New Zealand: Socialists cooperate in defence of refugees

Auckland protest in support of Tamil refugees, January 18, 2010.

By Grant Morgan, Socialist Worker-New Zealand

January 19, 2010 -- The refugee issue is almost certain to rise from near invisibility in New Zealand politics to become a strategic battleground. Waves of refugees will be thrown up by the poverty, strife and ecotastrophes of global capitalism's end times.

The right, centre and much of the left in New Zealand politics will seek to portray these waves of refugees as threats to "our way of life". This could open the way towards authoritarian nationalism which jackboots the New Zealand working class as well as offshore refugees.

New Zealand socialists and our allies must show that offshore refugees are a resource, not a threat, to the majority of Kiwis under the thumb of corporate bosses and politicians.

Refugees are a resource for our side because they are fleeing the poverty, wars and other calamities caused by the same world system which kicks most Kiwis around. They are our natural allies against the unnatural forces of global capitalism.

In addition to our duty of solidarity with victims of a hateful system, socialists have a duty of foresight to see the near inevitability of the refugee issue becoming a strategic battleground in Aotearoa.

So it was very good to see different socialist groups (Socialist Worker, Workers Party, Communist League) represented at the Auckland protest on January 18, 2010, in solidarity with Tamil refugees. These refugees are being held hostage by Indonesian state forces in collaboration with the Australian and New Zealand governments. (See below.)

Cooperation among NZ socialist groups on the refugee issue is a positive sign for the future. And so too is the international cooperation among socialists and other activists around the Tamil refugee issue. The Auckland protest was just one small event in a seven-country campaign which embraces Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, United States and England, as well as New Zealand.

This is a real step forward for practical solidarity among various socialist groups in both the global South and the global North.

Respect the rights of Tamil refugees

January 18, 2009 – Auckland, New Zealand – 30 Aucklanders representing half-a-dozen organisations protested outside the Australian consulate as part of a seven-country international campaign.

They were demanding that the Australian government take responsibility for 254 Tamil asylum seekers sailing for Australia who were turned back to Indonesia after the Australian prime minister asked the Indonesian navy to intercept their boat. 

Similar protests took place in Indonesia, Australia, Canada, United States, England and Malaysia on the same day. 

Organisations supporting the Auckland protest included the Indonesian Human Rights Committee, Socialist Worker-New Zealand, Human Rights Network and the Workers Party. 

A local protest organiser said: “This was an important first step in making this issue visible in New Zealand and I hope that more could be done by countries to address the root causes of the many conflicts that are causing people to get into dangerous situations in their desperate need to seek freedom” 

As part of the Australian government’s "Indonesian solution", Prime Minister Kevin Rudd personally requested that the Indonesian navy intercept and stop a boat carrying 254 Tamil asylum seekers from entering Australian waters. 

Monday marked 100 days since the Tamil asylum seekers refused to leave the boat for fear of being locked up in an Indonesian detention centre or being deported back to Sri Lanka. This fear was confirmed when Gunasekaram Sujendran voluntarily stepped off the boat to visit his sick mother in Sri Lanka and was imprisoned without charge upon arrival in Colombo Airport. A repeat of the event occurred when eight asylum seekers left the boat on a promise by Indonesian officials to have UNHCR access; however these eight men were thrown in Indonesian detention cells where they were interrogated by the Sri Lankan navy and officials. 

Health and hygiene on this boat are poor, with more than 200 people sharing one toilet. Many on the boat are sick from diarrhoea and other preventable diseases. There are 31 children on board, including a little baby who was born in the bunker in the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 and who has just turned one on the boat. There are 27 women without basic needs, one of which a woman who is seven months' pregnant.

Without access given to UNHCR to process applications, media or family members, the protest comes amid the escalating human rights abuses that are occurring on the boat. One which caused uproar was the preventable death of George Jacob Samuel Christin, who died due medical negligence by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and the Indonesian navy. 

The Auckland protesters stood outside the Australian consulate at Viaduct Harbour Basin with placards, urging the Australian government to respect the rights of refugees as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. They also requested that the New Zealand government uphold its duty as a signatory to the refugee convention. Protesters chanted “In the jail or on the sea – Respect the rights of the refugee”.

Addressing the crowd, Maire Leadbeater from Indonesian Human Rights Committee said: “There can be no doubt that Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka have reason to fear persecution as most have had their lives disrupted by extreme violence and internal displacement. International law enshrines the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, explicitly prohibiting the forced return of refugees to areas where their lives are potentially in danger.” Leadbeater concluded by saying, “I am happy to be part of this important contribution to what’s being an international human rights issue to what’s becoming one of a desperate humanitarian crisis. New Zealand should also be aware that it has a region responsibility to assist with the plight of genuine asylum seekers.”

Grant Morgan from Socialist Worker said: "We are public witnesses for Tamil asylum seekers fleeing civil strife who are trapped on a boat in Indonesia and cannot speak for themselves. It is legal to seek asylum in any country, but this international law is being violated by the governments of Australia and Indonesia, with covert backing from the New Zealand government. The actions of these governments is not only immoral but also illegal."

Green MP Keith Locke, who was out of Auckland and could not make the protest, sent this message: “I congratulate those present on this vigil today for highlighting the tragic plight of the Tamil asylum seekers on the boat off Merak. They are suffering terribly. On behalf of the Green Party I have been pushing for New Zealand to take some of these asylum seekers, along with Australia. This is the only just response New Zealand can make to the crisis caused by the persecution of Tamil people in Sri Lanka, which has led to so many people fleeing on boats. I will continue to push our government on this matter."