“There is something indecent about the idea that in order to prevent people from drowning in their attempt to reach safety you punish the ones who don’t drown. That is precisely what this country is doing right now.” Julian Burnside
For some time now I have been ashamed of Australia. I love this country, but I utterly despise what is happening to the refugees who have been left to rot on offshore detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru. I will never agree with a government policy that imprisons a person who is fleeing for their life; from persecution or a war-zone or any other dangerous situation. And I hope, beyond hope, that one day the politicians responsible for these policies will be brought to task (even prosecuted) for their complicity in human rights abuses.
This is not the first time I’ve felt ashamed of Australia. Back in the early 90s, I travelled to South Africa. I can vividly remember a late-night conversation about politics with a group of university students. This was about a year before Nelson Mandela was elected as President and they were understandably anxious about the political climate of their own country. But the conversation turned and I was horrified to hear Australia being compared to South Africa in terms of civil rights. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I’m so ashamed that, until that moment, I knew nothing about the Stolen Generations – or the underlying current of racism that has always existed in this country. I have written more about this in My journey with The Black Arm Band; including the fact that the government policy of the day was kept secret from generations of Australians.
Does that sound familiar? Because it should! Now journalists are not allowed to visit detention camps; doctors are not allowed to talk about the appalling conditions; the government doesn’t have to tell us if more refugee boats have arrived.
It makes me so angry! And I wonder if, in 20 years’ time, the next crop of politicians will stand up and apologise to the refugees for crimes that were committed against them in this era. Why can’t we learn from past mistakes?
“It breaks my heart to know that around the world, mothers, children, families are fleeing from their homes that are being torn apart by war. We have so much in abundance. We need to share our home with these people that have nothing.” Silvie Paladino
I often feel helpless when I see or hear news about the plight of refugees. I wonder what someone like me, with limited resources, can do that will make a difference. I go to protests. I send letters to politicians. I sign petitions. But it never seems to do much. Or it didn’t; until this week when, at last, Australians seem to have woken from their slumber.
The catalyst has been the imminent deportation of 267 asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru. Among this group are young babies born in Australia and kids who are currently going to local primary schools. There are women who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru and now face return to their abusers. Many of these people fled war and terror to seek safety in our community.
Across Australia, people from all walks of life began to stand up to the government – teachers, librarians, zoo keepers, unions, doctors and everyday Australians. #LetThemStay has trended across social media and vigils have been held in major cities. I was lucky to attend the Melbourne event; to stand in solidarity with people seeking asylum. And I was also thoroughly heartened by everything else that has happened, including:
- Anglican and Uniting churches offering sanctuary to the 267 asylum seekers.
- The Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews writing to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to say that Victoria would give sanctuary to the refugees; and that his actions were followed by other premiers across the country.
- Activists from Greenpeace, GetUp, Amnesty International and Action Aid taking action on Sydney Harbour.
- The Australian Council of Trade Unions paying for full page ads in newspapers; demanding that Turnbull let the refugees stay.
- 37 cribs being assembled on Bondi Beach; each one representing one of the 37 Australian-born babies that face deportation to danger on Nauru. Bondi is the electorate of Turnbull; so this is people who will potentially vote, or not vote, for him.
- Doctors and nurses at Lady Cilento Hospital in Raymond Terrace, Brisbane, refusing to discharge ‘baby Asha’ until there is a guarantee that she is not returned to Nauru.
- Mums 4 Refugees bringing together a team of musicians led by Missy Higgins to call for an Age of Reason to #LetThemStay.
It was the latter that prompted me to write this blog. Seeing these wonderful women come together and hearing their beautiful voices sing ‘Age of Reason’ has given me hope. And so have all the remarkable events that have occurred this week. It’s a hope for a better future for the refugees … and it’s a personal hope for me, that I’ll once again be proud to call myself Australian.
“Humanity has no borders and we should look after all the children of the world as though they are our own.” Heidi Arena
Please tell the Prime Minister – don’t send them back – by signing this petition: #LetThemStay
“We’re here. Don’t forget about us.” Ajak Kwai