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

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 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’.