to their country of origin, been deported from PNG, been resettled in the US or temporarily settled in PNG. Six others have died.” A war of attrition, designed to do anything but welcome these people to Australia, to do the decent thing and resettle them. The very act of shipping them to a detention centre suggests they have committed some crime. ‘Asylum seeker’ seems almost synonymous, in some minds, with ‘outlaw’.
And then in October, the Manus detention centre was closed. Ever since, they’ve had limited food, water and power supplies. The men were offered relocation to premises that have been deemed unacceptable by both the refugees and humanitarian experts - not least for well-founded fear of attack by local townspeople. So the men have refused to budge from their current place. A case of better the hell you know, if ever there was one. The UN has said of the situation: “The abrupt ending of services and the closure of the regional processing centre needs to involve the people who have been in this regional processing centre for years in a very vulnerable state… It is really high time to bring an end to this unconscionable human suffering.”
Human suffering. To address human suffering, you do one of two things. You either take steps to end it. Or you somehow make those involved appear less than human. You accuse them of crimes that alienate them from sympathy.
As stated at the start, smear campaigns against refugees are hardly original. Just think back a couple of years to Germany, where it was claimed a ‘mob’ of asylum seekers assaulted women on one of Frankfurt’s main shopping streets during New Year celebrations. Leading German newspaper Bild was forced to apologise earlier this year for the the false allegations.
Again in Germany, a Muslim ‘mob’ was accused, falsely, of burning down the country’s oldest church.
In Hungary, migrants have been portrayed as a danger to society. A government-sponsored poster campaign on billboards around the country claimed sexual harassment of women has risen sharply across Europe since the beginning of the migrant crisis.
In 2015, Amnesty condemned UK foreign secretary Phil Hammond for his ‘shameful’ comments about migrants. Speaking during a visit to Singapore Hammond said those migrants arriving in Europe were undermining its “standard of living”.
He said Britain’s “number one priority” was to find a way to send back would-be asylum seekers to where they came from. He attacked the freedom of movement laws with the European Union and warned that in Calais, "there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area".
Steve Symonds of Amnesty was rightly shocked, saying: "Rather than throwing up the drawbridge and talking about how Europe can 'protect' itself from migrants, Mr Hammond should be working with our EU partners to ensure that people don't drown in the Mediterranean or get crushed beneath lorries at Calais.”
This contempt for those genuinely seeking safe haven goes way back. Reel back to post-war Britain, when you’d think fleeing Jews would have been welcomed with open arms - and it’s a similar story. There was widespread intolerance by the media at the notion of accepting refugees. As Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox write in their book Refugees In an Age of Genocide, "Of all the groups in the 20th century, refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as 'genuine', but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy." Adds Kushner, "People feel that the country should maintain asylum for genuine asylum seekers, but they're always in the past, never today."
The fact is that capitalism creates wars, and dire poverty and fuels climate change, engendering the conditions that give rise to refugees in the first place. And then it closes or opens its borders to them as it suits. Capitalism has a long history of moving people around the globe, sometimes forcefully - aka slavery - to meet the needs of the system in its expansionary phases. And yet when the system is in crisis, and struggles to provide houses or feed ‘its own’, migrants are a convenient scapegoat for the ills that capitalism creates.
As socialists we say there should be no borders dividing workers. We should welcome all immigrants with open arms - and especially those who are fleeing war, genocide, terror, the loss of land thanks to climate change, poverty and political persecution. Workers are not pieces on a chessboard to be picked up and put down at will. These men on Manus, and all migrants/refugees/asylum seekers, are human beings with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. Above all we should reject the notion that some refugees are somehow ‘unworthy’ of a place in our society.
Bring the Manus refugees here and let’s stop demonising migrants - both those wishing to come here and those already in our midst.