Seeking Asylum is a Human Right

The immigration department says that moralising on the issue of children being sent back to Nauru is “not helpful”.  They quibble about how old a rape victim was (not, apparently 5 years old – he was over 10. Oh. Well. I mean. That’s ok then, right?). They say we can’t possibly open our borders, we have no conception of the consequences of open borders.

Well, I see no-one in the #letthemstay protest talking about open borders. I see nothing in the Greens policy on asylum seekers that says “open the borders, let them all in – let’s have a giant free for all pot party!” (go read it! See where it says “open the borders”? Nope. Nor do I.)

It is a wholly false dichotomy to say the choice is between torturing asylum seekers with unfathomably horrific conditions and opening our borders willy nilly. There are worlds of options that don’t involve torture and also don’t involve letting the whole world come here. But even if there weren’t, if the choice were between letting the world in and choosing to torture people to persuade everyone else to stay away, I could never choose torture.

Ask yourself: could you?

This is, fundamentally, inherently, a moral issue. It is time for a whole lot of moralising.

I admit, I don’t have all the facts. If you want facts, go read anything Julian Burnside wrote.

But above all, before you believe anything said by the government, consider this: journalists are not allowed to visit Nauru or Manus, with one, very significant pro-LNP exception. What kind of activities are so nefarious that we can’t allow them to be openly scrutinized by the public?

What do we know?

We know that people independent of the government, of political parties, of anything they stand to gain, including doctors, have stated loudly and clearly that people are being horribly traumatised on Nauru and Manus, and indeed in our own on-shore detention centres.

We know that laws have been passed making the reporting of child abuse A CRIME – What the actual fuck? Not reporting child abuse of nice, white, middle class Australian children is a crime. But REPORTING CHILD ABUSE ON MANUS and NAURU is illegal and carries a jail term. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that both our major political parties collaborated to pass this utterly unconscionable piece of legislation.

We know that in many countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Myanmar, people are being persecuted and escaping in an attempt to protect their families – to save their lives, to escape unending horror, to live in peace. And we are punishing these people and denying them all forms of humanity and human comfort – including, bizarrely, not allowing them mail. (Presumably because at all costs we must not allow them to think that anyone cares about them.)

What we are doing to these people makes me ill. They are people. Good people. Bad people. Children. Adults. Old people. Just people. People like you. People like me. People caught up in unending trauma. And we are treating them like vermin.

Look, I’m not saying that immigration policy is a simple thing, or easily fixed. I’m not saying we can help everyone in the world who is in need, although I would dearly love to.

But I am saying that what Australia is doing is NOT OK. It is NOT IN MY NAME. And it must stop. Just, please, make it stop.


#ThePlanForChange #TheTimeForCompassion for Refugees

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?”

Finding Compassion

All our Prime Minister can say is “Stop the boats!”

But stopping the boats does not stop the death.

Stopping the boats does not stop the torture.

Stopping the boats does not free prisoners, prevent rape, or feed the hungry.

Stopping the boats means they don’t die inconveniently within sight of our shores. Stopping the boats means they die elsewhere, while we rest easy in our privileged beds.

So we march. And the government closes its ears and covers its eyes.

So we sign petitions. And the government covers its eyes and closes its ears.

So we share photos of the doomed and the dying. And the government says it has solved the problem because it has Stopped the Boats. And the dying continues where we can’t see it.

I’m tired of marching. I’m tired of signing. I’m tired of sharing the photos. Above all I am tired of the torture and the dying, and the complete absence of compassion and humanity.

But compassion exists.

Humanity exists.

People are making a difference.

So rather than march and be ignored, I am going to put my credit card where my marching would be.

I am going to find compassion by funding compassion.

If my government won’t open its arms, I will fund those who will.

Please join me in funding compassion. Fund the UNHCR to shelter refugees. Families. People like us. People who are fleeing war zones, terror, and trauma. People who are just trying to find safety for their families. People who just want to be safe.

As yourself this: If your family was at risk, what would you do to protect them?

You can protect a family at risk right now. Fund Compassion today.

Together we can make a difference.

Senate Committee Submission

Scott Morrison and the Abbott government want to pass a law giving them the power to incarcerate and torture asylum seekers without anyone being able to stop them in the courts. Make no mistake. This is not about “stopping the boats”. As Julian Burnside said, someone who gets shot at home or dies in a boat on the way here is just as dead. If they don’t get on those boats, they risk death or worse at home. They are not economic migrants, they are the most vulnerable people, in desperate need of our help and compassion.

The good news is that you can make a submission to the Senate Committee detailing your opposition to the bill. Make a stand. Go on record as being opposed to our monstrous and appalling treatment of refugees. Getup has made it really easy.  My submission is below, in case you need inspiration (only took me 5 minutes to pour my heart out onto the keyboard), but please put it in your own words, as it will be more powerful that way.

Make a submission today!

Here’s mine:

I oppose this bill most vehemently.

Australia has a responsibility, both moral and legal under the 1951 UNHCR refugee convention, to care for and protect asylum seekers, regardless of their mode of entry.

In the past, Governments have egregiously abused their powers and not only failed to protect refugees, but further harmed them, as indeed our government is doing now. The only way to prevent this is to have them answerable to the courts.

Detention without charge or recourse is fundamentally abhorrent to any person who believes in basic human rights, and any person with any compassion and decency, yet this is what this bill proposes to allow. Without oversight, without recourse, without a shred of human decency.

I volunteer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Dandenong. I have met people who are so traumatized, who have been through so much, and who still have no hope of a normal life. I know one family who has been in detention for 24 years, first in Malaysia and now here. They have been released in to community detention where they cannot work. They are in a remote suburb with poor public transport, separated from other family members and with no community support, and they are told they will remain this way for at least 3 years, after which there is no knowing what their fate will be. This is absolutely unconscionable.

Australia has the capacity to support and help these refugees. To resettle them and welcome them in to our communities. Please reject this appalling bill as the travesty of justice that it clearly is.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Linda McIver.

I’ve got the power

We are truly a funny old species. The existence of climate controlled cars and a million labour saving devices has persuaded us that we can’t get wet, mustn’t get cold, and that most activities are beyond the reach of our puny muscles.

Yet it is possible to ride a bicycle to work even when it’s cold, wet, and windy.

It is possible to mow your lawn, cut branches off trees, and cut up firewood all without the aid of power tools.

It is possible to calculate without the aid of a calculating machine – or so I am told – the calculating portion of my brain seems to have atrophied.

And that’s just the point, isn’t it? Power is a “use it or lose it” phenomenon.

Yesterday morning, amid dire forecasts for wind, rain, hail, and general unpleasantness in the Melbourne weather forecast, I elected not to ride to work the way I usually would, and instead texted a local friend asking for a lift. I waited, and I waited, but I got no response. I texted again. Then I called. All to no avail, because his phone was on silent and he wasn’t looking at it. By then it was time to leave or be late, and so I had to bite the cold, windy, wet bullet and ride. I donned my voluminous rain cape, my waterproof trousers, and my knee high boots, and rode off into the rain.

And you know what?

I enjoyed it. True, there were times when I thought I was in a scene from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” But by the time I got to work I was radiating the dedicated commuting cyclist’s extreme smug field. I was warm from the exercise. I had made it to work under my own steam in unpleasant conditions. I had power. I had self esteem. I was surprisingly dry. And my colleagues universally thought me insane – no change there.

Throughout the day the weather worsened and I swore I would beg, borrow, or if necessary steal a lift home, even if it meant coming in on my day off to pick up my bike. But by the time I was ready to leave everyone else had gone, the rain had stopped, and the wind had eased. So I rode home again, and this time didn’t even need the wet weather gear.

Here’s the thing: skin is mostly waterproof, and getting rained on is rarely fatal. Admittedly the weather in Melbourne yesterday was a touch extreme, and I would not have ridden in the 100kph winds we endured in the middle of the day. But even though the wind had settled, people were still aghast that I had done something so extreme as ride in the rain.

With decent wet weather gear, riding in the rain is no big deal, but we persuade ourselves that we need our climate control, our heating, our air con, and our isolation from the world. I persuaded myself that I needed a lift to work this morning, but when my lift failed to materialize, I rode to work just fine.

I had also persuaded myself that I couldn’t do anything about our treatment of asylum seekers. I’m just one person. Just one voice. One keyboard – albeit fairly strident. But I watched a friend become increasingly active, and it began to make my muscles twitch, until almost without thinking I stepped over the line and did something concrete for a family of refugees. Burning with their story, I came home and wrote about it, and in just over a week more than 700 people have read my piece about actually stepping up and helping.

I have power. One voice can reach many ears, if it’s willing to try.

Today I went to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Dandenong and signed up to teach computer skills there once a fortnight next term. Another thing I can do. And each person I teach can teach others in turn. I’m starting small, but who knows what impact this will have on the lives of the people our government wants us to abandon?

I’ve already noticed the impact on my cycling route of stopping to pick up the occasional piece of rubbish. I have power here, too.

We can walk or ride in the rain, much further than we think we can. We can pick up a little rubbish every day and leave the world a cleaner place. We can offer a little support to those most in need. And the magic of muscles is that the more we do, the more we can do. Which also means that the less we do, the less we can do.

So maybe it’s time to ask ourselves what we can really do.

What can you do?



Land of confusion

I did a good deed today. My 11 year old was proud of me. She was so pleased that I had stepped up to help.  She said I would come back feeling really good. I thought I would, too. I was feeling a little smug. A little pleased to have got out of my own head, been lifted out of my own worries, and to be able to help some strangers. I thought I would come back all aglow with their gratitude, and a sense of self-worth.

But I have come home gutted. Devastated. Deeply ashamed.

Not because the strangers weren’t grateful – far from it. The children adopted me instantly. Hugged me, proudly told me the words they could spell, and wanted to know all about my own kids. The parents offered me tea, and told me many times how grateful they were, and how they had been told someone would come. When they heard how far I had driven they were overwhelmed. They were lovely. We live about an hour apart, but I think we could be friends. I’ll take my kids to visit them in the holidays.

But… my god. The horror of what they have been through. The horror of what we, as a nation, are still putting them through. I knew it was appalling, but until I met these people, until trauma was given faces, names, and lives, I did not look it full in the face.

These people, these beautiful new friends, who welcomed me with open arms, who want nothing more than lives, jobs, and freedom – those trivial details that we take for granted every day – they are refugees. Fleeing from a homeland that promised them death and destruction, they have been in detention overseas for DECADES.

You read that right. FOR DECADES.

There’s too many men, too many people
making too many problems
and there’s not enough love to go round.
Tell me why this is the land of confusion?

So they risked everything to cross the sea to come here. They risked EVERYTHING. They took their lives, and those of their families, in their hands. They piled 40 families on a fragile, largely unseaworthy boat, and they came here. Looking for life. Looking for compassion. Looking, above all, for safety. And we locked them up.

We. Locked. Them. Up.

For years.

This is the world we live in
and these are the hands we’re given
use them and let’s start trying
to make it a place worth living in
Land of Confusion – Genesis

Children. Families. People.

It costs money to lock people up. To prevent them from working. To ensure they put down no roots, create no support networks, and never feel a part of the community. These families want nothing more than to make their own way in the world in safety. They don’t want our charity. They want to build themselves valuable lives, and establish themselves in the community. After all they have been through, all they want is to live. But we would rather pay to lock them up.

Abbott professes himself devout. I am not much of a religious scholar, but I remember endless passages in the bible about compassion, and about helping those in need. I don’t remember anything about demonising the desperate.

Do you know what undid me today, more than anything else in the tales that unfolded? One of my new friends was desperately concerned that I would think him a liar, and a bad man. He showed me his UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) documents that proved he had, indeed, been in detention for decades. That he had lived, married, had a child, all in detention. That all he wanted was a life. And all he was given was jail, for himself, his wife, and his child. He wanted me to know that he was honest. That he was a good person. That he deserved to live.

I took them food today, as they have no way of contacting their case workers on the weekend. No nappies for their babies. No food for their children. No friends in the community – they were uprooted from their only support networks, and transferred to where they have no means of supporting themselves. They are not allowed to work. Who knows if their children will be able to go to school.

The Department of Immigration refers to these people, these families, as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. They are not. Australia has promised the UN not to discriminate on the basis of arrival, but oh! How differently we treat people who arrive by plane and overstay their visas. For a complete discussion of the legalities and technicalities I refer you to Julian Burnside.

I won’t be coming home tonight
my generation will put it right
we’re not just making promises
that we know we’ll never keep.

Ultimately, though, the legalities are irrelevant. The facts are these: Desperate people come here, seeking our help. We punish them. These people with faces, names, and families. These people who are filled with love, with gratitude, and with hope, after years of the world battering them with the worst it has to give. We punish them.

When I came home and told my family the story over dinner, my 7 year old cried: “I don’t want to be Australian anymore, Mummy!”

Is this who we want to be?


Will you?


Calling a spade a gun

The astonishingly dishonourable Scott Morrison, MP, has directed the staff of the Australian Department of Immigration to refer to asylum seekers who arrive by boat as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”, or “IMA”s. This piece of breathtaking demonisation sparked a predictable outcry from the thinking, feeling, caring public, prompting Mr Morrison to rather huffily declare that he was merely calling “a spade a spade”. Being direct. Saying it like it is.

People who have entered Australia illegally by boat have illegally entered by boat,” he said.

I’ve never said that it is illegal to claim asylum. That’s not what the term refers to. It refers to their mode of entry.’

It’s fascinating, then, that the directive fails to refer to those who arrive by plane and then illegally overstay their visas as “Illegal Visa Overstayers” (IVOs). That’s not a big surprise, though, because IVOs are People Like Us. They are cashed up people taking advantage of a legal kind of domestic blindness to stay in the country and spend their glorious wads of cash.

Boat people, in contrast, are scary people from scary places. They jumped non-existent queues to get here. Clearly they are a threat to our very way of life. They are IMAs. Second only to WMDs in their power to wreak imaginary havoc and conjure up the demons of fear with every hysterical political utterance.

This is so clearly not a case of calling a spade a spade. It is calling a spade a gun. Conjuring up a threat where none exists. Creating fear and harsh judgement where only compassion belongs.

Years ago my friend James told me a story about a time just after he moved into his very middle class suburb of Camberwell. There was an auction in his street, and when it was won by a very excited Italian couple there was a muttering in the background along the lines of “there goes the neighbourhood” and “bloody Eye-ties, invading our turf” and words to that effect.

Time went on and the Italian family was joined by Greek families and differences were forgotten. 20 years later there was another auction, and the house went to a thrilled Vietnamese couple. My friend James, spectating in the crowd, heard the muttering again. When he looked around, the perpetrators of the “there goes the neighbourhood” style comments were, you guessed it, the very same Italian couple. This was now their turf, and they didn’t want to see it invaded by people who aren’t “like us”.

Ultimately we are all “people like us”. We have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. We have hopes, fears and dreams. We will do anything to protect our loved ones. Having experienced unimaginable horrors, who among us could swear that we would not take a chance at freedom if it were held out to us?

I hope that if life throws its worst at me, there will be people nearby who will hold out their hands to help me up. Who will offer shoulders for me to cry on, and arms to lean on. Who will recognise that regardless of the colour of my skin, the country I was born in, the language I speak, and the way I got here, I am a human being just like them. Nothing more, and nothing less.

I hope that I would never pass by someone who needed my help.

If only I could say the same of my Government.

The drowning of compassion

I was trying to explain the problem of asylum seekers to my 7 year old today.  It wasn’t easy.

Miss 7: “What are asylum seekers, mum?”

Me: “They’re people who are escaping from terrible situations in their own countries – like wars – and they’re asking us for help. So we lock them up.”

Miss 7 (with withering scorn, worthy of a teenager): “Can’t we just let them in?? They’re just from another country. It’s not like they’re going to invade us.”

It’s almost hard to add anything to that. The hysteria surrounding asylum seekers is incomprehensible to me. The idea of demonising people who have escaped from horrors worse than any nightmare is just so breathtakingly, devastatingly wrong that I can’t process it. It makes no sense. And to use them for political advantage, the way successive governments have repeatedly done – well. The mind doesn’t even boggle. It just crawls into a corner and rocks, whimpering.

You can try, as politicians have done, to turn it into a moral war against people smugglers. Against the appalling conditions that people suffer in trying to get here. You can argue that it’s about saving lives. But as long as there are traumatic conditions elsewhere, people will try to come here. People will ask for help. You can’t police every kilometre of every coastline and stamp out the people smuggling trade – there is demand. There will be supply.

So here’s a radical thought. Why don’t we learn from my 7 year old? Why don’t we actually make it easier to come here? In the past we have called asylum seekers queue jumpers, notwithstanding the fact that there is no queue. For most of these people, there is no legal, safe way for them to apply for asylum until they reach our borders. So why don’t we setup queues? People will try to come here. Why don’t we help them?

We have this terrible fear of being overrun, whether it’s by the yellow peril, the darkies, or the purple skinned. But here’s the thing – people don’t choose to leave their homes lightly. To abandon their friends, families, lifestyle and language – it’s not a step they take on a whim. Australia has it pretty good, I don’t deny, but I don’t believe for a moment that the rest of the world would leap here if they could.

I’m not suggesting we have no rules – we could still process asylum seekers’ claims and try to determine whether they have a justifiable fear of persecution, and whatever other rules we work on (although a little more compassion would not go astray). But why force them onto rickety wooden boats that sink at the slightest wave, in order to apply? Setup real queues, as close as possible to the major troublespots. Actually seek to help people. Show real compassion.

Sure, there are refugee camps where people can seek help from organisations such as MSF and Oxfam. But there is clearly a huge sense of desperation among people who can’t find the queue, and need help. Why don’t we seek them out? Put the people smugglers out of business by reaching out with compassion to the poor, the persecuted, and the desperate.

Now that’s something I’d be happy to explain to my kids!

Walk a mile

There’s an old saying – don’t criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By then you’re a mile away, you’ve got his shoes, and you can say whatever you want. It’s hard to avoid judging people sometimes – it’s built in to the human psyche. But it’s much harder to judge people harshly when you have some understanding of what they’re going through.

Have you ever been to an unfamiliar supermarket? Not a different branch of your usual supermarket – they are almost disturbingly homogeneous now – but a completely different type of supermarket. It can be an incredibly frustrating experience if you are looking for something slightly unusual, as you wander the aisles trying to find something that you know the exact whereabouts of at your usual shop. They group things differently. The soap may be next to the tissues where you usually shop, but here it’s in the health food aisle. Why would they do that???

Worse than that by far is shopping in a different country – even one where they speak the same language as you. In the US some years ago we spent a very frustrating time trying to find muesli bars. None of the packets look familiar – and it’s amazing how much you navigate a supermarket by familiar packets. We had to actually read the labels on boxes to work out what type of product was in each aisle – it was astonishing how hard it was to find what we wanted. (It turned out they did have museli bars, but not as we know them. They were sugar with occasional grains tucked away in the middle. Ugh!) All those familiar cues that we rely on without even being aware of them were missing, and we felt remarkably disoriented.

Magnify that by several thousand, and you might begin to understand the frustration of shopping in a supermarket where you don’t speak the language, or don’t speak it fluently. Now label reading doesn’t even help, and you are reduced to trying to guess the meaning of the pictures on the labels – have a look around at your familiar groceries, and you’ll find that many of them have completely mystifying pictures on them. Nothing to do with the product inside. Lemons on dishwashing liquid. Puppies on tissue boxes.

You may not even be able to find the things you are used to. You might not be able to cook the meals you usually rely on, might not even be able to find the right sort of soap. Without a guide, you may spend a year or more in that foreign country, as a friend of mine once did, completely unaware that what you are looking for is right there on the shelves. My French friend spent a year in Melbourne, pining for real cream. He thought we only had thickened cream. He never realised (until we talked about it, long after he had returned to France) that there was pure cream, and double cream, and even clotted cream if you knew where to look.

And that’s just shopping. Picture that applying to your whole life. Unable to ask for directions, unable to understand signs or announcements over loud speakers. Unable to cook familiar food because you can’t find the ingredients. Completely cut off from the world around you, until you can get a grip on the language, the culture, and the basic mechanics of being in a new country.

How brave people are, to seek a new life for themselves and their families, in a country they don’t yet understand. And how incredibly strong and courageous to risk crossing hostile oceans in barely seaworthy craft, to escape unimaginable dangers and trauma in their home countries.

Regardless of what our politicians would have you believe, refugees are not cashed up queue jumpers, lounging on sun lounges on the lido deck, on their way to plunder our riches. No, those cashed up queue jumpers are arriving by plane, and on the whole being welcomed with open arms. Boat people, in contrast, are frightened, desperate people, and there is no queue. These people don’t have the option of waiting patiently in a queue outside the Australian embassy, certain of being heard. They are not walking past a sign saying “please wait here and we will look after you.” They are running for their lives, and for their families’ lives.

Not many people know that Australia signed a UN convention stating that we would not discriminate against refugees based on how they arrive. But we do. Oh, how we do. We demonise, vilify and torment them. We lock them behind razor wire in the desert, keep them there for years, and then send them back to the hells they came from.

Walk a mile in those shoes.

The frying pan of enlightenment

Some days it’s incredibly difficult to resist the urge to lay about me with the frying pan of enlightenment: whack Focus on what you have got, not what you haven’t. bam Help people in need. pow Take care of the environment. slap Speak up for the voiceless. biff Don’t wait for others – do what needs to be done. boom Love more, hate less. thwack Money isn’t what matters. thud Just plain do the right thing. It’s not rocket science, ok?

And then something happens that changes the political landscape. Suddenly the world seems a different place, and maybe there are more positive weapons than frying pans. Maybe those positive weapons are even in the hands of real people, rather than corporations and billionaires.

Last night, GetUp, at a few hours’ notice, raised enough money (well over $16,000) to win time with Tony Abbott, the Australian Federal Opposition Leader, through a charity auction.  GetUp is making sure that time gets put to good use: Abbott will be spending it with Riz Wakil, a former Afghan refugee who spent months in the appalling conditions of Curtin Detention centre, According to GetUp’s email: “these opportunities are normally claimed by mining magnates and other corporate donors, but instead you can give that opportunity to a voice that wouldn’t normally be heard in the corridors of power.”

Riz has the opportunity to put a human face on the trauma of mandatory detention. On the reasons why people become refugees, risking their lives to get here, only to be locked up. Given that Abbott and Rudd both seem oblivious to Australia’s legal obligations (among other things, we are signatory to a UN convention that states that refugees must not be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive), perhaps understanding the reality of the lives they are using as political footballs might be more effective.

It’s clear that Tony Abbott is impulsive and can be swayed by emotion. It’s clear that Government policy is frequently a race to the right against the Opposition. What would happen if the Opposition Leader actually recognised the inhumanity of his position, and  became aware of the human consequences of his political games… well, that’s anybody’s guess.

But until last night I’d have said there was no chance we’d ever find out. GetUp has changed the game on a moment’s notice. What else could be possible? Perhaps the frying pan of enlightenment can be shelved in favour of the power of a motivated populace. It’s a cheering thought!