We must go beyond discussing the exploitation of migrant workers and the way in which capitalist countries use underpaid "legal" and "illegal" immigrants to put downward pressure on working conditions and wages and to undermine trade unionism. We must build alliances against the many forms of political and economic imperialism which deny people their economic, political and social rights and transforms them into refugees.

Lucky Country?

by Aziz Choudry, courtesy of Open Flows A Trans/Actions Blueprint

In 1788 down Sydney Cove,
The first boat people land
Said “sorry boys, our gain’s your loss,
We’re gonna steal your land”
(Kev Carmody, Thou Shalt Not Steal)

Recent news about the Curtin and Port Hedland “Immigration Reception and Processing Centres” in north Western Australia set me thinking about invasions, Canberra’s relationship with Asia and the Indian Ocean, and locking people up.

Media reports talked of “riots”, “ringleaders” and “troublemakers” inside the ACM-run concentration camps. But it sounded more like resistance and desperation at their conditions, created by a barbaric immigration and mandatory detention regime.

I vividly remember my own disturbing 1986 visit to Western Australia.

In this state bordering the Indian Ocean, a woman told me about her friend who liked Indian food but hated Indian people.

A man raved about the need for a big fence to be built across the Top End to keep the Indonesians and Chinese from invading.

Packs of white men from Perth and elsewhere in the south swarmed up the coast, boasting loudly about seeking fights with black people.

Police were loading Aboriginal people who had been sitting under a tree into a police van as I arrived in Broome. On Perth’s streets the same blue uniforms harassed young black men.

In Broome, I first heard about Jandamarra. In the 1890s, this Bunuba resistance leader struggled against the white invaders who sought rich grazing lands in the West Kimberleys around Derby. The colonisers slaughtered or enslaved untold numbers of Indigenous People. Jandamarra surely ranks alongside other anti-colonial heroes in his campaign to block the advance of the settlers and defend his people’s territory.

As we listen to daily rhetoric about the “war on terror”, we should remember that Australia has known many wars of terror. And that people have and always will resist terror in its many forms.

Australia’s disgusting mandatory detention for visa-less people needs to be viewed against a clear understanding of what this country is based on. M Shahid Alam’s description of Israel as a “colonising project based on lies” could apply equally to Australia.

With all the recent hysteria about a nonexistent armada of “boat people” heading for Australian waters, we should be asking how and when the invaders came to see themselves as the invaded? When did the colonisers get to talk about themselves as the colonised?

Near Derby, some 50 kms from the old RAAF Base at Curtin which now houses around 330 detainees, is a hollow boab tree which was used for locking up Indigenous prisoners, several at a time. In Jandamarra’s day, during the ruthless murderous war of terror which police troopers and settlers conducted against his people, “Derby gaol was a large galvanised iron shed with a central post to which prisoners were chained at night.” (Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance, Howard Pedersen and Banjo Woorunmurra).

Yes, Australia’s governments like locking people up. Some people. Amit Baruah asked in The Hindu (2/09/01): “Is Australia a white fortress? Would the Australian Government have denied white farmers escaping ‘persecution” in Zimbabwe permission to land on Christmas Island?” Overstayers and visa-violaters from English-speaking countries don’t get incarcerated in hellholes like Curtin and Port Hedland. WA and Northern Territory mandatory sentencing laws for petty property crimes have led to the jailing of mostly young Indigenous people.

In the demonising of detainees we can see similarities with the language used to justify the treatment of Indigenous Peoples. And with responses to Asians in 19th century Australia.

Back then, camel herders and camels were brought from “British India” and the Middle East to open up trade routes in the interior. The “Afghans” formed the backbone of communications and supply routes, and numerous expeditions searching for new mineral wealth, encountering appalling racism and exclusion from white society.

Western Australia had an Anti-Afghan League in the 1890s, when camelherders were transporting food and water in the Coolgardie goldrush. Journalist Gilbert Probyn-Smith, in evidence to WA’s Parliament about “Afghans” in the area claimed that “many were still in sympathy with those Afghans who fought the British during the Second Afghan War–they were traitorous by nature”. He warned “of the peril to Australian lives if a Jihad (holy war) were to be proclaimed somewhere in the Muslim World.” So what’s new about the recent rabid racism on talkback radio and letters to the editor? Or former Defence Minister Peter Reith’s claim that the unauthorised arrival of boats on Australian territory “can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities.”

Meanwhile, many of Australia’s pastoralists, benefactors of the hidden subsidies of agricultural trade – land and resources stolen from Indigenous Nations – now want to sell more of their food exports to Asia. Other Australian businesses seek new markets and investment opportunities there too.

Australia uses its Navy in the Indian Ocean to keep people whose homelands frequently share the same ocean, or are from other parts of Asia or the Middle East, and sets up its concentration camps in remote parts of the country or Pacific islands as part of its effort to keep “these people” away from its borders. Meanwhile Canberra’s trade officials, ministers and business are pressuring Asian and other Indian Ocean Rim countries to dismantle remaining barriers to trade and investment.

John Howard established and chairs Supermarket to Asia, a joint industry and government initiative which aims to “help Australian food producers take advantage of the growing markets in Asia.” It aims to “grow Australian food sales to Asia by developing a market-led culture; removing barriers” – and so on.

Efforts to tie the CER agreement between Australia and New Zealand with the ASEAN Free Trade Area developing among the 12 ASEAN countries appear to be gaining momentum.

Australia is also a founding member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), comprising 19 Indian Ocean littoral and island states. Formed in 1997, it is an economic forum to advance “economic cooperation” within the region, and strengthen trade and investment linkages. Its achievements have not been very noteworthy so far although, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website, “IOR-ARC provides a useful mechanism for furthering Australia’s trade interests and business links around the Indian Ocean Rim.”

Wilson Tuckey, former Federal Minister for Forestry and Conservation says, “IOR-ARC is a key element of Australia’s broader strategic engagement in the Indian Ocean Region and builds on the close political, social, and cultural links we enjoy with the countries of the region.”

The IOR-ARC charter grandly begins: “Conscious of the historical bonds created through millennia among peoples of the Indian Ocean and with a sense of recovery of history; cognizant of economic transformation and speed of change the world over which is propelled significantly by increased intensity in regional economic cooperation; realising that the countries washed by the Indian Ocean in their diversity offer vast opportunities to enhance economic interaction and cooperation over a wide spectrum to mutual benefit and in a spirit of equality.”

Australian politicians can barely acknowledge Australia’s history of colonisation and genocide. So what sort of “historical bonds” exactly do they understand to exist between them and the peoples of the Indian Ocean, many of whom have struggled against imperialism and colonisation for centuries? New markets and access to cheaper labour and natural resources for its capitalists?

While Australia sells its education services to the region’s wealthy, Canberra’s draconian treatment of people fleeing their countries, desperate for a better life for themselves and their families, is also supposed to be educational. As Janet Burstall, of Adult Learning Australia puts it: “The refugees are to spread the word back home – don’t even think about coming to Australia, you will suffer in hell.”

Australia continues to seal its borders with its army and navy. How many of today’s conflicts which are generating an exodus of desperate people relate to the arbitrary drawing of lines on maps by colonial powers for the purposes of easier administration and economic exploitation, who have walked away with impunity and denied all responsibility for the ensuing violence and suffering? And what has Canberra’s role been?

Structural adjustment programmes and trade and investment liberalization have led to cuts in public expenditure, the erosion of education, social and welfare provisions and a raft of other austerity measures throughout the Third World. The lives and economies of the South still underwrite the standards of living for the affluent in the North. This has led to escalating poverty, environmental degradation and a growing polarization between and within countries, which in turn has led to increased migration. Australia’s government actively promotes such neoliberal policies through its official aid and trade programmes.

While supporting a war that is creating many more refugees, governments like Australia’s are tightening up immigration laws, evading their international responsibilities to accept asylum seekers, fostering false but convenient public perceptions that existing legislation is “lax” and that it is time to pull out (non-existent) welcome mats for refugees. With Howard’s government seeking the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for human rights violations, can we ask which government will impose sanctions against Australia for its ongoing violations of international agreements – both in regard to Indigenous Peoples’ rights and its abuses of people seeking asylum?

While there is free movement of capital, people will inevitably be forced to leave their homelands. If Canberra and governments of the so-called developed world are so concerned to keep people in their homelands, why do they not curb the movement of global capital and encourage the development of local economies instead?

We must go beyond discussing the exploitation of migrant workers and the way in which capitalist countries use underpaid “legal” and “illegal” immigrants to put downward pressure on working conditions and wages and to undermine trade unionism. We must build alliances against the many forms of political and economic imperialism which deny people their economic, political and social rights and transforms them into refugees.

We must identify and confront new modalities of colonisation. In places like Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Canada that must include meaningfully connecting with Indigenous Peoples about their concerns about immigration into their territories – something which colonial settler governments have never done.

Aziz Choudry is an activist and writer who works for GATT Watchdog in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Aziz has written on GATT/WTO, APEC, the MAI, colonisation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ to self-determination, New Zealand’s neo-liberal reforms, workers’ rights, multilateral financial institutions, the politics of aid and “development”, biopiracy, the anti-globalisation movement, the post-Cold War role of security and intelligence agencies in monitoring and suppressing dissent, and other topics. His articles have been published in around 20 countries in Australasia, Asia and the Pacific, North America, and Europe, and translated into several languages. He can be reached at notoapec@clear.net.nz. For related work, see the APEC Monitoring Group.