I 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 home 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.
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 routinely executed because of their ethnicity, their religion, their sexuality or their political involvement. 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’.