It’s Refugee Week and We Still Don’t Accept Seeking Asylum Is A Human Right

chasing asylum cover

Time For Truth-Telling

There has been a host of issues covered by a variety of media in the last week, as the important Black Lives Matter Movement continues to dominate headlines around the world and it is also Pride Month in the USA.

An important message of BLM and Pride is about valuing human rights, a similar message the United Nations established when they devised the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, July 1951.

tony-fernandes-human-rights-means-that-each-individual-should-quote-on-storemypic-ec083

Australia was party to this Convention as David Marr explains in an interview recorded on the 2016 documentary Chasing Asylum. 

The UN Declaration of Human Rights and Refugee Convention was a humane understanding, according to David and ‘the world’s apology to what was done to the Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.’

When the doors are closed, people need protection and have a right to seek it!  Australia signed up to this Convention and to letting refugees come in – and they come by the sea when other channels are closed!

When I revisited this documentary, I wept. 

Even with COVID-19, when we are all encouraged to care for each other, we are detaining and treating asylum seekers as if they are criminals and of lesser value than ourselves. Fortunately, there are courageous advocates still speaking up and trying to get the Australian Government to honour the Conventions they signed.

FB_IMG_an asylum seeker 2020
A young man STILL detained – from a friend’s Facebook

I agree with David Marr, who ”defies anyone not to be moved and not feel ashamed.’

The film shows horrific footage (taken without the knowledge of those in authority) of inside the camps on Nauru and Manus Islands that Australian taxpayers fund and set up by the Federal Government.  Repeated parliaments headed by BOTH main political parties have made excuses to maintain these offshore camps.

The cost of torturing innocent people who had a RIGHT to seek asylum – $500,000 per asylum seeker per year – that is $1.2 billion to maintain Nauru and Manus Islands.

A lot of money to torture people because mandatory and indefinite detention is definitely torturing!

There is testimony from employees with firsthand experience who observed the inhumanity and horrific conditions in the detention camps. No amount of posturing and excuses will hide the fact the premise of Australia’s policy is we have a right to put refugees through hell because they came by sea and others might die at sea following their example.

It is profoundly hypocritical to claim ‘stop the boats and turn back the boats’ policies are humanitarian because they stop deaths at sea – especially when we continually engage in wars and other practices creating refugees!

The most recent mass migration of people fleeing their Syrian homeland a case in point. Australian planes bombed Syria. Many of the refugees in this documentary are Iranian, Afghani and Iraqi – Australia was part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ who bombed these countries!

There are reasons for refugees fleeing their homeland – foremost is war – most people would prefer to stay in their own country. If more effort made to prevent the reasons, people put themselves at risk, we would not be facing a worldwide crisis of 60 million refugees.

The countries sheltering half a million to over a million refugees are:

  • Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
  • Germany accepted one million Syrian refugees in 2016.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we’ve demonised refugees since 2001 and used them as a political football.

In 2016, Chasing Asylum challenged us as a nation to confront the flagrant abuse of human rights perpetrated in our name and as a nation we responded by repeatedly electing governments to continue this inhumanity.

 

Reduced to its basest element, Australian government policy is to begrudgingly treat those who legally sought its asylum – by one mode of transport, by boat – with axiomatic cruelty, in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaky boats across south-east Asia. This policy saves lives, they say, because it deters others.

But it’s not this policy that’s stopping the boats from reaching Australian shores. Australia has spent billions of dollars putting an armada to sea in the waters to the country’s north and west.

Asylum boats continue to ply the waters of the region and attempt to reach Australia. They do so in much smaller numbers now because they are intercepted, boarded and their passengers and crew forcibly turned around. Protection assessments are conducted at sea – a policy considered illegal under international law by almost every expert opinion, including that of the United Nations.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/30/australias-offshore-detention-regime-is-a-brutal-and-obscene-piece-of-self-delusion

The support workers, volunteers, social workers, doctors and security personnel who speak on camera in Chasing Asylum also demonised. Classed as malcontents and whistleblowers, there have been many attempts to discredit them by sections of the government and media.

Their evidence may be unpalatable but cannot be ignored.

Because of their courage, protests from many community groups, and the persistence from MPs with a conscience like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the voiceless may have been ‘out of sight’ but were not ‘out of mind’!

And we still have asylum seekers incarcerated!

There is also a policy of boat turn-backs and like the disgraceful scandal of the Tampa, we ignore a basic law of the sea of helping a vessel in distress.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006:

No one knows how many boat people have died, but thousands have been rescued at sea. In the reality of dangerous journeys undertaken to gain access to reluctant coastal states, the time-honoured maritime traditions of rescue at sea collide with the growing determination of states to prevent illegal entry to their territory.

However, to seek asylum as a refugee is not illegal!

We must face the reality of the deceit of the cruel and barbaric ‘stop the boats’ mantra and there is no time like the present!

This week, our current Prime Minister Morrison (his name comes up frequently in the documentary as Immigration Minister) showed his ignorance of Australia’s history regarding slavery and his specially picked Indigenous Envoy, Tony Abbott compounded that ignorance by declaring racism and prejudice plays no part in the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody.

The pair still peddle the myth that our refugee policy of mandatory offshore detention is humane!

Like many of the horrific scenes circulating on social media at the moment, this history of our offshore detention policy makes uncomfortable viewing!

chasing asylum plea and blurb

By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people, and classifying them as less deserving of help, it is easy for politicians to justify denying them basic human rights.

I’m glad that there are still activists protesting on behalf of asylum seekers.  I will continue to donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, write letters and sign petitions – trying to keep the issue alive via conversations and the written word.

Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil © 2016
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
young and old
wanting safety
protection
a new life…
They cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here!

Latte Lament
by Mairi Neil © 2016

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other…

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

and devouring slices
of gluten-free, fructose-free, fat-free,
carrot cake and a chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad:

war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France
Greece
Indonesia
Iraq
Israel
Kenya
Lebanon
Palestine
Sri Lanka
Syria,
Turkey
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
search mobile screen for a funny meme.

Chasing Asylum

The opening scene of a crowded boat navigating a choppy sea has a male voice over explaining ‘I head for Australia because it is a safe, humane country… respects people… no war, calm, everything good…’

And then there is the reality as shaky footage from a concealed mobile phone camera reveals Australia has some of the harshest refugee and asylum seeker policies in the world.

We see conditions in Nauru Detention Centre – the footage filmed in secret because no journalists, filmmakers or camera crew allowed inside the Nauru camp.

Nauru a remote island, population 10,000, isolated and extremely hot, you can drive around it in 20 minutes. It is a ‘poor’ country with a failing economy.

Easy pickings for Australia to sweep responsibility to somewhere else and pass on our problem. And it is understandable why the Nauruan government accepted Australia’s offer of a cash splash and allowed a detention centre.

At the time the documentary was made there were 2,175 asylum seekers in detention on Nauru and Manus Islands, including children.

protest by grandmothers against detention
protest in 2014  demanding release of children in detention

A social worker speaks about the shock of arriving to work at the camp – meeting people already detained 400-500 days and so many security personnel giving the camp a militarised feel.

We hear faceless conversations. The views of camp, fences, tents and people from imperfect angles, but there is sufficient footage to capture the bleakness, sparse colourless surroundings, makeshift and temporary set-up. Cyclone fencing reminiscent of building sites.

Painted on the side of a tent in Nauru – Welcome To Coffin

Sad drawings and paintings by children decorate walls, featuring tear-stained faces surrounded by flames, barbed wire and guns.

The camps really set up to make the refugees feel unwelcome and to send them home or hope they’d opt to return.

The social worker said in 6 weeks the detainees degrade mentally.

We hear a man say, ‘I am 28 years old – wasting my youth here… I lost dreams.’

Indefinite detention

A shocking concept, no program, no future. Criminals in a prison can count the days until the end of their sentence, but that can’t happen in a refugee camp.

No crime committed, the UN Convention ignored, people left to rot.

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country… ”                        

                         The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

  • Tortured at home
  • Tortured in the detention camps
  • Separated from their families with no prospect of being reunited.
  • No hope for the future.

A protest organised by the incarcerated men and WE WANT JUSTICE written on t-shirts.

We see men with lips sewed together, a lot of self-harm. The nurse saw a man who cut his stomach open with glass, men with stitched lips and eyelids, another beat and stabbed himself with a fluorescent light tube. A lot of cutting. And swallowing of razor blades, washing powder, bleach.

People hang themselves.

Support workers describe how they answered an advert of Facebook from the Salvation Army. When they enquired what the job entailed, the interviewer ‘made it sound like a nice place, enjoy a two-week holiday, invite your friends to apply…’

Arriving on Nauru, the fresh recruits discover an eclectic group of fellow workers: a manager of a MacDonald’s, retirees, factory workers and university students.

The only thing they had in common was no one had experience working with asylum seekers or refugees!

The briefing they got on arrival was indeed brief!

A woman said, ‘Go and help the men, befriend them. Go in pairs, mingle, I’ll be back in two hours.’

They found dispirited refugees, lying listlessly on the bed and lethargic asking, ‘Why are you here? Why are we here? How long will we be here?’

Many couldn’t sleep, were on medication because of the rapid deterioration of their mental health, which usually started after 6 weeks.

The support workers realised intakes were confused, some didn’t know they were not in Australia, others couldn’t understand why they were treated like criminals.

A support worker questioned what she was doing there and regretted signing up, especially when she read a sign that said, ‘Make sure staff are trained to use a Hoffman’s Knife.’

She discovered a Hoffman’s Knife is used to cut people down when they hang themselves! She was in a place she’d never choose to visit and she shouldn’t have taken the job.

A social worker recalled a Tamil from Sri Lanka’s story. He was the same age as herself 24/25. He was living in an area controlled by Tamil Tigers. His father shot in front of him. He and his brother left for Colombo and arrested by authorities, imprisoned and tortured for a year. He had cigarette burns on his back and genitals. Highly distressed on Nauru, he displayed symptoms of severe trauma.

He wanted to die and kept repeating ‘My life, where is my life?’

The social worker broke down, ‘I can’t help them, I have nothing of comfort to say.

People talk to themselves. Have psychotic episodes, walk around like zombies, most are medicated. Every day they have thoughts of suicide and self-harm. She can only tell them things will get better, but they know, and so does she, that it is a lie. 

A support worker saw a severe beating of a refugee by two guards – a New Zealander and an Australian – but after pressure, she changed her statement. On reflection, she is ashamed but did so because she was scared. She was the only one prepared to be honest.

The guards are ex ADF, bouncers and prison officers and are always on edge. Hyper-vigilant, many are racists. Their aggressive attitude shows no empathy for asylum seekers.

st paul's sign for refugees
ironically St paul’s in Melbourne sports a sign most Australians ignore.

Official Refugee Policy?

Although no politician offered an interview for the documentary there is enough recorded interviews and broadcasted soundbites included:

Prime Minister John Howard in 2001 – the Tampa Election – ‘we will decide who comes into this country and how…’

2009 Kevin Rudd – those coming by boat will be detained offshore

2012 Julia Gillard – ‘don’t risk a voyage at sea… don’t give money to people smugglers… you will be detained offshore

2013 Tony Abbott  – won the election with the promise to ‘stop the boats’

2013 – Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister – it is a national emergency and border security operation – ‘the boats must be stopped.’

July 19, 2013 – Australia’s policy: any asylum seeker arriving by boat will not be settled in Australia – mandatory offshore detention.

2015 – Turnbull – ‘only way to stop deaths at sea.’

2017

FB_IMGTurnbull quote
Doing the rounds of Facebook

In the documentary, Greg Lake, the public servant who ran the Detention Centre admits that he took on the job with a background of ‘upper-middle-class white guy from NSW, growing up in a place with few migrants and never meeting a refugee or asylum seeker.’

He saw the job as implementing government policy, but the policy issue changed from looking after people seeking asylum to, we will make your life worse than what you fled if you choose to stay here.

We don’t want you coming by boat and will make your life horrible so the message will get out and no one else gets on a boat. Greg Lake realised it was a deterrent strategy and people will be permanently damaged so he left – it was too hard a portfolio.

Go Back to Where You Came From Is Not An Option!

In 2011, SBS produced a reality show to tackle Australia’s refugee policy and reveal the human face behind the statistics by exposing six Australians with strong opinions about immigration to the journeys of some refugees.

Hopefully, it helped some members of the public to think more deeply and beyond three word slogans.

Ironically, one of every two Australians is an immigrant or the child of one. (I came to Australia as a child in 1962 with my parents and 5 siblings.)

Yet, despite our diverse population and culture, immigration continues to be a central political issue. Often the people who are the most vociferous and ill-informed are migrants or children of refugees who came here after WW2.

Sadly, social media has amplified bigotry and racism and spread misinformation like wildfire. Many in Australia applaud President Trump’s recent playbook by telling those in the public eye who are critical, especially women of colour like Greens MP, Mehreen Faruqi and Labor’s Anne Aly, to ‘go back where they came from’.

The “go back” insult is offensive because it is not about citizenship, said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University in Queensland. “It’s about your skin colour,” she said. “You are seen to be more loyal or disloyal depending on whether you look like the norm.”

quoted in New York Times, Letter to Australia

Does the Australian public realise the price paid to stop the boats and who pays??

Dr Peter Young reported measurable disorders observed in children.

  • Children watching parents getting sicker, young babies not feeding properly or gaining weight.
  • Children’s drawings reflect how disturbed they are watching self-harm and also many had been sexualised or seen things they shouldn’t have seen.

Mouldy damp tents with no privacy or space, erected upon white phosphate rock. Behavioural issues because there were no age-appropriate activities.

Children referred to each other with boat IDs instead of names. The practice rampant – they had forgotten their names and who they were.

There was a lot of fighting and self-harming.

A report was published in 2014 by the Human rights Commission. :

The Forgotten Children – the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young collected toys and when they arrived the kids didn’t know what to do with them.

Heartbreaking for the support workers to witness!

A social worker will never forget a child’s reaction to receiving a soft toy after a year in the camp with no play activities. 

David Marr talked about the allegations of sexual and physical abuse of women and children which resulted in The Moss Review in 2015

There were details of sexualised behaviour amongst children, cigarettes traded for sex, children under 5 exposed to sexual behaviour and other activities at an inappropriate age….

It took the Australian Government 17 months to investigate reports.

No results and no repercussions instead the government legislated on July 1, 2015, that whistleblowers will face prison!!

Michael Bachelard, an Australian journalist living in Indonesia believes the threat of asylum seekers blown out of proportion and hardline policies of successive governments may have stopped the boats by successfully attacking the people smugglers’ business model, but the human cost appalling when you see the lives of the 10,000 stranded in Indonesia and those detained on Nauru and Manus.

The refugees in Indonesia can’t work, children can’t go to school, everything costs money and they can’t earn any.  (see my Staging Post Review)

Hazara refugees from Afghanistan share their stories – husbands, fathers, sons, mothers, widows… all fleeing persecution by the Taliban and seeking a better peaceful life.

Asylum seekers are now told there is no way you will make Australia home…

Manus Island

In 2013, Rudd declared a resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea would stop the scourge of people smuggling. Some refugees who arrived on Christmas Island flown straight away to Manus Island. They were terrified, believing New Guinea still practised cannibalism. Escorted on the plane by two security guards holding their arms they were heavily guarded on the flight.

Arriving in Manus they noticed there were trees but few houses.  They saw a fruit turned teeth red, and despite assurances feared the cannibalism they’d read about in books that happened 50 years ago still occurred.

A security guard turned whistleblower, explained it was a camp for single men. He had been a prison officer for 9 years with Victorian Corrections Service, but like others employed on Manus, had only experience dealing with those from the criminal world. The camp was not what he thought a detention camp would be.  He assumed they would train expert staff.

A WW2 Nissan hut one of the buildings with a concrete floor housing 122 double bunks. In the tropical weather, the shed was stifling – odour disgusting as was the surrounds, an overcrowded gaol behind padlocked gates.

There were not enough clothes, shoes, toilets or drinking water. Faeces littered the ground.  There were cases of malaria and other sicknesses. The men resembled broken men without a future, slouched shoulders and despair on their faces.

The contrast with staff quarters, stark – carpeted floor, air conditioning, matching sheets…

The Prison Officer, a whistleblower, he voiced his concerns and was threatened by a note left on his bed, then another verbal threat.

He stopped complaining and left. ‘I had principles, we need to talk and face the reality of what is happening about refugee policy.’

There is film of a demonstration by the detainees that became violent. 100 were arrested but no criminal convictions. Apparently, the bill was $60 million damage. (I’d question the figure because the facilities on Manus and Nauru are appalling and that was the reason for the protest!)

There is a lot of resentment from locals on Manus and Nauru who are not happy with the deal their governments have made with Australia.

Seven months after one protest, asylum seekers attacked by PNG police and locals – a riot ensues. Evidence shown of the fence pushed in by locals and shots fired into the camp. 

Sixty refugees are injured, one throat slit, one lost an eye, one man killed.

Reza Berate, an Iranian, beaten and not helped when dying. We see the grief of his family in Iran and their bewilderment as to how it could have happened.

 

2015 – Condemnation from the UN

The UN investigates and confirms Australia breeched conventions and accuses those in the detention centres of torture.

Tony Abbott’s response – “We won’t be lectured to by the UN.

We are 67th in the world for refugee intake. Abbott and Morrison cut our annual intake from 20,000 to 13,000 +

Minister Peter Dutton negotiated the Cambodian Settlement claiming that country free from persecution and a safe option. Australia made a $40 million down payment declaring refugees would be voluntarily sent there. Another $15 million was paid, but only 5 refugees went there. The average wage $100 a month.

We don’t want the offshore refugees here and so we will let the government spend as much money as they want to treat them any way they like.

The options – go to Cambodia or live in the community in Nauru where there are no jobs, low pay, and the cost of living outrageously high.  $20 for 2 litre carton of milk.

The refugees have:

  • No travel documents
  • No hope of reunification with family
  • Live in demountable blocks and share rooms
  • Live behind high fences in a soulless compound
  • their accommodation will always need security because some locals threatened them
  • No guarantee of safety.

  • Refugee women have claimed 20 cases of rape and sexual assault, but no one charged!

Flashback to 1970s

70,000 Vietnamese came to Australia under Malcolm Fraser’s LNP Government. 

On the documentary, Fraser states,  ‘I believed we had an obligation because of our part in the Vietnam war… most of the refugees had been through processing in Malaysia and Australia co-operated – these refugees beneficial. Refugees add to our culture, our wealth, our diversity.’

A sign at his funeral attended by many Vietnamese – Farewell to our champion of humanity. You are forever in our hearts…

Chasing Asylum is in memory of Malcolm Fraser – 1930 – 2015

Tolerance
Mairi Neil © 2017

To those who fear the
Other
Look not only with your
Eyes, but with
Respect, reason, logic and most of all heart.
Are people less human, more evil, if different?
Nationality and ethnicity
Culture, religion, identity
Earth’s children all ache, bleed, cry, – desire belonging and love.

 

5 thoughts on “It’s Refugee Week and We Still Don’t Accept Seeking Asylum Is A Human Right

  1. I found it hard to read this, Mairi. It just goes on and on, and it goes on an on because politicians know it is electorally popular.
    I feel it’s like abolishing capital punishment, which would never have been electorally popular but both parties took a principled stand and abolished it anyway. Refugee policy will never change unless and until both parties agree to bi-partisan support to change it, because if one party has a policy to change it, the other side will take advantage of that and their electoral chances will be doomed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found it hard to write as in I wanted to scream what is wrong with you bastards, what you are doing is so obviously wrong and insane stop justifying it. But then, I think of how the people keep re-electing the same politicians, and feel so impotent. It’s like fighting domestic violence – a seismic cultural shift is needed and how do you get that? Thank you for being who you are, my hope is for more people like you, Lisa.💞

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  2. I remember principled stands. I wonder what happened to them. Politicians ruled by factions, donors and the Murdoch media have little regard for democracy, let alone principles. A few years ago we thought protest would bring about change but I think Rudd’s capitulation (sorry Lisa) ended that. Australians it seems to me are quite easily led and for the moment our leaders are leading us to the right. One day a Gough Whitlam will rise out of nowhere and lead us back to the centre, but not any time soon (and won’t The Australian scream ‘socialism’).

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    1. The Murdoch and other commercial media certainly play a huge part in demonising refugees and have continued to give people like Pauline and her One Nation cohorts headlines and oxygen. But I agree with you the party we traditionally look to for compassion and social justice has no shining light on the hill on this issue and actively worked to force out two female MPs brave enough to go public. The group Labor For Refugees works hard but can never get the numbers at conferences to change policy or make much of an impact. As a multicultural country of immigrants and their descendants in the majority, what does it say about us as people that we re-elect Abbott and Morrison? We had huge marches against the Vietnam War and more against Uranium Mining and have managed to stop proliferation of nuclear power plants but large demos for human rights ignored by policy makers and soon petered out.

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