Yeah, we’re being terrible to people again

OK, then.  I’ve been sick for weeks and weeks, and haven’t had the brains or the energy to write about politics, not even the enduring delight that is the ongoing citizenship drama surrounding our elected leaders.  Also, being sick for so long is making me depressed, so apologies if this post is rather more cynical than usual.

But this stuff on Manus Island is awful.  Even for us, it’s awful.  As far as I can tell, the goal is to starve asylum seekers into agreeing to go back to their countries of origin so that they can be killed out of sight.

And yes, that sounds melodramatic and awful, but when you actually have people saying that they are choosing to stay because they would rather die here than elsewhere… well, that’s pretty horrific.  I’d say it was calling the Government’s bluff, only I don’t think they are bluffing.  I have a terrible, terrible feeling that if we woke up tomorrow to learn that the 606 men left on Nauru had died, either of untreated illnesses, or infection, or by violence, or of thirst, our Government would make noises about country-shoppers being misled by evil refugee advocates and be quietly satisfied that *now* the boats would surely stop coming.

Only I’m not sure that the boats would stop coming, because when the house is on fire, people tend to jump out the window, even if it’s a long drop to the ground.  Boarding up the windows doesn’t fix the problem, it just means you don’t see the people burning to death inside.

Anyway.  There really isn’t much I can say here that I haven’t said many, many times before, so I’ll keep this brief, and then hand over to others who can speak to this better.

I will say, though, that this time?  I’m not saying #BringThemHere.  I don’t think we can be trusted with them.  I think we should take New Zealand up on its offer and support sending these poor men to a country that will actually look after them, and not change its mind and send them back to prison or to their countries of origin when the political wind changes again.  Though that still leaves 450 people un-housed…

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So apparently I need to write about asylum seekers after all

I realise that the appropriate response to the news that the Australian Government plans to turn asylum seekers living in the community out onto the streets with no income is not exasperation, but rather horror, fury, or grief, but I have to say, exasperation was what I went with on reading the news yesterday.

I mean, is it too much to ask for the government to only be appalling on one front at a time?

Seriously, guys.  *Either* you get to destroy the Great Barrier Reef, *or* you can find new ways to pick on poor people, *or* you can waste $122 million on a divisive, non-binding postal survey about marriage equality which will do absolutely no good to anyone, *or* you can continue to pursue counterproductive policies that worsen the situation for indigenous Australians, *or* you can do horrible things to asylum seekers while calling the people who help them unAustralian.  But you have to choose.  You don’t get to do all of them.  It’s not fair, and it’s just being greedy.  What are the other politicians going to do when they want to be terrible, if you’ve already done everything?

You need to learn to share.  Pick one horrible cause, and leave the others for someone else to play with.

Actually, no, don’t pick one horrible cause.  Pick none of them.  All of those things are disgusting, and I can’t honestly believe that everyone in the Coalition is as awful as those policies make them sound. There must be someone in there with a heart, surely…

Anyway, for me, the five stages of dealing with politics are exasperation, anger, depression, writing letters to politicians, and blog posts.  I’ve done the first four, so here we are with number five.

Here are a couple of quotes from the letter that was apparently sent to asylum seekers:

“You will be expected to support yourself in the community until departing Australia… If you cannot find work to support yourself in Australia you will need to return to a regional processing country or any country where you have a right of residence.

“From Monday 28 August you will need to find money each week for your own accommodation costs. From this date, you will also be responsible for all your other living costs like food, clothing and transport. You are expected to sign the Code of Behaviour when you are released into the Australian community. The Code of Behaviour outlines how you are to behave in the community.”

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Nauru

I didn’t read Amnesty’s report on Nauru last week.  I knew it was bad, and I signed yet another petition, but I didn’t read the report because some things, once seen, can’t be unseen.  My imagination is vivid and I am prone to nightmares – I don’t need more fuel.

I haven’t read the full Nauru files, either.  In fact, I spent yesterday consciously avoiding reading anything about them at all.  I know they will hurt to read.  I know they will detail endless abuses, ignored and even encouraged by a system in which there is no transparency, only secrecy, with deterrence and stopping people drowning at sea being held up as the cardinal virtues, the only solution, the moral response before which all other moral imperatives must bow.

I didn’t read them because I have read so much already, and written so much already, and the only thing that ever seems to change is that I lose more of my faith in humanity.  I have signed petitions and I have written letters, and it doesn’t matter, because the Government isn’t listening, and the opposition is afraid to look weak.  (The Greens may care, but they have no leverage, and I don’t think that One Nation is my natural ally in this particular battle.)  I did, finally, read this report, but I could not bring myself to click on all the links.

I didn’t want to know the details.

Of course, I – like most Australians – can make that choice.  I can choose not to read these articles and files – to prioritise my own mental health over knowing absolutely everything that I can know over how my country is abusing vulnerable people.  And, incidentally, there is nothing wrong with making that choice.  I think there is a point where reading too much horror is so overwhelming that it actively saps the energy we could be using to act to counter the horror. I can choose, for that matter, to ignore the whole situation.

The people on Nauru – men, women and children – don’t have this choice.  The violence, the abuse, the fear, is a constant for them at all times, and they have no hope for a future in which they will be able to escape this abuse.  Their choices are to remain and endure, or to return to the countries they fled, in fear of their lives.  (And let’s not pretend that these people are not genuine asylum seekers. Though, frankly, at this point, it doesn’t matter whether they are or not – nothing can justify abusing people and denying them medical care, let alone the indefinite detention of children in unsafe circumstances.)

Honestly, I’m no expert on any of this.  I don’t know, really, what a sustainable immigration program looks like, or how much we can afford to spend resettling people in Australia.  I do know that we are paying a huge amount of money to imprison people on Nauru or to resettle them in Cambodia, while refusing New Zealand’s offer to re-settle people there (because God forbid that we actually allow the people we have been systematically abusing to settle somewhere that they might be safe from harm).  I am fairly sure we could process asylum seekers more cheaply and more humanely in Australia, and I am not the only one who believes this.

I freely admit that I don’t know the best long-term strategy.

But the situation on Nauru and Manus Island and Christmas Island is one we have created ourselves as a country.  We are turning scared, desperate people into scared, desperate, traumatised people, and sometimes into scared, desperate, dead people.  This is absolutely immoral.

To me, the only moral response now is to close the camps and bring everyone in them to Australia.  We have deliberately damaged people, and we owe them restitution, regardless of their status.  No exceptions.

We can afford this – we’re talking something in the realm of 1,500 people, less than 0.01% of the Australian population.  Even if we put them all straight onto unemployment and provide them with access to psychological and medical help and case managers, it’s still going to cost less per person than we are spending on Nauru.  We don’t even have to worry about what message we are sending to people smugglers – this isn’t a long-term policy change (much as I might like it to be!), this is making restitution to a specific group of people because we stuffed up.  We aren’t going to do the same for everyone who comes here.

Going forward, we need to come up with a better strategy for helping asylum seekers.  There is so much war now, in Syria, and South Sudan, and elsewhere, that the flow of refugees is not going to stop any time soon.  Australia needs to join with countries throughout the world to figure out a compassionate and practical response to this situation.  It’s a global problem, and it needs a global solution.

But Nauru?  That’s local.  We did that ourselves, and it’s our responsibility to fix it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Lunchtime is letter time…

Some excellent speakers at yesterday’s rally, and I will try to write about it at some point.

But in the meantime, it’s lunchtime, which means it’s time to ring and write to the politician of your choice!  I rang my local member, and spoke to a lovely woman who told me that he is already against returning children to Nauru (onya, Kelvin!), but because I find phone calls terribly intimidating, I’m writing to the PM, Shorten and the various Immigration types…

As usual, these letters are very imperfect, but if they help you find a place to start, then they have done their job.  I do want to write at some point about the adult asylum seekers – we do focus on children, because they are an easier sell – but frankly, I don’t think anyone belongs in a detention centre on Nauru for years on end, regardless of age or gender.  If someone is a refugee, they deserve to be resettled somewhere safe.  If someone is not a refugee, then maybe they need to go home.  And if someone is a criminal, well, that’s why we have a legal system.  But holding someone indefinitely and without trial is never OK.

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Bothering politicians about Abyan and Nauru

What are lunch breaks for if not to ring the Prime Minister’s office and mumble in a somewhat tongue-tied fashion about the need to bring Abyan back to Australia for treatment?

Well, one thing they are for is letter-writing!  As is my usual habit, a copy of the email I just sent to the PM is below the cut.  It is not perfect, and yours doesn’t have to be perfect, either.

The important thing, if this is something you care about, is to write *something*.  Keep it polite, and probably try to be briefer than me because I always write way too much, which may not be the best way to get read.  But the more people who write, or who ring, or who tweet, however incoherently, the louder the message. And feel free to borrow any phrasing that appeals to you from what I’ve written.  That’s the other purpose of putting this letter here.

I’ll write to Peter Dutton, Bill Shorten and Richard Marles (Shadow Minister for Immigration) after work, and if their letters are significantly different, I’ll post them below.

Edited to add: My friend P wrote a really excellent letter to both Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton, very different to mine, and considerably better worded, in my opinion!.  She has given me permission to post it below as another handy example.  I am also adding a link to a very thoughtful article by Julian Burnside on how to write to MPs.  He mentions several things that would never have occurred to me, and is collecting replies – and non-replies – from MPs.  Definitely a strategy to consider.

Handy contact details:

Malcolm Turnbull – (02) 6277 7700; malcolm.turnbull.mp@aph.gov.au ; @TurnbullMalcolm
Peter Dutton – (02) 6277 7860 or (07) 3205 9977; minister@border.gov.au ; @PeterDutton_MP
Bill Shorten – (02) 6277 4022 or (03) 9326 1300; Bill.Shorten.MP@aph.gov.au; @billshortenmp
Richard Marles – (03) 5221 3033; richard.marles.mp@aph.gov.au @RichardMarlesMP

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To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.  There are articles about this everywhere, but for those who have managed to miss them, the Magna Carta was a charter originally signed (or rather, sealed) by King John, which set in stone certain fundamental rights of law, and limited the power of the King so that he was no longer above the law.  This was a radical move, and in fact, the charter was signed under a certain amount of duress, nobody stood by its commitments, and it was quickly annulled by the Pope… Still, it had great symbolic as well as practical value, and after John’s death in 1216 it was rewritten several times, was part of a treaty in 1217, and in 1297 it became part of England’s statute law.  It is considered to be one of the foundations of our legal system.

Disclaimer: I’ve never studied law, so do not expect great legal insights from this post.  On the other hand, I did major in medieval history, so if you find history intensely boring (how can this be?), you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.  I promise we’ll get to the politics/law stuff after that. 

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Towards a more humane asylum seeker policy

After writing all those letters yesterday evening, I found myself lying awake last night wondering what kind of asylum seeker policy I’d like to see happening in Australia, and what the Australian public might be convinced to accept.

Our current policy is punitive to the point of being abusive.  It is opaque – we can’t tell if any boats have been stopped, because the navy and media are barred from reporting on the situation.  It breaks international law.  It is expensive.  It is destructive.  It shames us as a nation.  And… I don’t think it actually works.

What, exactly, is the purpose of ‘stopping the boats’, anyway? Is it to prevent drownings at sea?  If so, then why are we towing boats back into other countries’ waters?  (Is it OK for people to drown so long as they aren’t in our sea?)

In any case, we haven’t stopped the drownings.

Is it to discourage people from coming here ‘illegally’ (and let’s be very clear that the term ‘illegal’ is one made up by our governments over the years – it is not illegal to seek asylum)?  How is that supposed to work, anyway?  I doubt that most people in war zones or other dire situations are in a position to get reliable information on what to expect if they come to Australia… and even if they do, do we want to be a worse alternative than starvation, genocide or rape?  Really?

In any case, we haven’t stopped people coming.

Is it to discourage people coming here as economic refugees?  If so, then surely we should be putting money into foreign aid, so that people don’t have to come, right?  Except that we are not.  In fact, we’re currently taking money out of the foreign aid budget.  This is logically inconsistent.

In any case, 88% of people arriving on boats are found to be genuine refugees.

We are not protecting our borders from invasion, because we are not being invaded.  The number of refugees coming to Australia by boat is tiny, particularly compared to the number of people arriving by other means – or going to other countries.

We are not protecting Australians from the economic costs of a huge, unsupportable influx of people – we are paying nearly $125,000 per refugee per year under the current system.

And we are certainly not using ‘tough love’ to protect the refugees from the consequences of their mistakes.

We are, it seems, driving them to suicide, or giving them right back to the people who persecuted them.

Honestly, if mothers of infants are attempting suicide because they think it might result in a better life for their children, that’s not moral blackmail, that’s despair.  And tragedy, since it appears that we have no morals to speak of in this matter.

I think, at this point, being tough on asylum seekers is so entrenched as a value that neither of our two biggest political parties dare touch it – because whoever does so first risks being seen as weak and unelectable.  This is largely self-inflicted – our politicians and media have done a fine job over the last fifteen years or so of demonising asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, people who are not genuine refugees and who have come here to take advantage of our generosity.  And the public has learned to believe this.

To my mind, the only way forward is somehow to persuade both Liberal and Labor to come together and agree that enough is enough, and create a policy which they will both support, rather than undermining each other.  Is this a pipe dream? Very possibly.  But imagining a solution is the first step towards creating one, so here’s my attempt to envisage what a humane asylum seeker policy should look like.

Processing, Assessment, and Integration

At present, we are being incredibly slow at processing asylum seekers, but when we actually get around to do so, we are finding that the vast majority turn out to be genuine refugees.  In other words, most of these people are eventually going to become permanent residents, and, eventually, Australian citizens.

So we might as well make sure they are equipped for this.

Our process for assessing refugee claims should go hand in hand with preparing new residents for future citizenship.  This is the compassionate thing to do – and it’s also the most beneficial model for Australia as a whole.  Many refugees will need help with English language skills, with trauma counselling, and with integration into Australian society – this will be the case no matter how long it takes to process them.  Why not start this process immediately, rather than imprisoning and traumatising them further – and in so doing, making their ultimate integration a much longer and costlier process?

I’d envisage a process that looks something like this:

1. Initial Screening / Health check and Quarantine

This period should be brief – a few weeks at most.  And this part, we actually could do off-shore if we felt that this was necessary.  During this period, we would provide a health check-up to all people arriving, and quarantine anyone who needs quarantining.  The health check should also include a psychiatric assessment, to flag people who might need help along those lines (survivors of trauma, etc) down the track.

If practical – and it may not be – there could also be a criminal record check at this point.  This would also be the point where the initial application for asylum was made.

2. Processing / Detention in the Community

This period should be aiming to last 6-12 months.  It should be community-based (in capital cities or large regional centres for practical reasons), though depending on the situation of the asylum seeker, accommodation might be in community housing or, at least initially, in something that still is essentially a detention centre.

During this period, asylum seekers would receive a stipend (probably the equivalent of NewStart, though as accommodation would be provided, it might be a bit less).  They would also receive access to medical care, including psychiatric care.  In return for this they would be required to:

  • attend intensive English classes, unless they can pass an initial exam showing that they are fluent in English
  • attend a series of classes that are essentially an introduction to Australian culture, laws, and democratic processes.
  • health permitting, spend 10-15 hours a week in an approved form of community service (delivering meals on wheels, helping in community gardens, etc)

The purpose of this process and these requirements is to help prepare asylum seekers to enter the wider community – by providing them with language skills, having a reasonable idea of how Australian society works, and by contributing to the community.  The community service aspect is, I realise, contentious, especially given how badly Work for the Dole schemes have gone, but I think it might be useful on a number of levels, not the least of which is combating our xenophobia – if Australians see that asylum seekers are already giving something back to the community (rather than ‘stealing our jobs’ or ‘living the high life on pensions’), this is not a bad thing.  And, if run well, such a program would allow asylum seekers to feel useful and less like charity cases, provide a reason to get out of bed and leave the house, and, hopefully, provide opportunities for asylum seekers to meet people in the wider community.

Obviously, these requirements would have to be somewhat flexible depending on the age, health, and existing skills of the people in question.  School-age children, for example, would be exempt from any requirement other than that of attending school in a local community, and would receive language and cultural support through aides allocated to the school.

To manage this process, each asylum seeker or family would be assigned a case manager, who would also assist with the application, and assess skills.  This case manager is key to the process, as he or she would become the asylum seeker’s main contact and referral point for other services, and would remain so until the asylum seekers under his or her care became eligible to apply for permanent residency.  I would anticipate that the level of contact required would be fairly intensive in the first couple of years, and then tail off significantly as asylum seekers reached the settlement stage.

3. Settlement and Integration

Assuming a successful outcome to the application, asylum seekers would receive a residency visa.  This would entitle them to five years of residency, at the end of which, assuming they had broken no laws and had complied with any other requirements, they would be able to apply for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship.  The visa would allow asylum seekers to work, go to school, and have access to Medicare and other entitlements as appropriate.  At this point, they would be freed from the community service obligation, but would be encouraged to continue with the English and Civics classes until they had achieved a reasonable level of competency.  (These classes would be free and would be offered in the evenings and on weekends if appropriate.)

At the time that this visa was granted, the case manager would interview the asylum seeker or family, and discuss employment, education and settlement.  The goal here would be to settle asylum seekers in communities where their skills would be useful and needed (this would mesh well with the current Asylum Seeker Welcome Cities program), while being mindful of maintaining existing family and community connections.  The case manager would assist asylum seekers who had overseas qualifications or training to get them recognised either wholly or in part (I suspect that this really is the complicated part, and we’d need another specialist of some kind here), and connect them with resources for seeking employment.

4. Citizenship

Hooray!

Considerations

I’m not going to try to write a budget for this, but let’s at least take a look at the sort of costs that might be involved in this process. There are a number of estimates floating around regarding how much we are spending on mandatory detention, but one of the more reliable estimates looks to be $339 per refugee per day.  This is nearly $124,000 per person per year.   You can do an awful lot with $124,000.  Social worker and case manager salaries hover around an average of $55,000 per year – which seems criminally low to me – and one can assume on-costs of around 22%, taking this cost to about $65,000.  Psychologists come in at a little more expensive, coming to about $80,000 per year, including on-costs.  I don’t know what a reasonable case load would look like for a social worker or a psychologist in these circumstances, but I’m fairly sure they look after more than one person or family at a time.  If we allow one full-time case worker and one full-time psychologist to each group of ten people in the first two years – which is probably on the intensive side, frankly – this is only about $15,000 per refugee per year.  And I’m reasonably sure that we can manage to house, feed and provide medical care to a refugee in the community for under $110,000 per year.  I would anticipate that by the end of two years, the majority of asylum seekers would be at the settlement stage, and require less intensive contact with their case workers.

There will, of course, be other professionals involved in this plan – teachers, trainers, administrators, doctors, career advisors, and goodness knows what else, but most of these would not be interacting with refugees on a daily basis.  I’d be willing to bet that if we actually wanted to do so, we could create an absolutely blue-ribbon refugee settlement process that would cost less, provide more on-shore jobs, and have significantly better outcomes both for the refugees and our community than our current system.

I would also suggest basing the case workers and Asylum Seekers in the Processing stage in regional centres, as a way of bringing jobs to these areas and also, frankly, to help keep accommodation costs manageable.

Comments?

So, what do you think?  Would this work?  Would it be an awful idea?  What would your ideal policy look like?

Asylum Legacy Caseload Bill, and some letter-writing campaigns

As you might imagine, there are a few campaigns going against the Bills I wrote about on Sunday.  A Just Australia is organising a letter-writing campaign, with tips on what to say and information on how to find your local MPs and Senators.  The Refugee Advocacy Network is organising a similar campagin, and has information and interviews on YouTube explaining why these Bills are dangerous.  Or if you are a social media person, check out the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre‘s campaign, which combines Facebook and Twitter selfies with the more traditional letter-writing and phone calls.  You might also want to sign GetUp’s petition to close the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres – I know it’s been around for a few weeks, but it’s still worth doing.

The good news is that the Labor Party have said that they will oppose the bill (I have read that they do still support some measures, though I have not yet managed to find out which – I suspect it’s the off-shore detention part).  Independent Senator Madigan, formerly of the DLP, has also expressed opposition to this Bill, and when I called his office a few weeks ago on a related topic, I was told that he feels very strongly about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.  So if you are not in the mood for admonitory letters or emails, you could write a brief note of thanks and encouragement to your Labor and DLP Senators – or, of course, your Green Senators, whose opposition to this Bill is taken so much for granted that the ASRC doesn’t even bother to mention them!

Also, Pope Francis has also written to Tony Abbott asking him to remember the human cost of his laws, and calling for generosity to refugees – as well as more equitable social policies generally.   I’m beginning to think this Pope is almost as much of a socialist as I am – it will be interesting to see what our oh-so-Catholic Prime Minister makes of this letter.

But enough of these fun and games!  It’s letter-writing time!  As usual, I’m posting below the cut copies of the letters I have just sent to all my cross-bench Senators, my local MP, the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Immigration, and his Shadow Minister.

You can find contact details for your own local Senators and MPs here.  Happy writing!

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Asylum Seekers: Two Bills that should cause concern

Seriously, it’s hard to keep up with the Government at the moment.  I have half-formed posts in my head about healthcare, and about pensions, and on how we construct value, and of course, the Victorian State Election is breathing down my neck with its promise of endless tiny political parties to write about, and now it seems we are finding new ways to pick on asylum seekers again. Honestly.  Some of us have full-time jobs, you know.  We can’t spend our entire time writing blog posts and letters about all the stupid and cruel things the government is doing.  You’d think they’d be old enough by now that you could let them play in Parliament House unsupervised, but evidently not… (Why yes, I am being sarcastic.  Though I have frequently suspected that the Abbott Government’s onslaught on everything from the environment to the unemployed was a deliberate strategy to weaken opposition by dividing its focus.  Nobody has the energy to fight on this many fronts.)

So.  If I’m not writing about all those other things, please don’t imagine it’s that I don’t care about them.  It’s that there are only so many hours in the day, and I have to pick the issue that a) upsets me the most, b) is worth badgering the pollies about this week and c) is something I actually have an intelligent opinion about.  You’re unlikely, for example, to get posts about global warming or coal seam gas or the Barrier Reef here, not because I don’t care, but because I’m starting from such a low baseline of knowledge that it makes sense to let people who know more write those articles. And boy, was that a digression. Continue reading