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

Two days

That’s how long it has taken for everyone to forget I’m wearing a scarf and interactions to go back to normal.  True, there are still a few double takes – it’s a big Institute, and I haven’t crossed paths with everyone yet, but in my lab, everyone’s basically used to the idea and has moved on.  Which is nice.

As for me, it turns out that it’s taken about four days for me to reach the point where I can go for long periods of time without remembering that I’m wearing a scarf.  It’s not that I’ve been wandering around feeling self-conscious at all times up until now – though for the first three days, and especially on Monday, I was certainly self-conscious pretty often – but today I found that I’d become so used to the feel of my scarf that I had to check visually several times that I was still wearing it and wasn’t leaving hair or neck exposed (the horror!).  My brain is now tuning out all those nerve endings that were jumping up and down going “Something on my head!  Something on my cheek! Something on my neck!” for the last few days, and this is apparently the new normal.

This does, of course, lead to random moments of confusion when someone reacts to my scarf and at first I don’t know what they are reacting to – or moments of fear when I realise that I have forgotten what I’m wearing and have thus also forgotten to think about where I am, and have to do a quick “Is this somewhere I feel safe wearing a scarf” analysis.  Because the thing that hasn’t stopped is the constant, low-level anxiety about being out in public and looking Non-White.  Even though, I have to say, the worst I’ve had to deal with since Saturday is people moving away from me on public transport or glaring at me at tram stops.

(And I’d just like to add that while this is really very low-grade stuff, I can imagine that it’s the sort of thing that could really build up and start to weigh on one’s psyche over time.  I was bullied at school, and it took me years to walk into a room and not expect everyone to hate me on sight – I still expect this sometimes – and I must admit, getting onto public transport in Hijab does feel a lot like walking into my year nine classroom.)

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And here is something you can do right now

According to Amnesty International, a Bill is being debated right now that will make significant changes to the assessment process for asylum seekers.  And these changes are not good ones.  I especially like the part where the bill “calls for a number of provisions in the UN Refugee Convention – to which Australia is party – to be removed from the Migration Act.”

Not unexpectedly, number one on the Exciting List of Mean Things To Do To Refugees (yes, that’s flippant, but honestly, it’s flippancy or despair right now) is the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas, which puts people in a horrible position where their refugee status is reassessed every three years, with the threat of deportation at the end of each three year period if they are no longer deemed to be at risk.

Given how very bad our government has been at assessing risk to asylum seekers, both within our system and in terms of deporting people back to their countries of origin where they are trapped in war zoneskilled,disappeared‘, or otherwise persecutedexactly as they told us they would be, this is a pretty frightening thought.  Bad enough to have to go through this harrowing process once, but to have to roll the dice for your life every three years seems cruel and unusual – and not conducive to mental health.

Let’s be clear – a temporary protection visa tells people: “You are not one of us.  You are not welcome.”  It says “Don’t get too comfortable here.”  On a practical level, it also says “Don’t bring your family, and don’t go home to visit them,” which is another cruelty designed to make people give up.

These are all, quite frankly, terrible things to do to people who have already suffered from persecution in their home countries.

But it’s also a pretty terrible thing to do to Australia.  Setting aside the burden on our collective conscience – which I think is immense – the temporary protection visa weakens us as a country.  Whether you take the protectionist view that people who come here from other cultures need to assimilate, or the multiculturalist view that people who come here from other cultures enrich us, the temporary protection visa undermines this, because the other thing this visa tells people is: “You have no stake in this country.”

If we are serious about being worried about terrorism, this is a really stupid thing to do.  And if we just want to be decent human beings, it’s a deeply unkind thing to do.

Either way, we need to stop doing it.

The High Court of Australia recently ruled that we could not prevent people from applying for permanent protection.  I’m guessing that the new Bill is designed to counter this.

So.  Here’s what we can do today.

Amnesty International is encouraging you to call your Senator today, and provides some scripts you can use to do so.  You can find a list of Senators for your state here – click on the map to find the ones for your state.

This is horribly intimidating, I know.  Frankly, I always feel as though I sound like a complete idiot when I ring a politician, so I’ll probably use Amnesty’s script, or something very like it.  And still sound like a complete idiot.

You can also send emails or letters, which is a bit less scary.  I’m going to try to draft something over the weekend and post it here, just in case that is useful to anyone.

If you are more of a rally sort of person, there is also a Walk for Refugees coming up on October 25th in a city near you.

If you’d rather run than walk, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has a Run for Refugees fundraiser coming up in conjunction with the Melbourne Marathon.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to sit, Love Makes A Way is an ecumenical Christian organisation that does training in non-violent direct action and does sit-ins at the offices of politicians.  (They definitely have non-Christians involved in the sit-ins – I’ve spotted at least one Rabbi in photos – but I suspect you’d need to be pretty comfortable with prayer to participate, regardless of your affiliation.)

And if you know about any other actions that can be taken on this, please let me know, and I’ll add them to the list.

Now, I’m off to spend the rest of my lunchbreak ringing a Senator.  Wish me luck!

PS – another item on this bill is the new Fast Track Processing, which sounds really great on the surface, but tends to greatly disadvantage people who have been traumatised by torture or sexual violence if they are unable to talk about this immediately (essentially because there’s no real time to build any sort of rapport with the interviewer, and these sorts of things can be incredibly difficult to talk about and tend to be revealed over a longer period of time).  And of course ‘greatly disadvantage’ can mean getting deported when they really are at risk.

Edited to update: I have now rung six senators – Senators Di Natale (Greens), Conroy (Labor), Muir (Motoring Lobby), McKenzie (Nationals) Madigan (Independent) and Fifield (Liberal).  In that order, I might add, because I figured that I’d leave the scary ones and the ones who might actually be on the fence until last.  So the Greens were basically my practice run, because I find this terribly intimidating, but I pretty much know which way the Greens will vote, so there’s no way that phone call can go badly! My script was similar to the one from Amnesty – though when I was speaking to the Coalition offices, I expressed my awareness that this was Coalition policy, but that I wanted to let the Senators know that I was against it.  I also mentioned my concerns that TPVs are counterproductive if we are seriously concerned about terrorism, because they don’t give people a stake in our community.

Everyone I spoke to was very friendly and helpful, especially the woman from Senator McKenzie’s office (who took notes while I was speaking – and when I apologised for speaking fast, because I was nervous, said that they always want to hear from people and know what they think about what the government is doing, and I shouldn’t worry, which was kind of her), and the man from Madigan’s office (who seemed struck by my argument about terrorism, which he said wasn’t one he had considered, and also informed me that Madigan was absolutely against TPVs, which was good to hear).  I left a message on Senator Muir’s voicemail, which I suspect was pretty much the only phonecall where I managed to sound like a grownup.

But, intimidating as it was, it has been done, and hopefully it will have some weight.  I was heartened by the fact that even the Coalition offices made an effort to be approachable and were clearly taking notes. 

(I still prefer letters, though.  It’s so much easier not to sound like a twit in a letter.)

Fasting for a cause?

I’ve been thinking more about what sort of action might help the asylum situation. I can see lots of petitions and marches and letters to politicians, and I think these are necessary and strike at the root of the matter, which is our horrible policies. But I also think that any action that comes from these is going to be slow, and that people are likely to fall through the cracks in the meantime.

So I’m wondering about organising a fundraiser for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, or a similar organisation, which helps the people who are already in this awful system.

One thing that occurred to me, having grown up with friends doing the 40 Hour Famine, was something like a sponsored 24-hour hunger strike. This appeals to me, because it is both practical (hopefully) as a fundraiser, but also allows those of us who are less comfortable with political rallies – or less able to attend them – or less good at writing letters – to sit, in some way, in solidarity with asylum seekers, a number of whom have conducted hunger strikes to protest their own treatment.

I can’t tell whether this is a good idea or a terrible one. Is it good symbolism, or deeply inappropriate? Or worse, is it something that might displace better or more practical ways of either helping or expressing solidarity? Feedback from people more knowledgeable than me about political action – and fundraisers – and everything, really, because this is far from my area of expertise – would be very welcome.

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.

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Politics: A visit to my local Member

So the High Court of Australia has told the government that they can’t send asylum seekers to Malaysia, because Malaysia’s human rights record isn’t good and it would contravene Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees.

And apparently some voices in the government, rather than saying, oops, OK then, we’d better not do that, have instead decided that the problem is our approach to human rights (which is certainly problematic, though not in the way they seem to think) and our obligations under the said UN convention.  Tony Abbott is kindly suggesting that we return to the Liberal Party’s Pacific Solution, and Labor is not ruling this out.

Of course, this would require that we cease to be signatories to the UN Convention, but that’s alright, because it’s outdated anyway (drat, I had a truly blood-pressure-raising article for this, but now I can’t find it).  And stopping people smugglers is far more important than protecting people’s human rights.

This makes me livid.

Getup is encouraging people to ring their politicians, which is a step I’ve never taken before – and with the acoustics in my workplace, I’m reluctant to do so.  But my local member has his office on my street, so I dropped in this morning before work to say hello and let him know some of my thoughts on the matter.  The poor man probably knows my thoughts on this and several other matters quite well by now, since I am an inveterate emailer and writer of letters.  Still, I’m told that phone calls and visits are more powerful than letters and emails, and I find this whole situation distressing beyond belief (I also find Labor’s current tendency to let the Liberal party set its agenda baffling and deeply unwise, quite aside from the ethics of this situation).

Visits are much more scary than letters.  I’m quite good at communicating via the written word, after all.  I can make sure I’ve made all my points, and I can put them neatly in order with the right words around them and send them off in a tidy, coherent letter.  Walking into someone’s office and saying “Hello, my name is Catherine and I live in this electorate and I’d like to speak to the MP about asylum seekers” is a different thing entirely.

The MP was, of course, unavailable.  I think he might be in Canberra, actually.  But that was OK – I figured I’d be talking to one of his staff members.  It’s still very, very disconcerting to stand there explaining my political opinions to a complete stranger, as he earnestly takes notes and assures me that the MP will certainly call me back.  I explained briefly that my father’s family were immigrants and economic refugees, that my maternal grandmother’s family had been refugees to Britain from Nazi Austria, and that I felt very strongly that we should be treating our immigrants and asylum seekers better.  I said that the Liberal Party’s treatment of asylum seekers under Howard was one of the reasons that Labor had won the 2007 election (it even broke my grandmother’s 30+ year streak of voting Liberal), and that the Labor Party needs to demonstrate that they are different from the Liberal Party.  I said that Australia is a country of immigrants, that most Australians do in fact feel we should process asylum seekers in Australia and allow genuine refugees to stay.  I did not say that even if most Australians didn’t feel that way it was the right thing to do and the government should show some moral leadership, but I thought it very loudly.

I said all this very politely and hesitantly because while I do believe every word about it, it’s very difficult to be vehement and sure of oneself while standing behind a tall counter in a very quiet, neat, official-looking office and speaking to an intimidatingly well-groomed stranger in an expensive suit, and I felt like a right twit, to be honest.  Though I was informed that the MP does appreciate hearing from people in person and on the phone.

Altogether, it was excruciating.  Letters are much easier… but that’s probably why they carry less weight.  Actually, public speaking is easier, too, at least for me.  You don’t *have* to look anyone in the eye for that.  I’m sort of hoping the MP does not get around to returning my call.  One act outside my comfort zone is enough for today.  But if he does, I’ll say it all again, and hopefully I’ll say it better.

I have no idea whether I will ever do this again.  I have no idea whether it will be less scary next time.  I still prefer letters.  But I really can’t bear for us to go back to the Howard era – and under Labor no less.

If you’re Australian and feel strongly about this, please consider ringing or visiting your local MP.  I promise you, you can’t possibly feel like more of an idiot than I did today.  I’d say you’d have a 99% chance of being more coherent than me, too.  And if you do turn into a shy, stammering idiot like me, at least you get to be a shy, stammering idiot who is trying to fix things…

Politics: Update on Seena

I got an email from my local MP this morning:

Dear Ms McLean,

Thank you for your email expressing concern about children in detention.

I am very sympathetic to the difficult circumstances facing the family members of the people tragically killed at Christmas Island on 15 December last year, especially the children.

We have a duty of care to ensure the health and well-being of all children in the care of the Immigration Department very seriously, particularly in relation to mental health issues.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship is currently finalising arrangements and advice to enable Minister Bowen to make a decision to accommodate Sina, the 9 year old orphan who travelled to Sydney for the funerals, and his family, in community detention arrangements, along with accommodation options for the other two orphans and their family members.

Sina and the other two children along with their families are expected to be living in the community by the end of next week.

I hope this information is of assistance to you. Should you feel I can be of further assistance in this or any other matter in future, please do not hesitate to contact me again.

Yours sincerely,

Kelvin Thomson MP

Member for Wills

Letters do make a difference, if enough people write them. Now we just have to get the other 700+ children out of detention…

Politics: Children in Detention – Seena Akhliqi Sheikhdost

So, there’s a child in detention on Christmas Island because he is an ‘illegal immigrant’. Actually, there are a lot of children in detention in Australia and on Christmas Island for this reason, but for now I’m just going to focus on one, because I am torn between tears and fury.

Seena Akhliqi Sheikhdost was one of the children in the boat tragedy off Christmas Island late last year. His parents both drowned, but he survived, and was of course put into detention, because we are compassionate people who find this an appropriate way to deal with bereaved eight-year-old suspected terrorists. He does, in fact, have family in Sydney, but as an unaccompanied minor, the Government is his legal guardian, and the Government apparently have forgotten why we got rid of Little Johnny, or else they don’t care. They don’t want to release him to his family because they haven’t processed him yet. He has been in detention for more than two months, His first six days in detention he spent without any family, although he had an aunt in the same centre. She wasn’t initially told he was there, you see (to be fair, this was probably bureaucratic stupidity, but there is enough awfulness to go around without adding that sort of thing into it).

As an illegal immigrant, Seena doesn’t get to go to school. He doesn’t get to associate with Australian citizens, either. And while he was allowed to go to the funeral of his parents, he can’t go back home with the family members who are in Australia legally, because he doesn’t have ASIO clearance. And did I mention that he is eight years old?

I find this deeply upsetting to contemplate, which means it’s time to write to the politicians again…

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Politics: Asylum Seekers – this is not what I had hoped for from the ALP

So, apparently our spineless excuse for a government has decided that we shouldn’t process applications for residency from Afghani and Sri Lankan refugees. Because clearly when we all voted against John Howard and he lost both the election and his seat in Parliemtn, what we really meant was that we wanted more of the same.

I am absolutely livid. Admittedly, I’ve been cranky all day, but this really infuriates me beyond belief.

Anyway, I’ve just channelled an entire day’s worth of bad temper into an email to Chris Evans, via Getup. If you’re an Australian resident and feel at all strongly about refugees, I urge you to do the same.

My (probably incoherent, since I was and still am furious) email is below. It doesn’t cover any of the suggested talking points. Sod the talking points. Our entire immigration policy is filled with racism, xenophobia and a complete lack of compassion and it’s an utter shame, which I, for one, have had enough of. Anyway, if you find anything in it useful, please feel free.

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Politics: What is Australian?

I’ve been thinking about Australian-ness for a while, partly inspired by a friend’s blog posts about nationalism in France, and partly inspired by the new Citizenship Test and other acts of idiocy currently being perpetrated by our government.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I have some ideas about what being Australian is all about that are perhaps more unusual than I’ve thought. Because to me, the key thing that makes Australia Australia is immigrants, immigration, and the stunningly diverse population we have as a result of these things. Let’s face it, with the exception of the few people of Aboriginal and Koorie descent, we are all immigrants here. And most of the waves of immigrants, now I think of it, have been from classes or races that were at the time considered socially unacceptable (criminals! Irish! Miners! Chinese! Greeks and Italians! Chinese again! Vietnamese too! Muslims! Sudanese!). I find it both sad and ironic that the descendants of these earlier settlers now feel the need to turn around and reject classes of immigrants based on religion, colour or alleged criminal tendencies. And this from a country whose most long-established families take pride in being descended from… convicts. Or, less romantically, economic refugees fleeing the Highland Clearances. Or, if they were lucky, Catholics, which carried a fine set of prejudices in its day.

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