Christmas, Australian Style

Pondering what would have happened if an Australian Prime Minister was Pharaoh when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents,  I came up with this….

Mary and Jospeph0001

Here is the background story from the Bible, in Matthew 2: 13 – 18: 

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.  This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious,  and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem in that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,  weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;  she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”.  

Weeping God,
whose heart is pierced by the cry of the innocent:
receive into your arms the waste of our violence;
confront the powers of fear  by the confidence of love;
and help us stand with all creatures who bear the weight of cruelty and greed,
through Jesus Christ,  Rachel’s child.
Amen.

God of the refugees,
sharing the exile road with all who flee the violence that enslaves and kills:
As your Son sought sought asylum in a foreign land
make us ready to welcome the refugee
and receive from her a new language of life and hope;
through Jesus Christ, Rachel’s child.
Amen.

(From Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Steven Shakespeare)

 

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In Aylan’s Tiny Shoes

Aylan's shoesIt is right that we are moved by the picture of little Aylan Kurdi’s  lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey. It is right that we mourn for his tiny life. It is right that we see him as a symbol of the suffering of all those who have been forced to flee Syria. It is right that our hearts ache and our tears fall.

But we need to be equally moved by the confirmed reports of little children in immigration detention in Nauru who have been sexually assaulted by those employed to protect them. We need to be equally moved by the six-year-old girl, kept captive there by our government, who has been overcome with such hopelessness that she attempted to take her own life.

We need to be equally moved by the almost three-year-old boy who cannot remember his father because Australia imprisoned his Baba on Manus Island when he was just a baby. They may never see each other again.

We need to be equally moved by the little siblings of Mohammad Nasim Najafi.  Their big brother died a few weeks ago, in a Western Australian detention centre, of a heart attack. He was 27 years of age.

And we need to be equally moved by the children who are left indefinitely in situations of persecution and danger, unable to be reunited with their refugee fathers in Australia, because of the government’s policy of Temporary Protection Visas for those who arrived by boat.

I welcome the Australian Government’s announcement that our refugee intake will be increased by 12,000 in order to provide refuge for people from Syria. Those 12,000 people will be spared from risking Aylan’s fate and will be brought to safety.   However, this is not enough to ease the heartache I constantly carry with me.

If little Aylan had made it safely to the shores of Europe in his boat, he might have travelled with his family across Europe to Sweden or Germany; both countries which have announced that any Syrians who make their way there, will be welcomed as refugees. Sweden has received 64,700 Syrian requests for asylum already, and that number is expected to rise significantly. “We accept that every person has a right to seek asylum,” Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallstrom has said. “This also puts the European solidarity to a test. I think it’s important that we signal being a community that rests on common values of democracy and defence of human rights.” [1]

Germany is preparing to accept 800,000 people. When asked how many Germany would accept in total, Chancellor Angela Merkel replied, “The fundamental right to asylum for the politically persecuted knows no upper limit; that also goes for refugees who come to us from the hell of a civil war.” [2]

While immeasurably significant for the 12,000 individuals to whom Australia will give new lives, Australia’s contribution to solving this global humanitarian crisis pales into insignificance against these figures. But there is something even more important that is adding to my grief.

If little Aylan’s boat had attempted to arrive in Australia, it would have been intercepted so that he could be returned, potentially to Syria.

In stark contrast to the announcements of the German and Swedish governments, these are some of the Australian Government’s and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s announcements regarding people fleeing in boats to seek asylum:

“No way. You will not make Australia home. If you get on a boat without a visa,  you will not end up in Australia. Any vessel seeking to illegally enter Australia will be intercepted and safely removed beyond Australian waters. The rules apply to everyone: families, children, unaccompanied children, educated and skilled. There are no exceptions.” [3]

“We are defending our national sovereignty, we are protecting our country from the evil trade of people smuggling and by hook or by crook we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe…” [4]

“It does not matter which country people are from, which route they take, or which country they depart from, there are two outcomes for people who travel illegally by boat to Australia:

               –  They will be intercepted and safely removed from Australian waters; or

–   They will be sent to another country for regional processing.” [5]

If little Aylan’s boat had somehow managed to avoid interception and arrive on Australian shores, he would have been sent to offshore detention in Nauru as punishment for arriving here safely.

The following painfully beautiful letter was written by a young man detained on Manus Island.  He wrote it so that  I could share it in order for his voice to be heard.

 Dear Aylan,

I know that the only sounds you heard in your life were bombs and guns. Your tiny ears were full of these harsh noises. You tried to walk and escape from this. You learnt to walk and tried to flee.

I am an asylum seeker as well but there is a difference.  I survived the ocean, then I was forced to go to Manus Island.  I asked for freedom, just like you. Believe me when I tell you, drowning would have been a far, far better option for me than suffering a slow and gradual death here in this hell. 

It is OK baby Aylan, it’s OK.  Maybe the ocean wanted to tell you that there is no one waiting for you and wanting to help you on your safe arrival at the shore.  Could it be better that you drowned at sea than suffer at the hands of cruel Nauru?  Where you mother could be sexually assaulted, separated from your family and treated like an animal.  Losing your childhood.  Dying slowly in a concentration camp run by the Australian Government. 

Our freedom is in the hands of Australia.  I beg you, everyone reading this.  Please write immediately to your local Minister or to Mr Dutton, requesting that Manus and Nauru detention camps be closed immediately.  We are all human, just like Aylan, fleeing war and persecution. Just as you would do if you were in our shoes. In Aylan’s tiny shoes. 

The UN Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed, and which our politicians keep saying they strongly support and adhere to, states that asylum seekers should not be punished or discriminated against for arriving without passports or visas.  Yet Australia’s refugee policies do exactly that.

There are no interception and turn-back operations in Greek and Italian waters.  Instead, there are rescue operations.  Asylum seekers making their way to Sweden and Germany are not greeted with guards, wire-fenced detention centres and deterrence strategies.  Instead they are greeted with welcome.

We need to harness the outpouring of grief and compassion in Australia, evoked by the tragic image of little Aylan, and use it to demand that ALL asylum seekers be greeted with welcome instead of deterrence, and treated with compassion instead of contempt.

As my dear young friend on Manus Island has pointed out, our circumstances differ only because of which patch of the globe we happened to be born on. It could be any one of us, or any one of our children, in Aylan’s tiny shoes.

Please take The Pledge to Asylum Seekers, written by L. Clancy and L. Mariah.  Then please print it out and display it in your home and in your workplace.  But don’t stop there.  

Write to your local MP and the Minister for Immigration, include a copy of The Pledge and tell them that you want all asylum seekers to receive this kind of welcome. 

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/09/world/welcome-syrian-refugees-countries/

[2] http://news.yahoo.com/latest-more-3-000-migrants-cross-austria-080408422

[3] https://www.border.gov.au/about/operation-sovereign-borders/counter-people-smuggling-communication

[4] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-12/burnside-paying-off-the-people-smugglers/6541888

[5] http://www.border.gov.au/OperationSovereignBorders/Documents/fact-sheet-English.pdf

Bare Life and Immigration Detention

The following essay is not my work.  It is the work of my daughter, Sophie Cusworth.  At 20 years of age, her writing ability far exceeds my own, and her wisdom, intelligence and understanding far exceed what is reflected in current Australian politics.   She, and the collective raised voice of young people like her, gives me hope for the future.

immigration detention

Photo from http://www.abc.net.au

The “fundamental categorical pair” of modern governmentality and Western politics is, as Agamben suggests, not that of friend and enemy, but that of exclusion and inclusion, or bare life and politically valued life.[1]  Reworking the Aristotelian distinction between ‘zoe’, or biological existence, and bios, “the political life of speech and action”[2], Agamben conceptualises ‘bare life’ in referencing the ‘homo sacer’ of Roman Law: the banned – the figure who can be killed and is yet not worthy of sacrifice.  However, ‘bare life’ is not synonymous with mere biological existence, but rather is life stripped of its political significance. Thus, ‘bare life’ is the animalistic nature of humans – “a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast”.  As Agamben suggests, bare life always exists within the political, dually: it is included in the political by way of its exclusion, and in the form of “unlimited exposure to violation which does not count as a crime” [3]. The distinction between bare life and life which is recognised as valuable is one which is made by the state, and therefore stems from the concept of sovereignty, in which the governing body has supreme power. In this essay I will explore Agamben’s theory of ‘bare life’, in relation to the current Australian governmental approach to Immigration Detention, arguing that within such a context, the concept of human rights for ‘bare life’ loses meaning. In doing so, I will consider the effects of the perception of threat, and the state of exception as both an ideological and a physical structure.

The right to seek asylum from persecution, rights violation and serious harm is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and multiple international Conventions to which Australia is signatory. In adhering to these international obligations, the government of Australia is required to “recognise, protect and promote the individual rights of those seeking asylum” including, according to the Law Council of Australia’s Asylum Seeker Policies[4], the rights to education, welfare, legal advice and representation, employment, reunion with family and the right “not to be arbitrarily detained”. Similarly, Australia is obligated to ensure “that asylum seekers who enter Australia are not penalised for doing so without a valid visa, or for their mode of arrival”, provided that they are able to present themselves to relevant authorities without delay, and in doing so, present worthy reason for their arrival. At the heart of these international obligations stands the principle of non-refoulement, by which States are prohibited from “expelling or returning a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Thus, it is evident that the ideals supposedly upheld by Australian law do not align with currently enforced policies and the conditions of Immigration Detention, demonstrating the flawed nature of Liberalism in practice. The Liberal theory of the social contract, or code of conduct is designed to protect members of a society from harm, extending acceptance and tolerance of individual expression and diversity.[5] However, this toleration, and the consequential protection, is only afforded to those whose behaviour does not conflict with the dominant ethos of the society.  If society can deem seeking asylum, in particular via boat, as ‘wrong’, asylum seekers will not be offered the protection of the social contract, and therefore cannot appeal to the rights afforded to those existing within the contract.

Under modern governmentality, asylum seekers and refugees are the symbolic figures of ‘fearism’: “the systematic (often unconscious) production and perpetration of fear on others”.[6] Herein, fear does not exist merely as an emotion, but as a politicised technology[7] from individuals and directed towards others, becoming a “dominant relational mode that aligns bodies to a particular sense of belonging”. Thus, fear produces both fearful subjects and fearsome others, further entrenching boundaries of “us” and “them”. This fear is successful in allowing some bodies to “inhabit and move in public space” and by restricting this movement of other bodies to enclosed spaces.  The role of public and governmental discourse and political and media propaganda is pivotal in this process. When the ‘Other’ is deemed a threat to ‘our’ own sense of well-being, ‘we’ begin to “demand ‘their’ exclusion from the sphere of human values, civil rights and moral obligations”.[8]  The use of descriptors such as “illegals”, “detainees”, and “scum”[9] are an act of symbolic violence, or the violence of language[10], assisting in the fear-mongering against asylum seekers in Australia. So too is unwarranted conflation of reports on asylum seeker claims and on threats to national security and terrorism. As a consequence, these ‘threats’ to national belonging and existence become the enemy, excluded from belonging, and are restricted to an enclosed space: the Immigration Detention camp, the very “materialisation of the state of exception”[11] in which the rule of law is dismissed for what is considered the greater good. This state of exception exists as a result of perceived threat to the sovereignty of the state, and can be considered an apparently ‘innocuous’ space wherein normal order is suspended, and in which “whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense” of those acting as sovereign.[12]

The detention camp as a physical and permanent fixture in time and space, as opposed to the declaration of a state of emergency, intensifies the bare life’s vulnerability to potential violation and violence[13].  The physical camp (in this case, the Immigration Detention facility), is fixed in close proximity to the “core area of power”, whilst simultaneously inside its territory but outside its law. Prior to the existence of the camp as a construct, an outlawed person would be “driven into exile”.  However, in utilising a physical space for the homo sacer, they are suspended in a position of exception and are thus “constantly at risk of arbitrary power” at the hands of the sovereign guard. Therefore, Agamben argues, the camp is the “sign of the system’s inability to function without being transformed into a lethal machine”[14] The “system” of modern governmentality, and sovereignty as its product, establishes these circumstances under which human rights may be considered meaningless.

Agamben’s theory is embodied in the treatment of the asylum seeker ‘crisis’ demonstrated by ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and its forerunner, former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. In addition to the potential for the role to be extended to include counter-terrorism responsibilities, thus again coupling claims for asylum with terrorist threat, Morrison denied responsibility for the safety of four unaccompanied minors living in Nauru. After the minors were subjected to physical and verbal violence, and two of them hospitalised, Morrison stated that the incident was “wholly a matter for Nauru”.[15]  In literally marginalising those seeking asylum from the Australian community, a physical state of exception is created, despite the claims of international law and the memorandum of understanding between Nauru and Australia. The Law Council of Australia states that when arrangements for claim processing and resettlement are made between Australia and other States, “Australia also remains responsible for ensuring that Rule of Law principles and human rights obligations are adhered to under any such arrangements”.[16]  However, by arriving in Australia by boat and without a visa, asylum seekers defy the social code of conduct by opposing the dominant ethos of Australian society, despite adhering to international law. This simultaneously produces and allows for the perpetuation of both the state of exception and of objective violence. The theory of objective violence offers two categories: systemic violence, or “the catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems” and the aforementioned symbolic violence, “violence embodied in language and its forms”[17], both evidently working in the state’s governance of asylum seekers and refugees, and immigration’s perceived threat to state sovereignty. Thus, asylum seekers are not merely denied basic rights in detention, but they exist outside of the parameters within which others may appeal to human rights and political value.

Symbolic and systemic violence, appeals to sovereignty, and the state of exception, both figurative and physical, are mechanisms of the contemporary governmentality under which rights violations are enabled. Evidently, in allowing for and working towards the production of fear and perceived threat, a state of exception to normative legal and ethical procedures can be created, in order to protect the sovereignty of the state. In the maintenance of this system, and the detachment from law, lives are alienated, dehumanised and stripped of political value – and it is by this process that these ‘bare lives’ may become a constant subject to violation. Despite pre-existing laws and codes of conduct to protect and uphold the rights of those detained in Immigration Detention services, the camp working as a state of exception enables the suspension of these legal obligations, and therefore renders human rights meaningless for those detained.

[1] Agamben, G and Heller-Roazen, D 1998, Homo Sacer, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA.

[2] Ziarek, E. P 2008. ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 89-105.

[3] Ziarek, E. P 2008. ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 89-105.

[4] Law Council of Australia 2014. Asylum Seeker Policy. Available from: http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/images/LCA-PDF/a-z-docs/AsylumSeeker_Policy_web.pdf [Accessed 08 November 2014].

[5] Mill, J S 1924. On Liberty, Oxford U.P, Place of Publication Not Identified.

[6] Zembylas, M, 2010. ‘Agamben’s Theory of Biopower and Immigrants/Refugees/Asylum Seekers’. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 26/2, 31-45.

[7] Ahmed, S. 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

[8] Zembylas, M, 2010. ‘Agamben’s Theory of Biopower and Immigrants/Refugees/Asylum   Seekers’. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 26/2, 31-45.

[9] Giles, A 2009. Asylum seekers ‘scum’: Australian NT politician Adam Giles. [Online Video]. 16 October. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7HyQWM2X6U. [Accessed: 09 November 2014].

[10] Žižek, S 2008. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Picador, NY.

[11] Agamben, G and Heller-Roazen, D 1998, Homo Sacer, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA.

[12] Jenkins, F 2004. ‘Bare Life: Asylum-Seekers, Australian Politics and Agamben’s Critique of Violence’ 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 18

[13] Robinson, A, 2011. ‘In Theory Giorgio Agamben: the state and the concentration camp’. Cease Fire Magazine, 07 January.

[14] Agamben, G and Heller-Roazen, D 1998, Homo Sacer, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA.

[15] Whyte, S, 2014. ‘Scott Morrison washes his hands of children attacked on Nauru’. Sydney Morning Herald, October 28.

[16] Law Council of Australia 2014. Asylum Seeker Policy. Available from: http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/images/LCA-PDF/a-z-docs/AsylumSeeker_Policy_web.pdf [Accessed 08 November 2014].

[17] Ziarek, E. P 2008. ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 89-105.

Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.

Merry Christmas pic

Dear Mr Morrison,

As promised in February, in the tradition of William Wilberforce, I have continued to write to you regularly even though I rarely receive a reply.   I also write consistently to my local Member of Parliament.  She always ends her responses with, “Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have further queries regarding this or any other issue.”.  However, she has now requested that I focus solely on writing to you directly.  She says that you are best placed to address my concerns.  Therefore, although I suspect that you will not reciprocate, I have decided to write you this Christmas greeting.

Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.

I wonder how you will send your Christmas greetings this year.  Will you choose cards emblazoned with words such as ‘peace’, ‘hope’ and ‘joy’?  I wonder how you will reconcile those words with the turmoil, hopelessness and despair inflicted on lives by the policies and legislation you have put in place.  Will you write a Christmas letter this year?  Perhaps it will be full of the news and happenings of your family life.  Perhaps it will contain photos of your wife and your two children, and detailed explanations of their activities and their achievements.  For those whose lives you have suspended in unending separation and statelessness with your Temporary Protection Visas, the exchange of letters will be one of the few experiences of family.  Their letters will be written with longing and sadness, instead of with celebration and pride.  Instead of outlining happy events, those letters are more likely to be filled with tales of the terror of ongoing persecution at one end, and of loneliness and desperation at the other.

Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.  I hope your Christmas greetings are written with sincerity.

Will you wander the shopping centres this Christmas, enjoying the cheerful decorations and selecting gifts for those you love?  I read recently that a man on Manus Island only had the set of clothes he was wearing, and that he walked barefoot because he had no shoes.  His frequent requests for these basic items were refused.  Perhaps you could add some shoes and a shirt or two to your Christmas shopping list.  I also read that babies on Christmas Island have no safe or clean spaces to play or to learn to crawl.  Perhaps you could gift-wrap some floor rugs, playpens and toys and send them by express post.

Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.  I hope your Christmas gifts are chosen with love.

Given the proclamation of Christian faith in your maiden Parliament speech, I expect that you will probably attend a Christmas service.  I wonder which carols will be performed, and if you will lift your voice to join with others singing the words.  Will you sing about a tender, mild infant sleeping in heavenly peace?  I wonder how that will resonate with you, given that you have just classified babies, born to asylum seekers, as ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ and ‘transitory persons’ and are in the process of rounding them up to send them to Nauru.*  I can’t imagine there will be much sleeping in heavenly peace in Nauru amid reported instances of child abuse and the threat of Malaria.

I wonder which Scriptures will be read in church.  Perhaps you will hear the passage from Isaiah 61; the prophecy that the Messiah would be sent to the earth to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to bring freedom from darkness for the captives.  There are few more broken-hearted people than those who were forced to flee their homes, their loved ones and everything they hold dear, only to be punished by the use of arbitrary, indefinite detention.  There is little worse news than being told that new laws mean that you have no chance of ever being given the opportunity to start your life afresh in peace and safety, and that you could be sent back to torture or execution at any time.  Perhaps you will hear the passage from Matthew 2; the part where Mary and Joseph were forced to flee to Egypt to save Jesus from being slaughtered in Herod’s Bethlehem infanticide.  I pray that this will give you a greater understanding of why Hazara mothers put their unaccompanied minors in the hands of people smugglers to whisk them away from the reach of the Taliban.

Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.  I hope the ancient Scriptures speak directly to your heart.

I wonder how you will celebrate Christmas Day.  Will your family meal be a traditional Christmas feast?  Or is a relaxed Australian barbeque more your style? Either way, there is bound to be an abundance of delicious food and festive drinks.  I wonder if the men in detention on Manus Island will be limited to 500mls of drinking water for the day as Amnesty International found when they visited one of the compounds.  I wonder if the same mouldy yoghurt will be offered to the children in detention on Nauru.

Will your table include candles to symbolise the light and hope that Jesus brought to the world that very first Christmas?  People’s hope of freedom and safety has been destroyed by your new legislation; legislation which allows you to return people to persecution in their homelands regardless of the protection obligations that are due to them under international law.  Australia’s humanitarian light has also been extinguished by your new legislation; legislation which allows Navy and Customs vessels to disregard maritime safety laws and to tow boats to any location at sea and leave them there, unsafe and ill equipped.

Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.  May your Christmas table be set with goodwill.

I don’t much feel like celebrating Christmas this year.  I carry a heavy sense of shame for what Australia has become.  My heart aches for my brothers and sisters in humanity, and for people who have become my very dear friends.  But I will choose to celebrate regardless. Jesus, whose birth we reflect on at Christmas, taught us to extend peace, hope, joy, love and light to our fellow humans.  While your new legislation gives you an enormous amount of power and control, it can never stop individual, decent people from doing that.

So, Merry Christmas, Mr Morrison.

*News released on December 18 advises that Senator Ricky Muir and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers have been able to prevent babies who were born in Australia before 4/12/14 from being sent to Nauru.  Babies born after that date, however, will still be transferred to Nauru with their families as per the new legislation.

The Bill of Horror

Convention mapAs well as the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas, which leave refugees in constant statelessness and fear of being returned to persecution, the Australian Minister for Immigration is proposing changes to the Migration Act which are utterly alarming.  The ‘Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014’ removes references to the UN Refugee Convention to allow Australia’s domestic law to ignore Australia’s obligations under international law. It also removes the ability of the High Court to challenge refugee and asylum seeker policy and operations.

The bill exempts vessels involved in Operation Sovereign Borders from the appropriate maritime laws. There will be nothing to stop fuel, food, water and safety devices from being removed from intercepted boats. The Government will have the power to send boats or individuals anywhere it chooses.  The bill removes the need for Australia to have a Memorandum of Understanding in place, or for the country to be a signatory to the Refugee Convention.  The bill will allow boats to be towed outside of Australian waters and left there without regard for the safety of passengers.

The bill proposes a fast track assessment process which removes access to the Refugee Review Tribunal. Fast turnaround processing was ruled illegal in the United Kingdom earlier this year due to an “unacceptable risk of unfairness”.  The bill seeks to change the definition of ‘refugee’ to allow the government to reject a refugee status application if it decides that there is a ‘safe area’ in the country of origin, or that the nation’s police force is ‘reasonably effective’.  This is nothing short of playing with people’s lives.  It will allow the Australian government to send back asylum seekers, regardless of whether they face a real chance of torture or execution on return.  What does Scott Morrison think happens to Hazara people when they are returned to Afghanistan or to Tamil people who are returned to Sri Lanka?  Does he really believe that members of the Taliban or Rajapaksa’s regime are unable to travel to target their victims?  If he had converted to Christianity in Iran, or spoken against the Iranian Government,  would he really trust the Iranian police force to protect him?

Children born in Australia, to asylum seekers who arrived by boat, will be classified as “transitory persons”, creating a new generation of stateless people, and giving them no access to permanent residency or citizenship.  Does Scott Morrison really believe that these babies pose a serious threat to Australia as we know it?  Or is his distain, even hatred, for asylum seekers so great that detaining innocent children indefinitely doesn’t satisfy his lust for vengeance;  does he feel the need to ensure that his punishments will continue for each of their lifetimes?

The ‘Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014’ gives the Australian Government, under domestic law, the power to ignore international law and to engage in state-sanctioned human rights abuses. It will allow Australia to be complicit, even collaborative, in the persecution, torture and execution of innocent people. The Minister for Immigration will have absolute power, and his actions under Operation Sovereign Borders will not be brought to account by Australia’s justice system.  He will become untouchable. This sets a very dangerous precedent for Australian politics and law.

I see so many people ‘liking’ and sharing messages about Australia’s terrible mistreatment of asylum seekers, on social media.  I read the comments they write, pouring out their outrage and their grief.  Yet, when it comes to asking them to take the time to write to politicians to urge them to oppose this horrific bill, the passion and the anger appear to evaporate.  I for one, need to know that I have done everything in my power, and then some, to persuade the Senators to vote against this bill.  Will you join me in writing to them?  You don’t need to produce a perfectly crafted, eloquent letter; you just need to write!  A few lines will do.  If you are an Australian citizen, tell them that you cannot support politicians who sanction human rights abuses.  If you are an expat, tell them how horrified you are at what Australia has become while you have been away. Most of all, tell them to oppose this bill.

“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” ― Thomas Jefferson

Here are the addresses you will need:

Here are the contact details for the cross bench Senators who will ultimately pass or reject the bill:

Senator Bob Day AO
Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices
100 King William Street
Adelaide SA 5000
senator.day@aph.gov.au

Senator Jacqui Lambie
29 Wilson Street
Burnie TAS 7320
senator.lambie@aph.gov.au

Senator Glenn Lazarus
PO Box 228
Brisbane QLD 4001
senator.lazarus@aph.gov.au

Senator David Leyonhjelm
PO Box 636
Drummoyne NSW 1470
senator.leyonhjelm@aph.gov.au

Senator John Madigan
17 Albert St
Ballarat Vic 3350
senator.madigan@aph.gov.au

Senator Ricky Muir
Level 4, Treasury Place
Melbourne VIC 3002
senator.muir@aph.gov.au

Senator Dio Wang
PO Box 6120
East Perth WA 6892
senator.wang@aph.gov.au

Senator Nick Xenophon
Level 2
31 Ebenezer Place
Adelaide SA 5000
senator.xenophon@aph.gov.au

Write to Clive Palmer too, as he will be instructing his PUP Senators:
Mr Clive Palmer MP
Palmer United Party
PO Box 1978
Sunshine Plaza QLD 4558

You’ll find the other Senators for your state here. You can search by state by using the map. Then click on their names for contact details.
http://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Senators

Join the Combined Refugee Action Group’s Letter Blitz group on Facebook to access information and letter writing tips.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/805601422837175/

* Information on the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment Bill was sourced in analyses undertaken by ChilOut Revived;   Refugee Council of Australia;  Human Rights Law Centre;  and Professor Mary Crock, Sydney University

Living Deliberately

This piece is not aligned with my usual topics of discussion. However, it is a piece I have felt equally strongly about writing.

I first met Roslyn when we were being herded, like livestock, across an asphalt yard into orderly lines based on the letter at the beginning of our surnames. Mine was ‘R’ and Roslyn’s was ‘S’.  We both stood shivering in our summer dresses that were at least three sizes too big. We were 12 years old, and this was our first day of high school.

We bonded over our introversion (although Roslyn’s social skills were significantly more well developed than mine); our school yard bullying experiences (we were too short, too smart, too quiet, too well behaved, too timid,…too…nice); our strict upbringings; and our fathers’ mental health conditions.  We were there for each other’s most embarrassing moments, and we lamented the way the boys we liked didn’t seem to know that we existed….or worse still; they did, but chose to ignore us.  We philosophised, we pondered, we spiritualised and we laughed until we cried.  We shared our dreams, our insecurities, our fears and our deepest secrets, peppered with significant amounts of black humour.

Even after spending all day together at school, we could easily talk for hours on the phone in the evening. The horrors of high school were made bearable by having a friend like Ros. She kept my sanity intact and gave me the strength to show up each day.  Having a friend who loved me unconditionally, regardless of my self-righteousness and my bad fashion sense, also gave me the courage to step out into the wider world.

Roslyn introduced me to Orange Pekoe tea, Green Ginger wine and Bacardi and Coke (….the last-mentioned not quite as successfully and gracefully as the aforementioned beverages….). She also introduced me to the world of Lops, Angoras and Harlequins. Her love of pet rabbits continued into her adult years, and it has never surprised me to see a furry critter bounding around her living room on any given occasion.

After high school there were courses to study, countries to travel, jobs to secure, relationships to have, people to marry, babies to deliver, cities to relocate to, families to raise and careers to develop; each done in our own individual order. While we haven’t always maintained regular contact over the years, my friendship with Ros has always been one of those friendships where we just ‘pick up where we left off’ like we have never been apart. There is never any judgement or disappointment in one another for the times of lack of contact; we just enjoy each other’s company when we have it and share our news, our plans, our struggles and our opinions.  We philosophise, we ponder, we spiritualise and we laugh until we cry.

Roslyn is an intelligent, kind, caring, encouraging, positive, funny, strong woman who has successfully balanced her professional career with being a wonderful mother and maintaining a happy marriage.  She’s a reminder of what I have achieved in my own life, too.  When I look at Ros, I see how far we both have come from the nervous, insecure twelve-year-olds we once were, shivering in our at-least-three-sizes-too-big summer uniforms.  And I’m proud of us.

Nothing could have prepared me to read, at the end of the newsy response I got to an email I sent her, that she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I called her immediately.

She calmly stated, “Things could be worse. People die in accidents without warning.  I have a reminder that my days are finite and I’ve been given the chance to live each day deliberately.”

Such grace, such optimism and such strength. I have always been proud of my beautiful friend, but I’ve never been more proud of her than I was at that moment.

That was almost a year ago.  I’m not sure how long I will have Roslyn for, but it is lovely to be included in her ‘living deliberately’ adventures. We’ve enjoyed lunches and pots of tea, we have philosophised, we have pondered, we have spiritualised and we have laughed until we cried.  She even surprised me by driving an hour and a half to turn up, unannounced, to hear a speech I was giving to a public forum recently.

We have agreed that she needs to stick around long enough for us to celebrate our 50th birthdays together. I’m not sure if that will be possible, and so I wanted to follow her example of living deliberately and use this time and space to tell her how very precious she is, and how very dearly I love her.

Roslyn (2)

The Pacific Solution is No Solution

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a public forum, in Geelong Victoria, on Labor Party refugee policy and humane alternatives for refugees and asylum seekers.  The other speakers were Richard Marles (Shadow Immigration and Border Protection Minister),  Christine Couzens (Labor Candidate for Geelong, Labor for Refugees) and Rod Mackenzie (Former President Legislative Council Victoria).

I have had some requests for my speech notes, so I thought I would publish them here.

Deterrence picIn 1939 the St. Louis steamed out of Hamburg, with 937 Jews on board, desperately attempting to flee from Nazi persecution.  The ship was bound for Cuba.  Just days earlier, Cuba had passed a decree which called for all arrivals to have a valid visa.   No-one on board had a chance to obtain one.

The ship was not permitted to dock in Havana and was ordered to leave peacefully or else be forced out by the Cuban navy.  The St. Louis headed for Florida, but the Immigration Office in Miami announced that under no circumstances would the passengers be allowed to set foot on US soil.  Canada, and the various South American countries which were approached, would not offer protection either.   Eventually, the only option was to turn back to Europe. Some of the passengers took their own lives, in preference to being faced with return to Germany.   Negotiations saw Britain make some places available but the bulk of the passengers were taken to Belgium, France and the Netherlands.  When those countries were invaded by the Nazis, most were sent to the extermination camps.

The very reason the UN Refugee Convention was written, was to prevent situations like the St. Louis from ever reoccurring.   The world said, “Never again must we prevent people from seeking safety from persecution.”  And Australia agreed, and signed that Convention.

The Convention states that if someone has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion, then they can leave the country of persecution, and enter another country in order to seek asylum. Signatory countries agree not to impose penalties on those who arrive without passports or visas.

Today, according to the latest UNHCR statistics, there are more than 51 million refugees and displaced people in the world.  This number is the highest it has been since the end of World War II.  86% of refugees were hosted in developing countries in 2013.  Ethiopia hosted over 400,000 refugees, Kenya hosted over 500,000 and Jordan hosted over 600,000.  Meanwhile, Australia spent billions of dollars deterring and preventing people from seeking asylum here, locking many up indefinitely in terrible conditions, conditions condemned by the UN and Amnesty International, because they arrived without visas.  And our politicians continue to conspire to find new and creative ways to change our Migration Act so that it becomes less and less consistent with our obligations under the Refugee Convention.

The Refugee Convention does not prescribe a particular method of arrival for asylum seekers.  The only right method is to leave, to enter and to ask.  While getting in a fishing boat and travelling across the Indian Ocean or the Timor Sea is a dangerous method of seeking asylum, it is not a ‘wrong method’ according to the Refugee Convention.

The Labor Party National Platform says this: “Labor is a party of human rights. Labor believes in a just and tolerant society that fully protects the rights and freedoms of all people in Australia.  Labor supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties to which we are a signatory.”

I want to take a moment to commend the Labor Party for continuing to oppose Temporary Protection Visas for refugees.   As those who knew Leo Seemanpillia (a Tamil asylum seeker living in Geelong who self-immolated in moments of despair) will attest, ongoing short-term visas keep people suspended in statelessness and uncertainty, ever fearful of being returned.  People remain indefinitely separated from their closest family members who may also be facing unspeakable terror in their homelands.  Unity of the Family is a guiding principle of the Refugee Convention.   Temporary Protection is a form of psychological torture.  The strong Labor stance against Temporary Protection is to be applauded.

However, I know that I speak for many when I say that we were bitterly disappointed when the Labor Caucus voted to persist with its commitment to offshore detention.

Richard Marles said in a recent ABC radio interview that the PNG Solution is a way of “taking Australia off the table” for asylum seekers arriving by boat.   It is not possible to “take Australia off the table” without flying in the face of our obligations under international law.

Cries from Labor, that the Abbott Government is not running offshore detention centres humanely and to standard, ring hollow when it was the Labor Party which reopened them for the purpose of deterring people from seeking asylum.  Let’s be clear. The only way for detention centres to operate as a deterrent, is if the conditions in them are more horrific than the horrors people are fleeing.  While the Abbott Government appears to be doing its very best to achieve that, the idea of deterrence, by offshore detention, was actually reintroduced by the Labor Party.

Sydney Morning Herald writer, Waleed Aly, put it well when he wrote this: “Occasionally you have to pause to take stock of just how bizarre Australia’s asylum seeker debate has become. In summary, it works like this: the Coalition implements a policy that is mostly Labor’s while pretending it is doing something so uniquely tough that no one else could possibly be so courageous. Labor, meanwhile, objects because that’s what oppositions do, while trying delicately to avoid criticising the very thing it has unleashed.”

I quote from Richard Marles’ National Press Club address: “There is no doubt that the values that drive modern Labor are compassion, fairness and generosity.  A fundamental maxim that we, as a country, should not harm people.”

There is no compassion, fairness or generosity in making conditions dreadful enough to deter people from seeking asylum by boat.  People ARE being harmed in our offshore detention centres.

Reza Barati was beaten to death by those paid to protect him, on Manus Island.  Another man had his throat slit, another received serious head injuries, and yet another lost his eye. Such is the breakdown in the mental health of detainees, that self-harm, even among children, is prevalent in offshore detention.  Detention centre staff must carry Hoffmann Knives at all times, so that they can quickly respond to the frequent attempted hangings. Reports by doctors and health professionals have identified that medical care is totally inadequate. The catch cry of ‘saving lives at sea’ rings hollow when people’s lives are at risk within the detention centres Australia pays for.  It rings hollow when safe refuge for those fleeing torture and execution is “taken off the table”.

Both Liberal and Labor parties are in the business of demonising People Smugglers.   Sir Nicholas Winton, Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara and Raoul Wallenberg were all people smugglers.  In various ways they broke rules, forged documents, took money and bribed officials.  Yet they were hailed as heroes.  The St. Louis’ captain, Gustav Schroder, had a street named after him.  He was awarded an ‘Order of Merit’ and honoured with the title of “Righteous among the Nations”.

Sometimes enlisting the assistance of a people smuggler is the only option for survival.  A dear friend of mine suffered beatings and torture in his homeland because of his sexuality.  His passport was confiscated and he was given an order to attend what he calls ‘the execution court’.   He is only alive today, because his family engaged a people smuggler to whisk him away to safety.

I can’t help but wonder what Australia’s refugee policies would be if our nation wasn’t conveniently surrounded by the water we use as an excuse to avoid our obligations under international law.

Australia obviously can’t take all 51 million of the world’s refugees.  We can, however, use the $3 billion per year we are currently spending on offshore detention, a whole lot more wisely:

  • We could increase our annual refugee intake. It is currently 13,750 per year. It would not be unreasonable for Australia to resettle 30,000 people a year given our position as Number 2 on the World Human Development Index and Number 10 globally for GDP per capita. Our migration intake from other avenues could be adjusted accordingly.
  • We could establish a real and timely process, in collaboration with the UNHCR, for resettling refugees from the transit countries in our region, greatly reducing the need for people to make the dangerous journey in smugglers’ boats in the first place. The entire UNHCR processing budget is $167 million. Imagine what could be achieved with an extra billion dollars or so in our region.
  • Treat those who have already attempted to arrive here, with humanity and decency onshore and according to our obligations under international law. Instead of spending over $400,000 per year per asylum seeker on inhumane offshore detention, we could spend less than $30,000 a year allowing each person to live in the community while their claims for asylum were processed. (Federal Audit Report).  If work rights were awarded, the figure would be further reduced and money would be put back into the Australian economy.   Australian jobs would be created in terms of caseworkers and administration staff.
  • This would be consistent with the Labor Party National Platform which says : “Australia can be a nation in which everybody has opportunity to shape their own lives, develop their potential and enjoy the rewards of hard work. Labor believes that background and privilege should not determine success in life.”
  • If we were serious about saving lives at sea, we would, like Italy, invest in Navy and Coastguard resources to provide safe passage for anyone who does arrive on an asylum-seeking boat, instead of spending obscene amounts of money on single-use, orange, enclosed life boats and secret turn back operations which actually increase the chance of drowning.

Some final words from Julian Burnside QC:

“A just society does not ignore the needs of the powerless, voiceless minority. A just society does not turn its back on damaged human beings who ask for help…. Our treatment of refugees, here and in Nauru and Manus Island, is a scandal that will haunt us for decades.  The human misery we have inflicted on thousands who have arrived looking for help is incalculable.  Our complete abdication of moral responsibility – leave aside our legal responsibility under international conventions – is reprehensible beyond words.”   (Watching Brief, 2007)

 

It’s Refugee Week.

It’s Refugee Week.

Despite my very happy life and the reasons I have each day to be incredibly joyful, there is a prevailing sadness in my soul which frequently bubbles to the surface, often without warning.

While I go about my happy life, there are innocent people and their beautiful children imprisoned indefinitely in appalling conditions, designed to punish them and to break their spirits.  My taxes are paying for it.

photo 4Yesterday, in Refugee Week, the Australian Labor Party voted to continue its support for offshore detention.   This is despite recent violence inflicted upon asylum seekers in the Manus Island detention centre in which one man was beaten to death, one had his throat slit, one had his eye gouged out and around 70 others sustained injuries.  This is despite reports of physical and sexual abuse of children by staff in the detention centre on Nauru.  This is despite inspection reports by Amnesty International and the UN which condemn the conditions in the centres as appalling and in breach of international human rights conventions.   This is despite the Labor Party declaring the following as one of its ‘Enduring Values’ in its National Platform:

“Labor is a party of human rights. Labor believes in a just and tolerant society that fully protects the rights and freedoms of all people in Australia.  Labor supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties to which we are a signatory.”

It’s Refugee Week.

Today, in Refugee Week, the Australian High Court upheld the Federal Government’s constitutional right to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.   Laws in Nazi Germany also ensured that Hitler had a legal right to send people to concentration camps.  Courts only decide what the law says; they don’t enforce what is morally right.

It’s Refugee Week.

While I celebrate my daily joys, there are wonderful people held captive in our communities by statelessness, family separation, poverty and uncertainty.   Their lives are made so meaningless that they consider taking desperate measures, rather than persevering with lives in limbo here.

When a young friend spoke last week of contemplating voluntarily returning to face his persecutors, he smiled wistfully as he said he could take his chances in order to try to grow old with his brothers.  But his smile faded and he hung his head as he conceded, with pain in his voice, that he would not be safe on return.

Today in my home town, in Refugee Week, a Tamil man I’ve met, and whose friends describe as ‘extraordinarily honourable’, was buried.  In a moment of great despair, brought about by living in constant uncertainty and fear of being returned to Sri Lanka, he decided that setting himself on fire would bring an end to his suffering. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection refused to allow his family a visa to attend his funeral.

It’s Refugee Week, and it  breaks my heart that suicide or potential execution appear as better options than persevering with the wait for refugee status to be determined.

It’s Refugee Week, and these words, published in 2007, are shamefully as true today as they were the day they were written:

“A just society does not ignore the needs of the powerless, voiceless minority.  A just society does not turn its back on damaged human beings who ask for help.  A just society does not imprison innocent people…Our treatment of refugees, here and in Nauru and Manus Island, is a scandal that will haunt us for decades.  The human misery we have inflicted on thousands who have arrived looking for help is incalculable.  Our complete abdication of moral responsibility – leave aside our legal responsibility under international conventions – is reprehensible beyond words.”  (Julian Burnside, Watching Brief)

It’s Refugee Week.

 

 

Voyage of the Damned

On May 13, 1939 the St. Louis steamed out of the port of Hamburg, Germany, with 937 Jews on board who were desperately attempting to flee from Nazi rule.  26,000 Jews had already been arrested and deported to concentration camps.  The ship was bound for Cuba, and its voyage became known as the Voyage of the Damned. stlouis- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum photo

Landing permits were required for entry into Cuba, and in early 1939 a decree (Decree 55) was passed which drew a distinction between the landing of refugees and tourists. The decree stated that all refugees needed visas and were required to pay a bond.  The decree also stated that tourists did not need visas, only landing permits, but did not define the difference between a refugee and a tourist.  The Cuban Director of Immigration at the time, Manuel Benitez, decided that he would take advantage of this loophole to make money.  He sold tourist landing permits which would allow refugees to land in Cuba. The permits were made to look like visas and were individually signed by Benitez.  Some people bought large groups of the permits, and then resold them to desperate refugees for a much higher price.  Benitez made a small fortune from the profits of the permits and commission from a cruise line.

The President of Cuba, Frederico Laredo Bru, moved to close the loophole in Decree 55.  Cuba’s economy had begun to stagnate and many blamed the incoming refugees for taking jobs that otherwise would have been held by Cubans.  On May 5, Decree 937 was passed which called for all arrivals in Cuba to have a valid visa.   Almost every passenger on the St. Louis had purchased an overpriced landing permit which, by the time of sailing, had already been nullified by Decree 937.

The day before the ship was to arrive in Havana, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, received a telegram advising that the St. Louis would not be allowed to dock.  The St. Louis was anchored in the harbour for days while negotiations took place, and passengers were not permitted to disembark.  Some claim that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, sent agents to Havana to stir up anti-Semitism.  Jews were portrayed as criminals and the Jewish refugees entering Cuba via the St. Louis were seen as a threat.  The ship was ordered to leave peacefully or else be forced out by the Cuban navy.  The St. Louis headed for the coast of Florida, but the US Immigration Office in Miami announced that under no circumstances would the passengers be allowed to enter the US.    The United States had firm immigration quotas for its annual German-Austrian intake and would not exceed them.  Canada and the various South American countries that were approached would not offer protection either.

Eventually, Captain Schroeder had no options left and on June 7, he informed the passengers that they were returning to Europe. Some of the passengers took their own lives, rather than face being returned to Germany.   Negotiations between USA and Britain saw places made available in Britain for some passengers.  The rest were taken to Belgium, France and the Netherlands and had to face their persecutors when Europe was invaded by the Nazis.  Many were eventually sent to the Nazi death camps.

The story of the St. Louis reads almost exactly like a people smuggling venture to Australia, but rather than the intended destination being Christmas Island, the ship was bound for Cuba, for eventual entry of passengers into USA.   In many cases, extended families pooled money to buy a passage for one family member in the hope that others could also be brought to freedom.

Inflated prices were paid for what people thought were genuine visas, as often happens in the travel agent offices of countries such as Lebanon.  Travel arrangements were made and people were in transit before the new decree was announced.   They would not have heard the news of the rule changes before they boarded the ship, just as many of those heading to Christmas Island would not have heard, before they left, the announcement of Australia’s refusal to resettle any asylum seeker who arrives by boat.

With claims of the passengers being job stealers and criminals, the St. Louis was not allowed to dock in Cuba, and was turned away.  Amid concerns about ‘illegals’, economic migrants and welfare dependants, the Australian government prevents boats from entering our waters.   The US Immigration Office announced that under no circumstances would the passengers of the St. Louis be allowed to enter the US.  The Australian Immigration and Border Protection Office has announced that anyone seeking to enter Australia by boat, without a visa, will never make Australia home.

While some passengers of the St. Louis were resettled in Britain, many were sent back to Europe and became victims of extermination.  Some took their own lives in preference to facing the horrors ahead.  It doesn’t appear to bother the Australian government what happens to those who are prevented from reaching Australia, or are who returned from our shores.  There is no regard for those who are towed back in their boats or returned in large, orange, expensive lifeboats.   There is no welfare monitoring program for those who are involuntarily flown back to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where there is evidence of genocide.  A Tamil man in Sydney recently decided that setting himself on fire would less horrific than facing his return to Sri Lanka.

The very reason the UN Refugee Convention was written, was to prevent situations like the St. Louis from reoccurring.   The world said, “This must never happen again”, and Australia agreed, and signed that Convention.

“No country, including the United States, did as much as it might have or should have done to save innocent victims of Nazi persecution – Jews, Gypsies, political opponents and others. Restrictive US immigration policies kept hundreds of thousands of refugees from finding safety in the United States, most tragically exemplified by our refusal to allow the St. Louis to dock with its cargo of refugees – many of whom perished when the ship was forced to return to Europe.” (Stuart Eizenstat, US Undersecretary of State, 1998)

HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING? What will history will say of Australia’s immigration policies?  How many voyages of the damned will Australia be responsible for?

(Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Operation Anywhere But Here

DSC_0121I had the privilege of being one of the speakers at a rally for justice for asylum seekers, in Geelong yesterday (No, that is not me in the photo, but a photo I took of another speaker addressing the crowd). Several people asked me to publish my speech, so that they would have access to the information and statistics I mentioned in it.  So here it is……

American journalist, Louis P Lochner edited a collection of ideas and writings from Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, which he entitled The Goebbels Diaries.  A passage in the book says this: “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. What after all are a square and a circle? They are mere words, and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas in disguise.”

Our current government leaders are using misinformation, half-truths and false statements to cement incorrect ideas about asylum seekers into the minds of the Australian public.

Sarah Henderson, Federal Member for Corangamite, wrote to me recently, telling me that Australia runs one of the most generous refugee resettlement programs, per capita  in the world. Ms Henderson is obviously very selective when it comes to researching and reporting on statistics. Her statement is only true when you only count the people resettled here from overseas refugee camps. In 2012, Australia took in just under 6,000 people from the world’s refugee camps. That gave us the rank of second in the world, per capita, for resettling refugees from camps in other nations (table 9). If you look at the figures of people who arrive directly, have their refugee status recognised and are then offered protection, the figures are very different. In 2012, just over 14,000 people who came directly to us to ask for asylum were resettled here. That made us 22nd in the world per capita, and 38th relative to our country’s wealth (table 10). These 14,000 people amounted to less than 1% of the global total for resettlement (table 1). When explained this way, our refugee resettlement program is not quite so generous.

Our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and our Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, keep stating that coming through the world’s refugee camps is the only “right way” to seek asylum. This is simply not true. The UN Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed, says that if your life or freedom is threatened, you can leave your country and travel to another one to ask for asylum. For example, you could walk to Tanzania, you could get a ride on a truck to Jordan, you could fly to America or you could (while it is not recommended for safety reasons) get on a boat and sail to Australia. These are all valid ways of seeking asylum.

I want to make it clear at this point, that if you are here today because you were given resettlement in Australia after being in a refugee camp somewhere else in the world, then we welcome you. We are really glad that you are part of our community and can live here as our fellow Australians in safety and in peace.

Australia has refugee camps here too, but people have to cross water to get to ours, we call them detention centres and people are locked up in them. If you are here today because you have come via one of those camps, you have still come the right way, and we welcome you too. We are just as glad that you are part of our community and that you too can live here as our fellow Australians in peace and safety. In the light of the UN Refugee Convention, when Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison say that you have come the wrong way, it is nothing short of a lie.

Tony Abbott uses words to mould faulty ideas when he tells us that we have a “state of national emergency” which requires a “military response “. He wants the Australian public to believe that we are being overrun by foreign enemies forcing their way through our borders. While Australia received just under 30,000 applications for asylum in 2012, Turkey received over 325,000 (table 6).   Australia received less than 1.5% of the world’s total applications. In the whole scheme of things, that is hardly a national emergency. Tony Abbott needs to be more honest about his ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and call it for what it is: ‘Operation Anywhere But Here’.

Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention says that, while it is usually illegal to enter a country without valid documentation, it is not to be considered illegal, if it is for the purpose of seeking asylum.   Even the Australian Parliament’s website says that. You would think that our Federal politicians would read their own website!  Scott Morrison continues to use the words ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ and ‘entering illegally’ in reference to people who are seeking asylum by boat. Shamefully, this language has been easily adopted by the Australian public, and we are here to today to say that this language has to go.

As a UN Refugee Convention signatory, Australia is prohibited from imposing penalties on people entering without a valid visa or passport, if they are coming from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.   Yet the penalty of offshore detention is being imposed on people seeking asylum via boat. No-one who arrives by plane, or who deliberately overstays their holiday or work visa, is sent to Nauru or Manus Island. These off shore prisons have been set up as punishment just for those arriving by boat. Along with this, asylum seekers living in the community in Australia have been denied permanent protection, subjected to codes of conduct and made the lowest priority for family reunification, only if they have arrived by boat. These are penalties which are being imposed for attempting to enter Australia for asylum without authorisation, even though imposing such penalties is in breach of international law.

Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says, “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.” However, our Immigration Department persists with punitive, indefinite, arbitrary detention for those who have committed no crime. When Combined Refugee Action Group members met with a director from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, we were told that people are not in arbitrary detention, but are merely “waiting for security clearances”, or “waiting for their claims to be processed”. This is doublespeak if ever it has been spoken.  At the time of Reza Barati’s killing on Manus Island earlier this year, the process had not even been started, despite people being detained there in conditions condemned by Amnesty International and the UN, since 2012. Some asylum seekers have been waiting in our other detention centres for over four years without having their cases heard. According to Nauru’s foreign minister, people are likely to be kept in detention there for more than five years.

In its press briefing notes in February, the UN High Commission on Refugees stated:

“We stress the obligation of Australia, PNG and Nauru to ensure that the human rights of asylum seekers are protected in accordance with international standards. The practice of detaining migrants and asylum seekers arriving by boat on a mandatory, prolonged and potentially indefinite basis, without individual assessment, is inherently arbitrary. Moreover, alternatives to immigration detention should always be considered. We encourage Australia, PNG and Nauru to review their Regional Resettlement Arrangements urgently to find principled solutions that are fully consistent with international human rights standards, including the right to seek asylum, the right to freedom from arbitrary detention, and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

It appears that the Australian government has taken a leaf out of the Goebbels Diaries and is calling a square a circle.  Our government is clothing ideas in deceit to justify continuing to break international law.

I want to finish by telling the story of a friend of mine. He is unable to speak here today, because he is on a bridging visa and subject to a Code of Conduct which could see him sent back to detention for ‘disturbing peaceful enjoyment’ if he spoke out at a rally such as this. But he wants his voice to be heard, and so I am here to be his voice.

“Majid” is a young man around my son’s age. One night, government officials entered his apartment by force, and beat him. They confiscated his passport and took him into custody.  He was repeatedly tortured, and each day he was told to prepare to for his execution. What did Majid do to deserve this? Majid is gay, and homosexuality is outlawed.

Majid’s family was able to produce the money to pay a bribe to have him released. His family then did the only thing they could do to get him to safety as quickly as possible. They paid people smugglers to get him out of the region and onto a boat to a country which has signed the UN Refugee Convention, and where people are not executed, as a matter of law, for being gay. If this was my son, I would have done exactly the same thing. And I know that my extended family members would contribute to raise the money needed to send him to safety, no matter how much it cost.

Majid is not allowed to work or study, and now he has no access to government funded legal advice, after a decision made by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection earlier this week. He desperately wants to work and he desperately misses his loving family. He would go home in a heartbeat, if he could do so without being killed. Yet Australia is holding him in limbo as a stateless person, in enforced poverty, not letting him make any contribution to the community nor allowing him to feel that he belongs here. I often receive messages from Majid which indicate that he is feeling very depressed, and I worry about his welfare. The government’s plan seems to be to make life seem so pointless for people like Majid that they decide to return home to face execution, rather than stay in Australia.

People who have stories of persecution and torture like Majid’s are being locked indefinitely in completely inadequate prison facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, by our government. People with stories like this are being sent back by our government in orange lifeboats without their hearing asylum claims. And our government is now planning to palm people with stories like this off to Cambodia, which is shameful.

Australia takes less than 1% of the world’s resettled refugees each year. Considering that Australia is ranked at number two on the World Human Development Index, this is completely disgraceful. Our government needs to stop refusing to accept our responsibilities as a developed nation and it needs to stop refusing to accept our obligations under international law. We are here today to denounce Tony Abbott’s ‘Operation Anywhere But Here’.