What’s the matter with Nauru?

This story begins with a hint of remorse and a pang of guilt – for a long time, I wasn’t sure how to undress the complacency lurking in my mind. I recoiled at every report of abuse in Nauru or mention of ‘refugee’; it was the type of recoiling that sprouted indifference and distance. I had noticed it in others too – we were communal in our unwillingness, gracious in our neutrality.

The politics of asylum seeking has a lot to do with the emotional, spiritual and mental wholeness of a person. It’s starting to register that the consequences of ‘locking people up’ are countless and generational.

But, the dialogue surrounding refugees is complicated and multifaceted. Where do we even begin?

The conversation weaves in narratives of power, wealth, race and national identity and most of the time it creates a dangerous blend of fact and fear. It clouds the road ahead for asylum seekers but at the root of it all – is a lack of care. And that’s where this story begins…

Featured voices:

Read more from Tim O’Connor here and meet Martine Valentine here.

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.

The voice of the nation’s conscience

Meet Martine Valentine,  Strategist and brand new nan from Grandmothers Against the Detention of Refugee Children

People have always stood on one side of history. For some, their actions have been a catalyst for freedom – a positive force for a necessary change. But for the majority, our actions, or lack thereof, has perpetuated a difficult situation or legitimised a wrong. In the public debate surrounding asylum seekers on Nauru Island and refugees in Australia, there is little room for neutrality – not when the livelihood of children are at stake.

In Melbourne and Sydney, a group of grandmothers are standing up against the government’s treatment of refugees, and according to the advocates, the way we treat children says a lot about the condition of our nation’s soul. I shared a morning coffee with Martine Valentine, from Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children (GADRC) and this is what she had to say:

How did this organisation first start? It first started in Melbourne, when a lot of women who were early educators and psychologists and they were very concerned about the long-term effects of detention on children and they knew how destructive it was to their lifelong development. They started in Melbourne, a wonderful team of women and they’ve continued to lead the whole thing and now there’s 2000 of us across Australia.

"You know your government has failed when your grandmother starts to riot."
“You know your government has failed when your grandmother starts to riot.”

The main thing we do is we try to be a visual presence on the street just to help ordinary people understand that having children locked up in detention, there’s just no need for it – it’s very destructive for children. It’s bad for us, it’s bad for our nation’s soul. Let’s face it. Ask somebody from Nazi Germany how they felt about the concentration camps. I don’t want to have to be one of those grandmothers that

I don’t want to have to be one of those grandmothers that has to explain to my grandchildren why I didn’t do something, why I didn’t stand up for the freedom of innocent people trying to flee war zones or even poverty. These people have shown to be genuine refugees and are escaping some kind of violence or torture and now we’re torturing them. We’re just dumbfounded that people can’t see how bad this is for us. Do we want to be a nation that’s not proud of ourselves?

These people have shown to be genuine refugees and are escaping some kind of violence or torture and now we’re torturing them. We’re just dumbfounded that people can’t see how bad this is for us – do we want to be a nation that’s not proud of ourselves?

Visually, the organisation caught my eye. Can you tell me about the colour purple? Purple has been a symbol for a few different things – the feminist movement for example, were the suffragette colours. As a Catholic, purple is a symbol of lent and advent so it’s quite significant to be with the suffering and joys of other people and that’s why I wear purple. I wear it proudly and I’m very proud to be a grandmother too… I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren and I guess it’s for them that I took this on.

The colour purple is a key symbol for GADRC
Martine Valentine, GADRC

What was your understanding of refugees and asylum seekers before you started?
Growing up in a country town post WW2, I was surrounded by beautiful refugees from Europe, and it was amazing how my life was enriched by them so I’ve always felt very strongly to welcome refugees and asylum seekers.

There are no longer children held in onshore detention facilities, do you consider that a ‘win’?
The reduction, we do. We claim some victory amongst many other people fighting for justice for these people. In particular we focus on the children and we’re very please with the reduction but there are still children living on Nauru, some don’t go to school because of bullying issues… Because they’re locked up, they’re seen as lesser people. Nauru is struggling itself so they don’t seem to have room in their hearts, well a lot of them, to help these people and be supportive of them.

The Nauru files has very clearly laid out sexual abuse, very bad living conditions and skin conditions because of phosphate, it was an old phosphate mine so it’s very dusty and hot… If two people have self immolated, it can’t be too good.

What is the community’s response to these allegations? One of the things we focus on is trying to end the bipartisan support of offshore immigration detention and many of us are no longer able to vote Labour because of their support of the government’s policy of offshore detention. I think it’s ludicrous to think that stopping the boats allows for torture of innocent people. I don’t think the boats are stopped for one, it’s just covered in secrecy but surely, all of these great minds in Canberra can outsmart a few third world fishermen they call people smugglers, otherwise why are we paying them the big bucks?

We’re just pleading the parliamentarians to consider the needs of the children and let them be free and bring them to Australia. They’re going to need trauma treatment.

What are some changes you hope for? We liaise with groups that are the experts on what’s happening. We get advice from them and we consider ourselves a moderate, non-threatening group. We don’t involve ourselves in civil disobedience. We realise that people trust grandmothers to do the right thing and that’s our reputation that we hold dear because with grandmothers standing up they think, maybe we should do something.

How do you keep yourself going and stop desensitising myself? Whenever I go and stand outside the skirts of QVB, I’m with other grandmothers from all walks of life. They’re all so different, some of them have PhDs in refugee issues and there are lots I can learn from them. Just being together with a group of women bonded by the similar stance for justice for children, refugees and asylum seekers is very empowering. It’s very empowering…

Grandmothers in QVB, Sydney
Grandmothers campaigning in QVB, Sydney

What reputation do you think Australia has in the eyes of the world for its policy of offshore detention? I think we’re living on borrowed time. Increasingly people are starting to sit up and notice how destructive and detrimental our policies are. I don’t think we’re winning many friends – even these countries that have serious numbers coming in don’t seem to be impressed.

We’ve basically got an empty continent, triple-A credit ratings and we’re doing pretty well yet we can’t find it in our hearts to offer even a basic number of refugees and asylum seekers and increasingly we’re going to lose respect in the eyes of other countries in the world.

Do you find there’s been a lot of support in the community? We get great support, very rarely do we get anything negative. Although Andrew Wilkie said when we were on the lawns of parliament, “there’s nothing scarier than a paddock full of grandmothers” so maybe people are a bit scared of us and that’s why they’re nice, but I don’t think so.

If you could give one message to the community, what would it be? I think the first thing that comes to mind is educate yourself. Do you realise we’ve spent $9.6 billion dollars on keeping under 2000 people locked up. It’s your taxpayer money people! We could have put them all up on at the Hilton and that would have been much more civilised and still save money!

When will you be out of business? We can’t wait till we’re out of business… when at the very least when all children are safe and out of detention facilities. When they’re being supported and compensated for the torture they’ve been through.

We certainly won’t give up. There are many other groups such as lawyers that volunteer their time and I take my hat off to them.

Myanmar’s New Parliament

Feb 1st 2016

Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected party officials commenced their first session of the year in Naypyidaw’s lower house adorned in bright orange tunics and celebratory smiles.

The Lady entered with poised grace through the parliament’s side entrance and despite the flurry of reporters, she did not say a word to commemorate the long awaited day.

After two and a half decades of political struggle, peaceful protest and house arrest, the first session of the lower house on Monday signalled a slow, but promising transition towards a democratic government.

The proceedings began with the appointment of the house’s speaker, MP Win Myint (NLD) and Ti Khun Myat as the deputy speaker (USDP).

Newly elected MPs from November’s watershed election, were sworn in to uphold the very same constitution that bars ASSK from the presidency.

The 225 elected NLD representatives will share the lower house with 110 officials appointed by the military, 30 elected USDP representatives, 12 Arakan National Party and 12 Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.

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Myanmar’s upper house will assemble on Wednesday 3rd. The NLD will command a 60% majority but 25% of seats are still retained by the military.

One of the first motions of the new parliament will be to decide a president to replace outgoing PM Thein Sein, who will step down at the end of March.

ASSK has asserted that she will be ‘above the president’ and with a comfortable majority, she will easily select a candidate from her trusted circle of confidantes.

Polling booth in Yangon

Myanmar’s young voters hope for change

First published on SBS online.

Thirty two million eligible voters will choose their preferred candidates today in Myanmar’s most hotly contested general elections in two and half decades. While the credibility of the elections have been marred by inconsistent electorate lists and cancelled voting in minority states, the smiles of accomplishment from some of the first voters in Yangon makes it difficult to deny the potential for real change after today’s milestone election.

At 6am local time, the gates of a polling station in Bahan township, Yangon, welcomed its first voters of the day, who were visibly excited to cast their vote.

Gloria and her father after their historic vote

Gloria and her father were among the first batch to complete their vote. The pair proudly displayed their purple inked pinky fingers, a new method that marks each voter with staining ink to indicate their vote has been completed and prevent repeated ballots.

At the same polling station, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy arrived shortly after to cast her vote.  

The NLD is expected to secure a large number of contested seats but under the current constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi is excluded from the presidency.

Known here as ‘The Lady’, Aung San Suu Kyi has assured voters that she will remain “above the president” if her party can harness a majority.

For first time voter Myo Hsu Wai, participating in today’s election is very important. The 19 year old hopes her ballot will contribute towards lasting change and development for the country.

“Every vote matters. It’s every citizen’s responsibility to vote because our country needs so many change so we need to vote to select a very good leader for that kind of change.”

“Our country has started reform and this election will be very different and more effective than previous ones,” she said.

Current president and ruler of the military backed USDP, Thein Sein, secured the majority vote in the 2010 elections, largely seen as flawed and boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic party.

As the first civilian president after decades of military rule, Thein Sein’s term saw the release of political prisoners, increased foreign investment and most recently, an inked Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight of the nation’s armed minority groups.

Myo Hsu Wai’s grandmother, Thant, says she is quite happy with Thein Sein’s steps of progress.

“I’m hoping and praying that whoever comes up will try to continue what this present government has started. This present government has started on the right foot,” said Thant.

The current government has said it will accept the results of the election, unlike the landslide NLD victory that went unrecognised by the military government in 1990.

Voters have tasted democracy in action today and while change may be slow, the potential for change will leave a lasting red stain on the public conscious in Myanmar, resembling the stubborn bleached teeth of local betel nut chewers.