Thinking aloud about asylum seekers

I’ve been trying to write a letter to my senators about what is happening to – what we as a country are doing to – asylum seekers, but I keep getting stuck.  Usually, this is the sort of thing that would inspire reams of text from me, but tonight, I find it impossible to finish a sentence.  Or a useful one, at any rate.  I’m hoping that this post, in addition to being self-indulgent navel-gazing, might help me sort some of my thoughts out, and make it possible for me to write something coherent.

Or if not, perhaps it will strike a chord with someone else.

Part of the problem is a feeling that nobody is listening anyway – or rather, that the only people listening are the people who already agree with me that what we are doing to these people is wrong. The people who disagree with me either don’t think we are doing wrong, or don’t care, or feel that it is in some way deserved.  God, according to some reports, 59% of Australians think we are not treating asylum seekers who arrive on boats harshly enough.  When I first saw that report, I commented to a friend that given the reports of horrific living conditions, insufficient water, endless queuing for food, and – according to a report by medical workers on Manus island – confiscation of medications, hearing aids, glasses and prosthetics, about the only thing we aren’t doing to asylum seekers yet is shooting them.

Spoke too soon.

And yes, I realise that it isn’t Australians, personally, who are shooting at asylum seekers, but frankly, if we’ve locked people up somewhere the locals are likely to attack them with machetes, well, I think we do have to take some responsibility for this as a nation.  (For a better-reasoned version of this argument, check out this article)

Oh, and apparently now we are accidentally publicising their personal details on the internet, but it’s still totally fine to send them back home – or at least we aren’t ruling this out – because such information could never, ever get into the hands of the people they are fleeing from…

Honestly, this makes me want to cry.  Yes, it’s true that I’m a bleeding-heart lefty.  And yes, I believe the report from last year that at least 90% of our boat arrivals are genuine refugees.

Then again, so should you – this report, released by the government in 2011, contained similar information, and lest you think that this is because Labor was soft on refugees, this report was released right between the government’s decision to change the refugee determination system for asylum seekers arriving in excised territories, and its signing of a memorandum permitting involuntary repatriation of failed asylum seekers – including children who had become separated from their families – to Afghanistan.  Whether you think that these policies were good or bad, they are not the policies of a government that wanted us to embrace asylum seekers.

But even if our asylum seekers were not genuine – even if they were ‘queue jumpers’ (and here’s what Amnesty thinks of that idea), even if they were criminals fleeing justice – they would deserve better treatment than this.

When people are suspected of a crime in Australia, we arrest them and we lock them up.  And then we try them in court, and if they are convicted, they go to prison for a set length of time.  During this time, we provide them with adequate food, water, shelter and medical care.  We attempt rehabilitation.  We accept that whatever horrible crime they have committed does not change the fact that they are human beings, with certain inalienable rights.  And we accept that in most cases these people will eventually be returned to the community, and we endeavour to make provision for them to do so without endangering themselves or others.  I’m not saying we do this perfectly, but we do at least attempt to operate within a human rights framework.

We do not imprison people without trial, without legal representation, without recourse.  We do not hold them in unhygienic conditions with insufficient access to water for washing, or in intensely hot conditions without sufficient water for drinking.  We do not deprive them of contact with the outside world.  We do not deprive child offenders of education.  And we do not deprive them of reasonable access to medical care.  (I have to say, the bit about glasses and prosthetics really made me feel ill.  Aside from the horrible health implications, it reminded me irresistibly of those photographs of gold teeth and glasses from WW2 concentration camps.  And no, I’m not equating our treatment of asylum seekers with the holocaust – but I’d honestly prefer that we weren’t doing anything that made me even think of Australia and the Holocaust in the same paragraph.)

Incidentally, much of that last paragraph came from a report by Amnesty International.  Our asylum seeker policy has been keeping Amnesty pretty busy recently, if the emails in my inbox are anything to go by.  This is also not something I want to be true of my country.

I frankly don’t understand how we can be doing this.  I realise that people – myself included – tend to view as reliable news sources that agree with their own understanding of what’s going on, but I really would have thought that Amnesty International had the sort of reputation for non-partisan intervention in human rights issues that would make people of goodwill on either side of politics pay attention.  Is it that people aren’t even hearing the stories?  Or have we become so accustomed to thinking of asylum seekers as ‘illegal immigrants’ that any punishment for their ‘crime’ is unacceptable?

Or are we actually trying to be crueller in our treatment of asylum seekers than the countries they are fleeing from?

I am not writing this in an unpatriotic spirit.  Quite the contrary.  I love my country, and I think we are better than this.  I truly believe that if the average Australian saw what was really going on in the countries people are fleeing from – or if they saw what was happening  on Manus Island, for that matter – they would be as distressed as I am.  I don’t think we are an intentionally cruel people.

But I also think that a lack of intentional cruelty isn’t good enough.  If we allow this treatment of asylum seekers – these human rights abuses – to continue without protest, then we are also culpable.

I still don’t know what to do about any of this.  I don’t know what one person can do.  I don’t know how to make anyone listen who doesn’t agree with me already.  And I still don’t know how to write this letter.  (Though I suppose that I have at least now collected a number of the articles I needed to base my arguments on…)

But I’m going to write it anyway.  I am not honestly sure if I have any hope that my voice is meaningful or will be heard, but it’s all I have just now.

And I’d rather do something than nothing.


I was going to end the post there, but honestly, I think it’s all too easy to fall into a great big hole of depression and misery on this subject, and then just give up. So here are five things that might help, and which certainly can’t do too much harm.

1. Amnesty International – visit their site, keep an eye on their petitions, donate if you can.  Also, I occasionally find it gloomily encouraging to be reminded that there are countries out there who are being even more horrible than we are.   Which, I realises, says some unfortunate things about my psyche, but I’m taking my optimism wherever I can find it this week.

2. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – an excellent Melbourne-based organisation which assists refugees on a number of levels.   You can help them as a volunteer on an ongoing basis, with occasional working bees, or financially.  If you follow them on Facebook they will keep you apprised of opportunities to help out, and they will also provide you with many thoroughly depressing emails about things going on on Manus Island.  See also the Sydney-based Asylum Seekers Centre.

3. Chilout is an organisation that wants to get all children out of detention.  As well they should.  Heaps of useful information on their site about people to write to and things you can do.  They also encourage people to sign up for visiting kids in detention, and there are links to people co-ordinating this in every state.  If you are someone with more time than money – and, I suspect, someone who has really, really good coping skills because I think this would be pretty full-on – this would be a great program to get involved with.

4. Foreign Aid – Here’s one for the economic rationalists reading this post!  I know plenty of good people who feel that we don’t have the capacity to take in lots of refugees (though it should be remembered that the numbers we take in are tiny compared to those of other countries), and that the best solution lies in trying to help fix things up in the countries they are coming from.  This is a reasonable and consistent argument.  It is also an argument our government appears to be ignoringEmail your MP to ask him or her to oppose cutting foreign aid, and consider donating to an organisation like Kiva, which offers micro-loans to people trying to work their way out of poverty.  I don’t actually think most of our refugees are economic refugees, but on the whole, poverty tends to make politics worse too.

5. Protests – Look, I’m never sure how well the whole out-in-the-street sorts of protests work, but if you are a Melbourne person, the Refugee Action Collective is a good place to start.  Also, if protesting in the streets is your thing, but you have physical or mental health issues that might make this difficult, the Pandora Collective is working to find ways to enable participation in protests for people who might otherwise be unable to do so.

And here are three websites that might also be of interest

Rethink Refugees – giving a voice to people currently in detention, and allowing you to send a message of support

Rural Australians for Refugees – I found this site by accident while writing this article, and I really like it.  It sets out the situation and the reasons we should be trying to help refugees rather than punishing them in language which is clear, concise and coherent.  In fact, it’s worlds better than this post.  I should have just linked to it to start with!

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Catering – This is really cool – it’s a catering service that employs and trains asylum seekers, gives them contacts to the community, and raises awareness.  They do a good job of catering to a range of dietary requirements, and their food is varied and interesting.

I’m sure that there must be many more things we can do and organisations that can help.  This is the list I was able to come up with at 11:15 on a work night in a long week – I’m sure you can do better in the light of day!  If you do have any brilliant ideas, post them below, and I’ll add them to this list.

We can do better.

5 thoughts on “Thinking aloud about asylum seekers

  1. Hi Cate, thanks for your recent posts and links about asylum seekers. The news from Manus Island is incredibly distressing and I’m also very disturbed by the polls showing such callous attitudes in the Australian community at large.

    Though not by nature an activist, I feel driven to act, and would be happy to help you draft a letter if I can. I have some reservations about the ‘fasting for a cause’ idea but would be glad to brainstorm other options.

    A friend of mine helped to launch the campaign What Would You Do? Putting the humanity back into the asylum seeker conversation. In response, I’m making a short podcast in which children talk spontaneously and compassionately about asylum seekers and about related issues like difference, tolerance, empathy and intercultural communication. It’s my own tiny protest.

    • Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for your reply. I love your friend’s campaign, and would definitely like to hear your podcast when you are done.

      Would definitely love to chat and brainstorm sometime. Actually, your comment about encouragement with letter writing reminds me of something my sister-in-law mentioned a while back about wanting to create a letter-writing club, for the purposes of mutual encouragement in political letter-writing (I think she had in mind regular get togethers where people would write their letters and chat a bit, but mostly write in the company of others. And I’m not phrasing this very well because I ought to be getting dressed and ready for a funeral, so I’m going to do that right now). Talk soon!


      • Sorry to hear you had a funeral to go to today.
        That letter-writing club sounds like a great idea – at the very least as an opportunity to get better informed about some of these issues.
        I look forward to chatting soon!
        Michelle 🙂

  2. Please feel free to email me at chellemich at yahoo dot com if you’d like any help or encouragement with the letter-writing or research. I’d be glad to stay in touch off-line. Cheers, Michelle

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