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)

 

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 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.  Several friends of mine experienced violence and torture at the hands of their own governments due to to their people group, their religion or their sexuality.  They are only alive today, because their families engaged people smugglers to whisk them 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 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’.

Dear Mr Morrison (an open letter to the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection)

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Dear Mr Morrison,

I have read on several occasions that you identify William Wilberforce as one of your heroes.  Wilberforce is also one of my heroes.  Not least among the reasons for this, is his persistence in letter writing to government officials, to call for the humane treatment of people who were oppressed.  He wrote letters for twenty years before slavery was abolished in England.  I have been writing to you regarding your cruel and inhumane asylum seeker policies and operations for almost five months now.  I hope you are prepared for the next nineteen-and-a-half years of letters you will receive from me, should you remain in office that long.

I have appealed to you on matters of language.

Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention says that, while it is usually illegal to enter a country without a valid visa, it is NOT to be considered as illegal, if it is for the purpose of seeking asylum. Yet, you continue to use the words “illegal maritime arrivals” and “entering illegally” in reference to people who are seeking asylum.

The Coalition’s use of phrases such as ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, ‘border protection’, ‘matter of national emergency’, ‘military response’ and even ‘war’, conjures up the idea in the national psyche that Australia is somehow being invaded by aliens who will destroy life as we know it.  It breeds fear and hatred among average Australians in the same way that the language of Joseph Goebbels spread fear and hatred in Nazi Germany.  However, this does not appear to bother you.

I have appealed to you on matters of international law.

As a UN Refugee Convention signatory, Australia is prohibited from imposing penalties on people entering for asylum if they are coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.   The UNHCR defines ‘coming directly’ as arriving without having been offered protection and security in another country first (UN High Commission on Refugees guidelines on detention of Asylum Seekers).  Yet the penalty of off-shore detention is being imposed on those who arrive by boat in order to seek asylum.  Anyone who arrives by plane, or anyone who overstays their visa, is not sent to Nauru or Manus Island.  Not one person has had their claim for asylum heard since Manus Island re-opened in 2012.  People are not merely waiting in immigration detention for security clearances and ‘processing’; they are being gaoled for having arrived 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 that are being imposed for attempting to enter Australia without authorisation, even though it is unlawful to impose such penalties.

I have appealed to you on matters of human rights.

In the two letters I have received from your office, I have been told that The Government of Australia takes its international human rights obligations seriously and will continue to adhere to those obligations.”.  Yet one letter also stated:

“Those seeking to come on boats will not achieve what they have come for, but will be met by a broad chain of measures, end to end, that are designed to deter, to disrupt, to prevent their entry from Australia and certainly to ensure that they are not settled in Australia.”

These two statements are diametrically opposed.

People seeking protection must not be prevented from entering a UN Convention signatory country.  They must not be returned to a country where their life or freedom is threatened (The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, UNHCR, page 5). Yet your department turns back boats from Indonesia, and returns asylum seekers in Australian Government funded lifeboats, without hearing their claims for asylum.   Your government paid for Navy ships to patrol the Sri Lankan coast to prevent Tamils from escaping persecution to seek asylum elsewhere, and returns people to the countries from which they have fled.

Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights says this:

“Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.”

“Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.”

However, your department persists with punitive, indefinite, arbitrary detention for those who have committed no crime.  Some asylum seekers have been waiting in detention 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.

Your response to my letters has been to assure me that “Australia is working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”.  However, the UNHCR recently 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.”

In a condemning judgment last year, the United Nations found Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees to be cruel,  inhumane and in breach of UN conventions, and ordered refugees detained by ASIO be released and paid compensation (ABC 7:30 25/2)  Yet the Australian Government has made no moves to do so.

And so I now appeal to you on matters of personal values and of faith.

I read the transcript of your maiden speech to Parliament with great interest.  In this speech, you declared that your values and principles are derived from your Christian faith and Scripture.  You quoted Jeremiah  9:24 and said this:

“From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family.”

Justice and righteousness would welcome transparency instead of secrecy.  They would be honest and open, rather than avoiding questions and withholding information about ‘on water operational matters’.  Justice and righteousness would welcome inquiries in order to demonstrate integrity.

Respect for rule of law would adhere carefully to international human rights laws, instead of using doublespeak and loopholes to ignore them.  Respect for rule of law would be less concerned with people’s mode of arrival, and more concerned with the fulfilling of human rights obligations now that they have attempted to arrive.

Compassion and loving-kindness would not need to clarify a question about a man who took his own life in immigration detention. Compassion and loving-kindness would automatically understand that the question, “Could this have been prevented?”, related to what could have been done to prevent the man’s death, not whether or not he could have prevented overstaying his visa.

Compassion and loving-kindness would not have implied that the young man, brutally killed while under the Australian Government’s supervision and care on Manus Island, brought the violence upon himself.  Compassion and loving-kindness would have said something like, “Tragically, a man who was being held in one of Australia’s off-shore immigration detention centres has been killed.  There will be a thorough investigation into how this could have possibly happened, to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.  In the meantime, I extend my sincere sympathy to his family and assure them that everything will be done to give them the answers they need.”.

Fighting for the opportunity for everyone to fulfil their human potential would not include returning people to homelands to face  persecution, beatings, torture and execution. It would not include causing a severe, negative impact to people’s mental health through ongoing uncertainty and indefinite detention.  Fighting for the opportunity for everyone to fulfil their human potential would not cry, ‘saving lives at sea’ only to have people killed in detention or take their own lives due to the depression and despair brought about by Immigration Department policy.

In your speech, you went on to talk about your vision for Australia being a nation grounded in generosity of spirit.  You echoed the words of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy when you said, “As global citizens, we must also recognise that our freedom will always be diminished by the denial of those same freedoms elsewhere, whether in Australia or overseas.”

Generosity of spirit and the offering of freedom would not translate into locking up children indefinitely on Nauru, in conditions which have been condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations.  Generosity of spirit and the offering of freedom would not insist that people seeking asylum must join a mythical, world-wide queue for protection, which is anywhere other than here.

An understanding of the concept of ‘global citizens’ would work with world leaders to find humane solutions to the global humanitarian issue of people fleeing war and persecution.

I cannot help but wonder what happened to the man who so eloquently espoused his values, and principles of Christian faith, in a maiden Parliament speech.  Perhaps he never existed at all, and they were just meaningless words read from a piece of paper.  Perhaps he was sincere at the time, but he lost himself somewhere beneath ambition and a lust for power.  I’m not sure which scenario I find more disturbing.  What I do know, is that the Bible says that the way we treat “the least of these brothers and sisters” is the way we treat God (Matthew 25:31-46). 

You have said that, for you, “faith is personal, but the implications are social.”  I can see no evidence of the implications of faith in Jesus in the cruel, harsh and inhumane asylum seeker policies you have put in place.   Your speech mentioned that Lincoln said, “Our task is not to claim whether God is on our side, but to pray earnestly that we are on His.”

While you might be able to avoid the questions in my letters, it is not so easy to avoid God’s questions.  I sincerely hope you have thought through your answers.

Just Like Me

This is a picture of me, on the lawn at the Parliament House of Australia, holding a sign which criticises the Australian government.  I am smiling because, despite the failings of the Australian government on asylum seeker issues, I still have the freedom to join with like-minded people on the lawn at Parliament House to protest, holding a sign like this. If I happened to have been born elsewhere, I might not have this freedom.

In Afghanistan, polime!tician Malalai Joya, called for democratic reform and spoke out against the Afghan government’s tolerance for terrorism and violence.  She was expelled from the government and assassination attempts were made on her life.  Six attempts.

In West Papua, many people have been gaoled for engaging in political activities, such as organising demonstrations.  West Papuans who are pro-independence report that they are regarded by the Indonesian state and armed forces as the enemy.  Torture of men and rape of women, by the military, is common place.

In Pakistan, 15 year-old school girl, Malala Yousafzai, was hunted down and shot at point blank range by the Taliban for speaking out about her views on education for girls.  If you happen to be a Hazara woman living in Pakistan, you don’t have to speak out about anything at all to be a target for violence.  You just have to attend your local market or join a community social gathering.  Suicide bombers and car bombs are a regular occurrence in the systematic persecution of the Hazara people in the city of Quetta.

In Zimbabwe, supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change have been arrested and detained by the Mugabe regime.  Ambassador to Australia, Jacqueline Zwambila, has requested asylum in Australia, after the MDC lost its ministerial posts in elections last year.  She reports that she fears indefinite custody if she is returned to Zimbabwe, due to her MDC association and her recent criticism of President Mugabe.

In Iran, laws against criticising the Islamic regime, insulting Islam or publishing any materials which deviate from Islamic standards, are used to persecute religious minority groups, journalists and political dissidents.  According to Sharia law, blasphemers may be charged with ‘mofsed-e-filarz’ or ‘spreading corruption on earth’. The Revolutionary tribunal Dadgah-ha-e Enqelab tries anyone suspected of blaspheming, inciting violence or trying to overthrow the Iranian government.   Trials often result in prolonged detention, torture or execution.

And so it goes.   Belonging to a minority group, speaking out against the government, or holding a sign such as mine, could spark all sorts of acts of punishment or persecution if I happened to live in many countries of the world.  In order to escape that punishment and persecution, I would have to run for my life.  I have an education, a job and a home I own.  I would have to leave all that behind.  I have a mobile phone, which I would definitely bring with me.  It contains photos and emails which would confirm my political activism and my need for asylum.  I even have the odd piece of designer clothing, which I might wear if it was comfortable for travelling.  I do not currently hold a passport.  If I had to leave quickly, I would not have time to apply for one.   Nor would I want to draw myself to the attention of government officials.  I would most likely have to get on a boat in order to travel to a safe country which is well away from the punishment and persecution.

This would make me no different from the women who are being arbitrarily, indefinitely held in off-shore detention, for attempting to travel to Australia by boat in order to seek asylum;  detention which breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  They could be me.  Or your sister, your mother, your daughter, your wife, your friend.  And they could have your nieces and nephews, your siblings, your grandchildren or your children with them; locked up in tent camps in 45 degree heat, in unsatisfactory, unsanitary conditions with insufficient access to medical and welfare support (as has been reported recently after investigations by Amnesty International).

A few decades ago, approximately 43,000 Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors settled in Australia.  They had been persecuted and punished because of their religion, their nationality or the action they took against Nazi rule.  They rebuilt their lives here and they contributed to business, industry, the professional sector and their local communities.  They became our doctors, our teachers, our scientists, our bakers, our factory workers, our shopkeepers, our neighbours and our friends.  Not surprisingly, they did not set out to recreate the Gestapo and the death camps from which they had fled.  Yet many Australians believe that today’s asylum seekers, who are fleeing the persecution and punishment of the Taliban and Sharia Law, will seek to recreate similar regimes here.  It is a belief which defies logic.  People who are seeking asylum are seeking to live in peace in a place where they have the freedom to be themselves and to express themselves.  Just like me.

Victimisation By The Book

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A four part strategy to systematically destroy a group of already victimised and traumatised people:

Part A

  1. Spread false information about these people and withhold the truth.
  2. Refer to them publically as illegal immigrants, queue-jumpers and economic migrants. Allow the public to expand on these words to include terms such as criminals, job-stealers, welfare-spongers and terrorists.
  3. Foster public opinion to believe that action needs to be taken against them.

Part B

  1. Round up and detain these already victimised and traumatised people, in remote places.
  2. Keep them in conditions which are condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International.  Hold them there indefinitely, without avenue for appeal.
  3. Refer to them collectively as detainees and transferees.  Avoid using the term people.  Refer to them individually by numbers relating to the boats they arrived on, instead of by using their names.
  4. Tell them every day that they will never be adequately resettled and that they would be better off volunteering to return to the war, persecution and torture they risked their lives to flee.
  5. Dismiss and ignore the reports which condemn the conditions they are living in, and the treatment they are receiving.
  6. Remove all welfare and recreation services in order to intensify their misery and prevent any further ‘whistle-blowing’ by community service organisations.
  7. Dissolve the advisory group which would otherwise advise against taking the above action.

Part C

  1. Assess some of these already victimised and traumatised people as being  genuine refugees, and then incarcerate  them, without charge, anyway.
  2. Withhold information about why they are being held.
  3. Refuse them the opportunity to present their case for innocence.
  4. Hold them in detention indefinitely.  For years.  Until their children are born and are raised behind bars.  And then keep detaining them.
  5.  Ignore the Human Rights Commission  and High Court findings that this treatment is unlawful and unacceptable.
  6. Continue to detain them.
  7. Appoint a new Human Rights Commissioner who is infamous for his inflammatory remarks and a contempt for the Human Rights Commission to which he has been appointed, to ensure that no response will need to be made.

Part D

  1. Remove the opportunity for those of the already victimised and traumatised people, who are living in the community, to be settled there permanently.   Remind them that they will be sent back to the countries they have fled, whenever some completely detached official determines that it is ‘safe’ for them to return.
  2.  Separate them from the people they love the most.
  3. Deny them the right to work or to study.  Prevent them from keeping their minds active.  Prevent them from having a meaningful use for their time.  Prevent them from making a contribution to their new communities.  Refuse them an income and suspend them in a constant state of poverty.
  4. Subject them to a Code of Conduct which applies exclusively to them, and not to the rest of the population.
  5. Release their personal information to the law enforcers so that these already victimised and traumatised people can be watched.  Be poised ready to send them back into detention if they break the Code of Conduct by doing something vague like acting ‘inconsiderately’ or ‘disrespectfully’.  Or by doing something more tangible like failing to indicate before they change lanes while driving.

This is Australia, 2013.  Yet the echoes of Nazi Germany have grown so loud they have become deafening.