*The attached picture was drawn for me by Mohammed Ali Sayed - an asylum seeker on Nauru who was deported back to Afghanistan in 2002.
In response to our country’s disgraceful response to asylum seekers ...
Yesterday, a Sri Lankan man died in Melbourne – our Minister for Immigration responded by telling us that we should not “dramatize” the event. We have been told very little about the ‘incident’ or the events leading up to it – all we know is that a poor soul on a bridging visa (which can be loosely defined as a visa, which offers a person no rights, and no certainty, but does prolong and in some cases increase trauma and stress in some of the most vulnerable people in the community) died in hospital after suffering burns to 90% of his body in a country where he had no family, and had asked nothing more than that we protect him. We know that the man was on fire, in broad daylight, and then he died in a country where he has no family, and is being brushed aside as a political inconvenience.
Our government’s official response? “It’s not helpful for refugee activists to dramatise these events and seek to whip them up in the public mind because frankly that is the purpose of these protests.” Well yes, Minister, that is the purpose of protests – to open up the public mind to the horrors we are inflicting upon our fellow man, and to do our damndest to ensure that no man ever dies like this again.
Every death is a tragedy – and we as a nation implemented the immigration policies which made it possible (nay – probable) that one man – or many men, could fall into a pit of despair and insecurity that they feel as though suicide is the one remaining option. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We should be ashamed of our current immigration policies, we should also be ashamed of the callousness with which we are handling the death of this individual. Further, we should be ashamed of the way in which we have allowed ourselves to be so completely manipulated by political leaders who use the plights of asylum seekers as nothing more than a political volleyball. We have somehow, allowed ourselves to be convinced that we - the privileged Australians - are the victims, and the poor, vulnerable persecuted individuals who come asking us for help, for salvation, are the perpetrators.
Earlier this year (Feb 19, 2014) I read comments on the Mercury’s website such as “All of them should be put in irons & put on the first military ship available & dumped in the closest middle east country. This would show the rest of the world that our government really does say who comes to our country. People will get the message that if they want to come to Australia they will have to go through the proper channels.”
The absolute ignorance of such a statement “the closest middle east country”, which neglects to mention that not all asylum seekers are in fact Middle Eastern, and the complete disregard the author has for human rights and accurate information relating to immigration and the UN Refugee Convention puts Australia to shame. The fact that this person was given a forum to bleat their ignorance and racism is also shameful in my mind…. I wrote this article a few months ago for my blog (http://www.mandelawithlove.com) and thought that given the ongoing disgraceful conduct by the Australian media in relation to asylum seekers. I urge Australians to step up and shout out that Manus Island, the mandatory detention of asylum seekers – particularly women and children, and Nauru ARE NOT OKAY WITH US. Human beings should be treated as human beings - if the centre is not acceptable for Australian kids- and it isn’t - it is NOT somewhere we should be sending children who are fleeing persecution. We owe our kids a better future than this - Let’s do the Aussie thing and give asylum seekers a fair go, and call the Government out on their BS. THAT is the Australian thing to do.
Us vs Them – Australia vs Asylum Seekers – Slave vs Freeman – Black vs Whites: Is there are difference?
The mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia is just plain wrong. As Australians we will be judged globally, today – and into the future – for the gross human rights violations, which we have shamelessly inflicted upon men and families –including pregnant women and children who have suffered unimaginably before seeking our protection. Something they are, according to the UN Convention, entitled to do. We do this knowingly, and selfishly – with the overarching goal of “protecting our way of life.” Closing our borders and completely shutting off the area of our brains that deals with compassion and logic – yes LOGIC… there are logical reasons (as well as legal and moral reasons) for us to change the way we deal with asylum seekers, refugees and humanitarian entrants – is currently and will in the future have a catastrophic affect on the way Australians look at ourselves, and how the rest of the world looks at us.
The systemic abuse of children within Australian institutions, over the last few decades, litters our news reports like ugly oil spills polluting an otherwise unspoiled ocean. We look at the reports and we are justifiably outraged. My generation – born after the fact – feel our stomachs turn, and we swear that we will never let such atrocities occur on our watch. At school we studied slavery in the United States of America (USA), and looked with scorn and disgust on our (their?/American) forefathers who not only permitted (nay, not permitted, legalized) generations of rape, murder, exploitation, and complete degradation of an entire race of people, but who also profited from it. We read with horror reports of families in the USA who still hold wealth disproportionate to their needs – the kind of wealth that can only be gained from the sweat of slaves in generations past.
When we look back over the history of Europe we condemn the Holocaust, for the persecution of Jews. In the Middle East we shake our heads gravely at the persecution of apostates and Faili Kurds in Iran. We place so much judgement and blame on past generations for the ills they committed willingly and also for the harm they caused knowingly. We also condemn those who stood by in silence, whilst their brothers and sisters fell down beside them. We shamelessly judge whole generations and whole races of people for failing to prevent harm that they legitimately did not know about – for example, how many times do media reports blame all Muslims for 9/11, or all Catholics for the abuse which occurred at the hands of some Catholics?
As a generation we judge the past – and we judge it harshly. Amidst all this judgement however we seem to be forgetting to look at the policies which we as Australians, whether we personally say we agree with them or not, have by the virtue of electing this government submitted to. With this in mind, how do we think future generations will judge us?
Although this is not a discussion about slavery, as slavery is too great an issue to be summed up in this article, it can be useful however to briefly touch on the mentality of governments and individuals in the USA during the times of slavery and look at how and why slavery was able to continue for as long as it did when looking at the way Australia responds to asylum seekers.
I am a big believer in the role that basic business plays in running a country and making policy decisions – I believe that everything is done or not done, said or not said, for a reason, and sadly, more often than not, that reason is money. Historically and today, governments in the USA and Australia have not and will not act on issues unless they believe they will lose money (or an election – which basically translates to money) over it. As such, when the US government – and/or many of it’s individual decision makers – owned slaves, and were directly profiting from the laws allowing their exploitation, they had no personal desire to make the changes required to eradicate the horrendous practice. It was not until there was a political incentive for the government to make reforms, that changes finally came about – primarily when international pressure coupled with pressure from individuals within the USA – the voters – made it known that they would not support a government built on the profits of slavery.
Today however, when we look back at the pictures of men and women being beaten, starved and exploited, and when we hear the stories of the pain suffered, we ask ourselves – how could we let this happen, and why did no one say anything sooner?
There is an argument that there was an element of ignorance – especially from people in areas where slavery was not prominent – in a time when the internet was not even a dream, and other media was incredibly limited, there could be something to that argument. In the areas where slavery was prominent, visible and common – people did know. Blind eyes were turned, excuses were made, and assent was by default granted. As such, at some point the question must be asked, “Why did we let this happen?”
I suspect that one of the (many) reasons why people ‘let this happen’, other than economics, and perhaps the fear of the persecution one might suffer should they have been the lone person who had spoken out, was the degree of ‘separation’ that ‘mainstream’ Americans were able to place between themselves and slaves. That is to say that those who were in positions of power and wealth – including those who had access to education – were predominantly white, Christians (generally Methodist or Baptist) who, generally speaking, ate, spoke and worshiped in ways that differed slightly from the black slaves – for example:
• There were differences in the food consumed by the white ‘voters’ and the black slaves, which may have been due to culture or something as simple as economics (being that slaves did not earn an income);
• The differences in language may have been due to differences educational opportunities whites and blacks had, their cultures, and whether or not one was permitted to speak their native tongue (a white immigrant from France was, a black slave from Ghana was not)
• The differences in worship which may have been due to the musical tastes of an individual congregation, the culture of the worshipers or the religion itself.
Some of these slight differences – and I say slight differences, because in human terms, they are not big differences – were made into greater, insurmountable differences by those who wished to perpetuate the ‘us and them’ culture which was prominent in the US at the time.
When people believe that a person is different enough from them, and worth less than their families it is easier to ignore the human responsibility they have towards them. People tend to believe that:
“They look different to us, they talk different to us, they act different to us, they believe different things to us, they are different to us – therefore I do not have any responsibility, moral or otherwise to these people.”
In much the same way that Australians and Americans tend not to relate to people from other countries –we do not see ourselves as being in any way connected to them. As a consequence of the ‘belief in difference’, it was made easier for a white businessman, for example, who did not directly have any involvement slave trading, or interaction with slaves in general to separate himself, and his life from their plight. It is likely that a lot of people, struggling day-to-day to support their families, would be of the mind “It’s awful what happens to some folk, but I have my own kids to worry about – I can’t be campaigning to no government for changes, I got to be at work or my kids won’t get fed tomorrow.”
This does not excuse their inaction – but you can understand how and why it might happen in a world where the internet does not constantly expose and educate us to the horrors that are occurring just beyond our line of sight.
In modern times the degree of separation Australian’s are allowed – and indeed encouraged to feel – towards asylum seekers, is a part of the same ‘us and them’ culture/mentality that permitted the ‘mainstream’ to ignore or ‘not notice’ the horrors of slavery in the United States.
I can see people reading this article and feeling that there is a big leap between being ‘conservative immigration views’ and the support of slavery, but hear me out.
The “look after our own first” arguments trumpeted by so many Australian’s when asked about asylum seekers perpetuate the “us and them” mentality that allows the mistreatment of one group of people by another to go on unchecked, whether this mistreatment transpires in the form of slavery, sexual exploitation or forced imprisonment is not relevant. The fact is, by separating ourselves from other humans, and abdicating any form of responsibility towards people who we perceive as being ‘different’ to us, we are in small and big ways repeating the mistakes of history against which we have spoken out so harshly.
In 2011 a 19 year old Afghan boy hung himself in an Immigration Detention Centre, he had been granted refugee status – but no one had told him. He had sat in limbo for months and months, having nightmares every night that he might be sent back into the hands of the Taliban. One night, he could not take it anymore, and he hung himself with a rope woven out of a bed sheet he had shredded. He should have been notified of his refugee status, which I have no doubt would give him the hope and strength he would have needed to carry on, and prevented his suicide. He was a refugee, who fled his homelands after been severely persecuted by his own government. He was recognized by the Australian immigration authorities as a refugee, he was not an ‘illegal immigrant’ – he was interviewed, and we believed him, but due to an administrative error his life was lost.
If he were a 19 year old Australian boy who committed suicide over relationship break down, there would have been utter outrage and sorrow expressed for his passing – we would swear to help people with depression and promise never to forget the deceased. But, for this young Afghan man, his passing was mentioned for five minutes in a team meeting in 2011, and in 2012 a two second news report stated that the coroner found ‘nothing suspicious’ about his death. The reports did not encourage the Australian community to think of this boy as anything more than a statistic – there was not question of who was responsible for his depression, illegal imprisonment (also known as mandatory detention), and there was no ‘human’ detail given. He was and will remain a statistic. I ask you, if he was “one of ours” would we have treated his death differently? And would we have cared more? Of course we would. But the young man, did not even have a name in the report.
Although, in 1860, there was no internet, and limited means of communication – people in Australia did not necessarily know what was happening in the USA, nor did people in New York necessarily know what was happening in Texas. In 1860, people knew what they saw and what they were told, and so ignorance could be preserved, and to a degree constructed and controlled by those in power. In contemporary Australia however, we have no excuse not to know what is occurring within immigration detention centres across Australia and in Papua New Guinea, we have no excuse to say “I did not know that was happening.” We did know, we have to know, we have all seen the news reports, we have all heard the stories. We know what is happening in Iraq and Congo, national boarders do not translate to knowledge blocks, as such, we cannot hide behind the excuse of ignorance.
Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Santayana said this more than a century ago, yet we still seem to be tossing up the pros and cons of learning from mistakes – perhaps because to learn from a mistake, we must first own up to the mistake which is a challenge to us.
Australia’s Immigration policy may not look the same as the slave trade, but treating people poorly because we think we worth more than they are in our society? This is the kind of rationale that allowed slaves to be kept.
This is not the sort of mentality I want my son exposed to.
*All about Josie Young: I am a writer, a community worker, an activist and a lover of all things chocolate and coffee related. More importantly however I am a mother, I have a son named Mandela. As a mother I want to make sure that everything I do - the words I write, the food I cook, the causes I support - makes my son’s future brighter. In 2014, I decided I would write more as another way through which I can fight for the future that my son deserves. One day, in the future, my five year old son Mandela will look at the world and ask me, “Mama, how could you have stood by and done nothing in the face of such injustices?” When that day comes, I hope I will be able to answer him. I have spent the past ten years working in community development in Tasmania, Western Australia, Adelaide, and Africa. I have also worked with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, interviewing and assessing asylum seekers claims for protection, within Immigration Detention Centres (shame on Australia for the harm we have inflicted on good people), and as a volunteer assisting in humanitarian resettlement. I hold a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Public Policy (2007), and a Masters of International and Community Development (2009).
MEANWHILE, elsewhere in Abbotland ...
• Bob Ellis ...
Abbott’s End (37): The Last Nine Days
Abbott’s End (42): Five Days To Go