Our ‘festering scab’ of injustice

The life of an asylum seeker seems like a far away reality – people living in limbo on a remote Island in Papua New Guinea. It’s so easy to separate them and us. But we need to address the stench – the reeking waft of injustice on our country’s prohibitive border.

There are currently 2000 asylum seekers detained on Nauru Island – pawns in the government’s wider policy to stop illegal boat arrivals. Earlier this year, the Papua New Guinea High Court found Australia’s detention facilities to be ‘unconstitutional’ but Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton says the centre is unlikely to close. A string of activists, grassroot advocates and non-for-profit organisations are calling for greater accountability. I spoke with Acting CEO, Tim O’Connor from the Refugee Council of Australia and this is what he had to say.

Can you define the difference between an Asylum seeker and a refugee?
A person seeking asylum is displaced because of persecution, it might be because of conflict, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or their political views. At the moment, most people are displaced because of conflict.

Someone seeking asylum is awaiting their refugee status to be determined. It’s a legal category – people that are displaced are displaced and they need safety and protection. When Australia recognises someone as a refugee, they recognise their refugee status as when they left the country so there’s a real grey area practically. It’s a legal definition and governments like the Australian government can keep people… especially those who arrive by boat in very precarious situation. It’s a legal definition that puts people into a category that is not always appropriate.

Do you agree with the term ‘unlawful citizen’ as cited in the 1958 Migration Act?
There’s been a number of changes to the 1958 Migration Act and the world has also changed a great deal.

There are enormous concerns we have with the current legislation which relates to people seeking asylum. The government is on a constant effort to dehumanise people in many ways.

People that arrive by boat seeking asylum, which is perfectly legal, because Australia is a signatory to the UN convention on refugees – states that it is perfectly legal to seek asylum, there needs to be a fair determination process. The current process Australia has, there is a lot of question around the fairness of that… the ability to get judicial review is in question, temporary protection visa status of around 30,000 people in the country…many of whom will be recognised as refugees, is putting them in a precarious mental health situation…we’ve seen a spike in the number of suicides. The border force act has come in recently which says that says people who work in places and witness abuse and report it back to the public, they are liable to face 2 years in jail – very draconian measures… there’s no transparency… we’ve seen hundreds of reports of abuse… there’s been no investigations into deaths and abuse… there’s been no convictions. That’s of huge concern because as the Australian public, as taxpayers, it’s abuse that’s occurring in our name. There’s no recourse, no accountability. And all of this has come into because of our ad hoc legislation around legislation…

There’s a real dichotomy that exists in Australia… we have a very generous refugee program with the largest intake of refugees to resettle and a strong resettlement program… meeting people at the airport, access to language training, healthcare. That’s the very positive side but on the other side, if you come here seeking asylum, particularly by boat, basically now Australia has the license to torture you, to lock you up in camps and to keep you in perpetual limbo and we think there needs to be urgent attention to those matters.

The government penalises people who arrive by boat, what’s the myth surrounding boat people as queue jumpers?
At the moment there are 65 million displaced people in the world, 24 million of these are recognised refugees, last year resettled total of 200,000, less than 1% get resettled so if there was a queue, it would be at least 100 years old just for the refugees we have today. The reality is that people flee persecution – different people have different needs and some of those needs are of higher priority… there’s a whole raft of reasons why the queue idea doesn’t really work for many of these people. If there was a queue – of 100 years long, is not really a queue at all.

There are many reasons – the common one the government puts forward and is supported by the opposition, is that we want to stop the boats and stop deaths at sea… but the challenge is how do these people live with dignity. Certainly Australia has a role to resettle refugees but we could be doing a lot more to help source countries with refugees…

The UNHCR talks about durable solutions and there are three – first one is enabling people to go back to the country they fled from… but also when they flee across to another country, to be able to live with dignity is absolutely essential…

Australia has committed over 130 million to be spent over three years- millions of people who have fled… need access to that assistance but when you think of spending 130 million people over three years of a cohort of 5-10 million people versus billions spending here on locking up a few thousand people on Nauru and Manus – the sums just don’t add up.

We really should be looking at the root of the problem and I think Australia could be doing a lot better on that front. We need to be engaged regionally and internationally, and of course Australia has the sovereign nation to say who can come and who can’t but we also have an obligation to assist people fleeing persecution and seeking the safety we all aspire to.

It’s a perplexing situation that is of huge concern. We are in touch with people on Nauru on relatively regular basis. It’s difficult to explain the context of how Nauru has come about and the situation there now. The government says the camp is open and people can come and go as they please – people in the camp say that’s not the case. There are about 500 people who have been recognised as refugees living in teh community – Nauru is a small island of about 10,000 so that’s another increase in 10% of the population of refugees from many different ethnic backgrounds so that creates challenges in how communities interact with each other and whether there is capacity of a small country like Nauru to manage that is contentious – the opportunities for work is extremely limited

There are about 500 people who have been recognised as refugees living in teh community – Nauru is a small island of about 10,000 so that’s another increase in 10% of the population of refugees from many different ethnic backgrounds so that creates challenges in how communities interact with each other and whether there is capacity of a small country like Nauru to manage that is contentious – the opportunities for work is extremely limited there’s been numerous reports of children being bullied at school – access to education is important and health services is reported to us continually as being inadequate… mental services required for these vulnerable people.

We have this other festering scab of allegations of abuse – child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse that the government itself in its own report found that the police in Nauru didn’t have the capacity to look into it… these cases go uninvestigated as far as we’re aware – no justice for these people, which is entirely unacceptable.

The Nauruan PM appealed for countries to take the 950 people in Nauru to resettle them. We’re getting very different information of course no one can go to Nauru – we tried to go there a number of times… it’s really the issue of transparency and accountability. The government is spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars but no insight of what is happening there – we saw the leak of the Nauru files – more than 2000 incident reports detailing horrendous cases of abuse, we have a current royal commission going on into institutional child sex abuse cases that’s been excluded from looking at what’s been going on in Nauru. This is a service, if you can call it that, being delivered by Australians…. It’s very much an Australian operation and therefore we do have some obvious responsibility to the situation… There’ll certainly have to be an apology and serious compensation for the damage we’re causing.

Australia is a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, are we doing a good job?
In our view, no. Fundamental things like saying it’s illegal to seek asylum contravenes the convention. Australia has changed the legislation to work around that and obviously there’s been people locked up in Nauru and Manus is not meeting our obligations. We’re failing people, we’re sending people back to places… where they’ve been detained and there have been reports of torture and that is direct breach of the convention but it’s very difficult to pin the Australian government down on this because international law enforcement is not particularly strong but it is an obligation Australia does have… the reality is that there are potential breaches in many areas.

What role do grassroot organisations, individual activists and organisations play in fighting the government’s policy?
Well, you could call it fighting the government’s policies but it’s also struggling for better outcomes for refugees and people seeking aslyum and that’s absolutely important. There are hundreds of organisations that are a members of us who are everyday supporting asylum seekers and refugees to integrate better into Australian society and give them access to the basic rights they deserve. They’re also supported by hundreds of Australians who are desperately upset at the government’s policy in relation to this matter. In our view it’s entirely unsustainable – it costs an enormous amount and is doing great damage to people and we need to urgently stop what we’re doing and think about what are the values we have as Australians and what responsibility do we have to the international community.

If you could address the top myths surrounding refugees, what would it be?
Addressing myths reinforces that negative frame so that’s one of the key things but i think it’s really humanising the refugee experience. We have so many terms that exist in our vernacular that totally depersonalise the humanity of what are people that are fleeing persecution, they’re running for their lives and when you understand that they have a beating heart, they have a sister or a brother or a child, as so many do, then you begin to understand the situation in a different realm than when you talk about ‘boat people’ or ‘illegal arrivals’ or even ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’. They’re very depersonalising terms but the reality is they’re people that want a better life for themselves and their family so I think that’s a key challenge.

The obvious thing is we need to improve our policies, we need to ensure that Australia protecting the rights of those who are feeling persecution in the region and internationally. It’s an enormous challenge. There are 65 million people displaced and 7 billion people in the world – if the political will existed, we could solve the crisis that exists now. It’s a crisis that’s of the making of the people on this planet and it’s only these people working together that will resolve it.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
We have the opportunity here to deal with thousands of people who come here as refugees – we see the contribution they want to make and have made here in Australia. Dealing with them everyday, and recognising the challenges they face is what keeps you inspired everyday. It’s very difficult in this environment to make political change or even talk to our government on some of these matters. They have an entirely different view – but we’re at a strong view that we’re right because we are in touch with these people, we see their rights being breached and the damage that does.

Working with state governments has been very productive in recent years… working with universities… there are many things we do that have been positive. We take a very principal position but we also take a pragmatic position – we’re not going to change our principles… we see that it is not a problem only of Australia’s making. It’s a global problem and it’s only through cooperation we can do it.

We’re keeping engaged with members here and Australians that support them and people who came here as refugees and that’s the sort of thing that inspires us. We know the great benefit that can come from it.

What is one message you’d give to people in the community who think there’s not much they can do?
There’s lots you can do. There’s many many things…. We have many volunteers at the Refugee Council. There are other organisations like Asylum Seeker Centre, House of Welcome who are crying out for volunteers and crying out for help.

We need all Australians to be talking to our government about this… contact your local member and tell them you’re not happy about it… We’ve got to engage the Australian public better but it’s only through cooperation… that we’ll actually change things for the better.

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