Yet despite over ten years of working with people like this, I still make mistakes like not thinking about the amount of space I am taking up, like saying yes to another rally I know serves no useful purpose.
Step back, think about the space you are taking up or helping others to fill.
I am probably a target of such criticism. I’m somebody who takes up (a tiny) space in the refugee movement, though I myself am not a refugee. I do what I can as a lawyer, writer and campaigner. It is ridiculous to think that in the first of those roles I take up space that others should fill: as a lawyer my job is to stand in and make arguments on behalf of others. But I also reject this concept more generally, as a writer and campaigner.
There were a few different ideas tied up in Liz Thompson’s piece about why she changed her mind about speaking at a refugee rights rally. Mainly, the type of activities we should be organising, and who should take part in the movement and what role they should play.
On the first point, Liz’s real problem appears to be rallies themselves. In my opinion, rallies are useful and important. Public displays of opposition have value; they show that it’s possible to speak out and that when you do, you usually find that there are many others who feel the same. Rallies are also a place to have debates. If there is a Labor person speaking, for example, and you disagree with that, an organising meeting is a place to discuss the decision and a rally is a place to make it clear what you really think.
I’d like Liz, or someone else with the same opinion, to explain why a rally is something that they ‘know serves no useful purpose’. Pure moral outrage doesn’t serve much useful purpose either, but every rally I have attended has always had a mix of views and strategies beyond such a simplistic motive. In fact, a rally is precisely the platform to discuss such positions and strategies. BDS is also a useful form of activity. So is civil disobedience. So is writing opeds or submissions or reports. All these things make a movement stronger.
Which leads me to Thompson’s second point about who should be involved in a refugee rights movement: we need everyone to be involved, in as many ways as possible. The movement is not speaking on behalf of others – Australia’s treatment of refugees is an issue that affects everyone. In part, because offshore processing is a political and legal black hole, and the exceptionalism for refugees sucks the life out of legal protections for all citizens. In part, because the political culture of indifference to brutality is offensive and means other vulnerable groups may become the target for similar treatment. But also because the system involves billions of dollars of taxpayer money.
The treatment of refugees is not only a moral issue about people suffering. It is also very much a political question about how we structure our society. Our current system maintains a divide between haves and have nots, and between capital that moves freely across borders and people who do not. It is a system that degrades human dignity, preferring to preserve chauvinistic systems of profit.
There is always a need to build better, stronger links between refugees and activists here on the mainland. But this does already happen regularly. While the majority of activists and paid campaigners I know have prioritised deep and longstanding contact with refugee communities, the reality is that collaboration on public activism is almost impossible, given the very real difficulties for refugees of speaking out. Very few of my clients are willing or interested in speaking publicly about their plight for fear they will not be provided permanent residency or a protection visa. RISE is the notable exception to this and I respect their work, but of course, RISE alone can’t speak for all refugees.
Crucially, the idea that activists from non-refugee backgrounds speaking out about this issue is a self-referential exercise is mistaken. My anecdotal experience confirms the exact opposite: all my clients in detention are shocked and thrilled to learn there are protests in support of their rights going on within Australia. That is not erasure of resistance within the camps. Rather, it is what solidarity looks like. There is a hunger strike right now on Christmas Island. A rally in solidarity can only give such actions more attention, more support, more momentum; it does not take anything away.
Politics is not a zero-sum game. People ‘taking up space’ don’t take it from others. Actually, it’s the opposite. The more people involved, the more space for discussing alternatives. We need more activists from all walks of life generating a fuss about our treatment of refugees. Whistleblowers are fantastic, because detention is a closed environment: they are in a unique position to shine a light on the system, often with more information (about the bigger picture) than actual detainees. Survivors of detention are also an important part of the movement, providing insight into the system of torture and the nature of movement across borders. Lawyers are good at pointing out the dangers of legal exceptionalism and the departure from precedent. Public intellectuals and experts can provide help working out what we could be doing instead. (Indeed, why aren’t more of them doing this? We should demand that they do.) Unions should be doing more to highlight the effects upon employees who work in the detention environment. Superfunds can divest from the supply chain – you get the idea, the more the merrier.
But none of these groups should have a monopoly over political strategy for the refugee rights movement. That’s a question that we all have a say in and all have the power to contribute to through activity. You don’t have to agree that everyone else’s strategy is right. But we should talk about it and discuss it politically, rather than from the view that only certain people have the right to speak about Australia’s treatment of refugees. We should reject the call of anyone who wants to shut others down on the basis of their identity rather than their ideas for a significant political movement.
It’s the one per cent and their operations for sovereign borders that need to be shut down. Now more so than ever, we need a broad-ranging movement which welcomes all people who come here to seek a better life, prioritises humane responses to the movement of people and respects human dignity as the fundamental basis of equality.