Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Stand by the Refugees

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On Saturday June 28, myself, my brother and over 1200 other Canberrans braved the bitter winds and rain, making our way to Llewellyn Hall to show our support for the people currently locked away in the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres by one of the cruellest governments Australia has known.

The Stand by the Refugees protest meeting was organised by the Canberra Refugee Action Committee, and included speeches from Professor William Maley, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Julian Burnside QC. This meeting was organised both as a protest and to show community support for a motion that will be delivered to the Federal Parliament. The motion calls for the humane and dignified treatment of asylum seekers; including speedy processing of claims and timely resettlement, as well as permanent protection for those found to have refugee status.

I have been to a couple of protests over the last few years, but never before have I seen a group more passionate. Cries of ‘shame’ and ‘hear hear’ filled the hall, with loud applause ringing for the speakers after almost every sentence they uttered. It was without a doubt one of the most inspiring nights of my life, and made me realise that the human rights atrocities currently being committed in Australia’s name are being noticed, and vilified, by many of its citizens

The speeches themselves were incredibly eye opening. They touched on the myths about asylum seekers that have been perpetuated by both the previous government and the current one, such as the idea that seeking asylum is illegal (it’s not) and that there is a queue (there’s not). However, the theme that was strongly focused on this time was that of deterrence – the word that seems to be most loudly proclaimed when being used to justify cruelty and ignorance. The government is claiming that the detention centres are being used as a deterrence method, in an attempt to stop the number of lives being lost at sea as people flee to Australia to escape dangerous conditions. As pointed out by Professor Maley, while there are numerous flaws in this logic, there is one main thing that people aren’t realising when they hear the word ‘deterrence’: for deterrence to work, the detention centres and how we treat asylum seekers must be inherently awful. Clearly drowning at sea is not enough of a deterrence, which makes it apparent just how terrible the conditions asylum seekers are running from are, and just how awful our treatment of them has to be if our aim is to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia. One only has to consider the human rights abuses that would arise from this to see just how cruel the idea of deterrence really is, particularly as it would cost far less, both in terms of money and lives, to process asylum seekers quickly and let them live and work in the safety of the Australian community while doing so.

Julian Burnside discussed other flaws in regards to the deterrence policies, including the fact that if asylum seekers don’t come to Australia, they will be forced to make even more hazardous trips to reach asylum: essentially we would not be stopping deaths at sea, just deaths in Australian waters. The government’s aim to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) shows that the government doesn’t give two hoots about saving lives. TPVs stop people granted refugee status from bringing their family across to join them, and the reason they were stopped in the first place was due to the sinking of the SIEV X in October 2001; a boat that was full of woman and children trying to reunite with their loved ones who were in Australia on a TPV. If compassion were really the motivator behind the creation of the detention centres (though how one can read about the conditions inside them and even consider that compassion plays a part is beyond me), TPVs would never again have seen the light of day.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also gave an inspiring speech, adding an oft-overlooked personal side to the asylum seekers debate by talking about the individual experiences of these laws. She shared stories from the refugees that she had spoken to, as well as what she herself had seen in the detention centres: including detainees having to line up for hours in the hot sun for food and having three-minute time limits for bathroom use.

While I have always advocated for the rights of refugees, I am ashamed to say that I have not done all that much about it aside from a few heated debates with colleagues. This year in particular it has been so easy to put it all out of my mind – without news coverage and with the public being kept almost completely in the dark, it is so easy to fall into the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. But unfortunately, not acknowledging something does not make it go away. It does not make us, as Australians, any less culpable.

This is our generation’s White Australia Policy. This is our generation’s Vietnam War. This is our generation’s shame. However, like the generations before us, this is also our opportunity to make our voices heard, and to tell the government that we, the public, will not tolerate human rights abuses. That these abhorrent policies are not ones that ordinary Australians endorse. It is events like these that get the voices of everyday Australians heard, and I am so proud to live in a city that will come out in droves in the middle of a Canberra winter night to fight for the rights of fellow human beings, and to let the politicians know that we will not sit back quietly and let them treat refugees as if they are another species not deserving of the same rights and respect that we are.

(Image credit: 1.)

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