I spent Christmas Day in the company of 20 asylum seekers at my parent’s home. Most had experienced years of incarceration, and endured hardship I can scarcely imagine. They fled situations of trauma only to be further traumatised by our government. The only thing is, I had my family there and they didn’t. A few of them showed me photos of their loved ones. They talked about their children. All the while I held mine.
I haven’t written about asylum seekers in Australia on this blog for awhile now. I wasn’t sure if it was the right space for it. But this blog is not just about creative soul writing, it also celebrates humanity and hope. And I hope I never lose courage to write about things that matter.
Privately I talk about asylum seekers all the time. I struggle with it, because it’s hard core. It’s not pictures of kittens, it’s not pretty or light. But it is necessary. I live by the words of Martin Luther King, Jnr: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on the things that matter.”
Yesterday I read a post by Eden Riley titled The Truth is On Fire, about the sad fate of Leo Seemanpillai who self-immolated a few days ago. It reminded me again about the importance of writing about things that matter.
So let’s talk about the truth. The truth is: Our government has fooled a nation with deceitful scare tactics for their own political gain. Our government breaks international law and their own laws every day. Our government has no accountability, abuses human rights, commits psychological harm, and incarcerates children. There is no doubt this is one of the gravest chapters in our nation’s history.
My family are refugee advocates who regularly visit Villawood Immigration Detention Facility. Over the past 4 years they have witnessed first hand the horrific treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. They closely knew three asylum seekers who died preventable deaths. Another attempted suicide after his already brain damaged brother was beaten unconscious by SERCO guards. They have visited a man who was mutilated (he has lost his eye) in the vicious attacks that took place in the Manus Island offshore immigration detention facility earlier this year.
There are so many more stories. Stories of shame and horror. Last week 75 asylum seekers on Christmas Island began a hunger strike, seven of them sewing their lips shut. In Nauru, women and girls routinely have to queue for 4 hours to get 4 sanitary pads. And today more riots on Christmas Island, with beatings to our fellow humans who are seeking protection. I weep for the abject cruelty taking place right this very second.
As a mother my heart breaks for the incarceration of 1000+ children. That is ONE THOUSAND precious little souls. Can we even imagine our children being locked up. I cannot. I would be crushed. The damage inflicted on these children is beyond comprehension. The damage inflicted on men and women in detention is equally impossible to measure.
But with these kinds of atrocities one thing is for certain: There will be a national apology one day. And I for one will not be complicit in supporting our government and their cruel policies. Not in my name.
So let’s get back to the problem. The lack of truth. The problem is that government has fooled a majority. They have created a false fear and lied to us. The ‘stopping the boats’ rhetoric is one of the vilest cons ever spun. In the Howard era, Australia and Indonesia jointly established a UNHCR processing centre in Jakarta, but Australia went on to refuse acceptance of identified refugees from this centre (almost none to be precise) because we never were interested in stopping the boats, we only wanted to stop the refugees. This desperation led to people boarding boats. So successive governments have created a problem where people were dying at sea, then misled a nation, demonising them as “illegals” that needed to be locked up in concentration camps.
The phrase ‘ending deaths at sea’ is insipid doublespeak. It’s a dishonest morality hiding behind a veneer of xenophobia. The flaw is glaringly obvious. End deaths at sea by sending the same people to indefinite detention to face even more horrific conditions and/or their deaths in camps off shore? This kind of cruelty can work as a deterrent if it is more cruel than the cruelty they are fleeing from. Policies based on being ‘more cruel’ are absurd at best. At worst they are a sad measure of the state of our hearts.
This is not about borders or boats. They are not threats to us. But there is a threat to our humanity. Now that we know the lies, we must speak the truth. The truth is we have a humanitarian problem, and it requires a humanitarian response.
The other lie in this debacle is ‘there are no easy solutions’. Wrong! There are answers! Humane, swift, and cost-effective. We just have to be willing to hear them. Humanitarians and people like Malcolm Fraser and Julian Burnside have been proposing humane and workable solutions for years. Speeding up processing and re-settling refugees in the community is far less expensive than locking them up indefinitely. At the moment Scott Morrison is spending $8 million dollars a year to hire spin doctors to demonise refugees. And the cost of detaining refugees off-shore in PNG and Nauru per year? A spectacular $4 billion. Our taxes. That’s a lot of hate money going on.
Our country desperately needs a leader to rise from this appalling mess. We need a leader with moral backbone. Thank goodness there are leaders like Andrew Wilkie who last week introduced a bill in parliament to amend the Migration Act of 1958 to “end the nation’s shame”. Wilkie’s words are so eloquent (and his full speech is worth listening to), “Shame is an emotion often felt in retrospect… We try to justify our actions: We did not know. We did not see. We could not have changed the outcome… But when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, there are no such excuses. We do know. We can see. And we can change the outcome.”
Yes, the truth is out there. As Eden’s post aptly said, it’s on fire. The truth also bites and stings. And may it bite into the consciences of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott as they sleep at night.
May we never stop speaking the truth. The more we speak it, the more it sets us free.
*Artwork is by a friend of my family, a man in detention now for seven years. He created this picture using instant coffee and water.