I don’t understand the “us and them” rhetoric that infuses the national discussion around refugees. At the same time as politicians want us to be truly part of a global economy, we are locking ourselves off from the global community and declaring that suffering, trauma, and desperation are not our problem.
Today I went to #ThePlanForChange in Melbourne. The idea spoke to me because of that one word: change. Things need to change. I hesitated to go, because I wasn’t sure I was feeling emotionally strong enough to hear about the real conditions on Manus and Nauru, but I’m glad I did.
Rather than expose you to another of my rants, I’m going to share some of the words from the day I found particularly powerful. My apologies for any inaccuracies that may have crept in, I was typing as fast as I could.
“We need to change the discussion so that people understand… we are not talking about faceless people stuck behind barbed wire. We are talking about people who have risked everything to bring their families to safety.” Adam Bandt.
“No-one wants to leave their own home. The aid has been cut. We can do what we can to get that restored, but each of us has connections to NGOs, let’s see what we can do to enhance our support for those organisations. Let’s see what we can do to enable those people to stay safely in their own homes.” Bishop Philip Huggins. St Paul’s Cathedral.
“Encourage and appreciate People of Inspiration. There are many.” Bishop Huggins.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre shared with us what life is like in detention on Manus and Nauru. The following quotes all come from Pamela. “It’s only when you get to know people and become friends with them that they share with you the details of their daily life, and then you understand why they become mentally unwell, why they suffer so much depression, and why so many of them are just plain sick.”
“What is life like? When parents put their kids to bed at night they are in 3m by 5m rooms, and the guards knock on the door at 11pm at night and call out “How many?” and the parents have to tell them how many people are in the room. The fathers sit outside the room at 11pm and 5am to try to answer the question before the guards knock and shout, and wake the children.”
“It has just taken us 7 weeks to get a little girl in Maribyrnong into school. There are schools all around, but it has taken us 7 weeks to make it happen. The life for their mothers in detention is boring. They are used to working, to cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children. We gave them sewing machines so that they could do things, but now that Border Force has taken over they are not allowed to have sewing machines any more. 2 months ago we were allowed to take people shopping. Now we’re not allowed. There are 4 little babies down there (at Maribyrnong detention centre). There’s a baby, she’s well loved and she never smiles. The doctors say she is the youngest depressed person they have ever seen.”
“It is true, it is absolutely true the terrible stories you have been hearing about Nauru. A few years ago we suddenly saw young women start to arrive by boat. They have seen their families massacred. They have never been out of their villages until they made this escape. They were put into detention at Nauru. They were sexually molested every day… And there is no support, no protection.”
“Right now there is a young woman. We are waiting and hoping that she is allowed to come to Australia for medical care. She was raped and is pregnant. There is another young woman in hospital in Brisbane. We have begged the government to allow her brother and mother to be with her. They have said no.”
“We have to get this message out to Australians. It is too late for our children to come to us when they are grown up and say why did you let this happen? It will! They will say this! There will be a royal commission! These are hard questions for our country. We are rich, politically stable and gifted. We have all the gifts of freedom and security. Why can’t we just share it a little? That’s our challenge.”
“It’s really hard to hear, but that is what’s happening. If the people who have committed those horrible abuses were captured, prosecuted, and sent to jail they would still be in better conditions than the refugees on Manus and Nauru,” Corinne Grant.
“It doesn’t matter which places I go to, the common thread is that every single person in these places is so incredibly brave. The thing that strings them together more than anything is their strength of belief in family and community. They have decided to risk absolutely everything for that belief. People who believe in family and community are the people we want here!” Sarah Hanson-Young
“You haven’t seen the anguish on the mothers’ faces when they try to explain to their children they just don’t know when they’re gonna get out.” Pamela Curr.
“There are dozens of cases of Transfield staff out on stress leave. They have PTSD. They are traumatised. They are not proud of what that company is doing. They are not proud that the government has not allowed them to speak freely. If they tell their story as staff the government threatens them with 2 years jail. Not only are they threatened with jail, there is no mandatory reporting of the abuse and criminal activities…In any other organisation, if they see a child being treated badly, abused, a woman they have found in the middle of the night, they are required to report that. But in these places they are threatened with jail instead.” Pamela Curr.
“It’s not a choice between locking people up in places that are so cruel they make the prison system look like a 5 star hotel, including children, versus letting people not get the assistance they need and drowning at sea. There is another way. We could take the money we spent on asylum seekers (transfield over $5 billion) and spend it in the region on foreign aid by processing people’s claims and help look after them before they even have to get on a boat. Let’s do that! ” Sarah Hanson-Young.
“We could be saying ‘we could help look after these people while their claims are being processed, and we will take them safely. We won’t let this obsession with border control dictate the policy, rather than seeing the need of people in their most desperate position.’ Those women in the camps on Nauru would not be putting their children on a boat [if we gave them an alternative]. They would know that Australia would take care of them. They want to be part of a community. Let’s speak about what kind of country we want to be, and what kinds of things we can practically do to get there.” Sarah Hanson-Young.
What’s the answer? Well according to Andrew Jackson, whose experience on SBS series “Go Back to Where You Came From” changed his perspective on refugees, it’s quite simple. “Get rid of 457 visas today. They’re a rort. There are 20 Million refugees around the world. There are refugees out there with every skill set we need.”
Pamela Curr says there were 38 people in Maribyrnong detention designated security threats by ASIO. This was a political decision. She knows those men and roundly declares that they were no threat to anyone. They have been very quietly released. What have we done? And how can we possibly justify it?
“There are over 200 people in Australia whose life will be blighted [if they have to go back to Nauru as a result of the high court case]. They are so sick, so damaged, that some of them will try to take their own lives.” Pamela Curr.
I’m not sure whether I am more shocked or heartened by what I have heard today, but surely now is the time for change? In the words of Mark Seymour: “I see the dark clouds descending, but I swear my soul will survive.”
If you want to do something constructive you can support organisations like the ASRC (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre). You can offer practical support and host an asylum seeker in your home by connecting with Aylan’s List. Above all, as Pamela Curr said, ask yourself the question future generations will all be asking. “What did you do while all this was going on?”