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)

 

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’.

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

Image

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.

The Depths of Indecency

across the seasOn Monday evening, the Senate of the Australian Federal Parliament voted to scrap Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for the asylum seekers already living in the community awaiting the outcome of their claims, in favour of issuing Permanent Protection Visas.  This was based on the following:

  • TPVs break international law by disallowing family reunification for asylum seekers
  • TPVs break international law by disallowing protection of guardians for unaccompanied minors
  • TPVs enforce statelessness on individuals as they never allow for permanent residency
  • People may be sent back to their homelands, at the end of three years of protection, to face punishment, persecution, torture or execution

Furious with the vote to block their policy, Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, announced that no asylum seekers, who are already living in the community, will be granted permanent protection before July 2014 (when the new Senate takes office).  Instead, they will be placed on indefinite Bridging Visas.  As Bridging Visas do not provide asylum seekers access to work or education, yet more international laws will be broken.

Tony Abbott stated, “Temporary Protection Visas are an essential part of any effective plan to stop the boats.”.

However, this statement makes no sense in the light (or should I say the darkness?) of the Coalition Government’s current off-shore processing policy and practice.   Abbott and Morrison have made it clear, time and time again, that all people arriving on boats during the Coalition’s time in government will be detained indefinitely on Nauru or Manus Island.  The best that these people can hope for is resettlement there, or some other country.  They will never be resettled in Australia.  Therefore, TPVs (or Bridging Visas for that matter) have absolutely NOTHING to do with any boat arrivals that have occurred since the Coalition came into power, or any which might occur in the future.  They are about preventing the people who are already here from gaining permanent residency.

This is confirmed in Scott Morrison’s statement, “Temporary Protection Visas deny the promise of permanent residency that was made to the 33,000 people that are already on shore that turned up on Labor’s watch and are part of that appalling legacy caseload that have been left behind for this government to clean up.”.

Make no mistake; this is not about saving lives at sea.

Nor is it about economics.  As people are not allowed to work on Bridging Visas, they are forcibly held on ongoing government welfare payments.

Nor it seems, is this about people.  Morrison’s use of the word ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ in relation to asylum seekers, strengthens his resolve to see them as nameless, faceless “illegal arrivals” which form an “appalling legacy caseload” to be “cleaned up”, rather than as fellow human beings.

What this is really about, is punishment and revenge.  It’s an attempt to punish the people who are already on Australian soil because they came here requesting protection and safety from war and persecution.  It’s an attempt to use innocent, already traumatised people as an implement of political revenge on the Senators who voted in favour of compassion, decency, humanity and the upholding of international law.

I want to say that Abbott and Morrison could not possibly sink any lower in the depths of indecency.  However, Abbott has already raised the idea of Australia leaving the UN Refugee Convention and said that he will “have more to say on this in the days and weeks ahead”.  No doubt, so will the Senate.

Dared to Ask

 Parliament House

Yesterday, I stood on the lawns of the Parliament House of Australia with around 600 others, and listened.

I heard accounts of systematic bomb explosions in community market places; of daughters buried up to their necks and subjected to stoning; of husbands anally raped with barbed wire; of wives gang raped by soldiers; and of missing cousins returned through the mail, piece by piece.

People were subjected to these acts of torture, terror and execution purely because they happened to be born into a particular people group such as Tamil, West Papuan or Hazara; because they followed a religion other than the one which was expected; because they broke particular religious laws; because they happened to be gay; or because they took some form of political action.

While Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, says that his government “deplores the use of torture”, he is also happy to downplay it by stating that we should “accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”.

The reality is that these acts of torture, terror and execution caused people to flee for their lives.  And to flee any way they could.  Surrounded by nations experiencing similar political unrest, and like Holocaust survivors travelling to Melbourne or New York, these people wished to get as far away from the persecution as possible, to a country where they were sure they would be safe.   And so they travelled by boat to Australia.

The UN Refugee Convention, of which Australia is a signatory, states that it is not illegal to travel to a safe country in order to seek asylum, even without the correct documentation, and that people should not be punished for doing so.   Yet Australia has constructed a systematic military and punitive response to asylum seekers.  People who have fled this kind of violence are held arbitrarily, indefinitely, off shore, in conditions we would not accept (and rightly so) for Australia’s worst criminals.  Perhaps then, these people might decide that impending execution is preferable to the prospect of a life without future, without hope, and ask to be sent ‘home’.

A letter from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection I received today, confirmed this:
“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.”

The ‘broad chain of measures’ includes escorting boats out of Australian waters without hearing people’s claims, and returning asylum seekers to the countries they have fled.

Today I heard reports of a teenager sent back to his homeland by the Australian Government.  When he arrived, he was thrown into prison and beaten so severely that his own family did not recognise him when he was handed back to them.   Yet my letter from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection tells me that,  “As a signatory to the Refugees (sic) Convention, Australia takes seriously its obligation of non-refoulement, that is, not returning people to a country where they might suffer persecution. “

Those attempting to come here by boat to seek safety, have broken no laws.   They simply dared to ask for help.