I write about a lot of things. Things that make me happy, things that make me angry, things I want to help other people to understand, things that make me sad.

But there is a topic I keep starting and stopping on. Even now, I know nothing I write will cover the scope of the problem or all my thoughts on it.

Reading.

When I write about an issue, I tend to read an awful lot on it first. I hate to present inaccurate information or information I can’t give a source for. So I just don’t. Whether it’s vaccination, politics or whatever- I read. A lot. Things I’ve written, like this, for example, have taken me 6-7 hours to write to ensure I include links and references and to make sure I’m not giving out the incorrect information. Some topics simply require it. So when it comes to the topic of asylum seekers coming to Australia, particularly by boat, there is an awful lot to read.

And read, I have. I have read articles, government policy, information from the UNHCR, Amnesty International and more. I have read numbers and statistics as well as personal accounts. I have looked at photos of what is left of places like Syria. I read and read and when I try to organise all I’ve read into something coherent that I can write about here, I find myself at a loss.

Give Them Shelter.

Back in 1969, The Rolling Stones wrote and released “Gimme Shelter”, a song about the Vietnam War. The lyrics still stand for what is happening in the world now. The threat, the fear, the need for shelter. It’s as true now as it was then. What would I do if my country became a warzone? If I was being persecuted by my own government? Threatened with rape and murder? Who wouldn’t seek shelter and safety somewhere else? Why do we blame others for doing exactly what we would- seeking a better, safer life for ourselves and our families?

Just some numbers.

The scope of this problem is too enormous and too horrific for me to fully grasp. The UN says that more people have been forcibly displaced around the world now than at any other time since WWII. It’s in the ballpark of 60 million people around the world. 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Put that into perspective- at the time of writing this, the Australian population sits at just over 24 million people. That means more than twice the number of people in the whole of Australia are displaced people as a result of conflict, human rights violations and more. According to the latest figures from the Department of Border Protection, we have a tiny percentage of these people in our care, detained either off shore or in our own detention centres with others who may have bridging visas or be under community detention. Of those being detained, there are 1491 in Australian detention centres and 1373 on Nauru.

We lock up these traumatised people at enormous economic cost. According to Refugeee Action, whose figures are drawn from the National Commission of Audit, detaining a single person seeking asylum on Manus or Nauru costs in the ballpark of $400,000 per year.  Detaining them in Australian based centres costs $239,000 a year. Yet allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while their claims are processed costs only $12,000 per year.

The government is selling us a very expensive scare campaign and we are buying it.

I could shout until I was blue in the face at a politician about this crisis. I could shout the names of Reza Barati, the woman known as Abyan, of Omid Masoulmali, of Hodan, of many more who have been harmed while supposedly under our aegis but it would do no good, because they know. We are obligated to help these people but there is no recourse when we lock them away and subject them to more harm.

There’s not a politician in Australia that doesn’t know that. Instead, the government, seemingly with the media, has told us that asylum seekers are to be feared. They are not like us, after all. They have different religions, different cultures. What they have done over the last few years is to reinforce these differences. Calling people “illegal maritime arrivals” or “unlawful non-citizens” instead of “asylum seekers” emphasizes that they are criminals (despite seeking asylum here being legal under international law). Even Tony Abbott’s victory came down to his campaign to “Stop the Boats”. It wasn’t a campaign to try to provide safer means of arrival for people fleeing war and human rights abuses, was it? He didn’t mean to send them provisioned, sea-worthy boats or to try to fly them to safety- he just wanted the boats to stop entering Australian waters. Those people who boarded those death-trap boats in desperation never ceased existing- Tony Abbott just promised that he would try to stop them being Australia’s problem. Our previous Labor government, under Julia Gillard, reintroduced offshore detention after her predecessor Kevin Rudd announced that boat arrivals would never be settled in Australia back in 2013. Even further back, in 2001, was Operation Relex, under the Howard government; a policy where the Navy was directed to turn back boats under certain conditions. Politicians in the major parties Australia essentially decided, some time ago, that we should try to prevent people from seeking asylum here. This has evolved into a decision that investing in punitive measures and punishments for asylum seekers is the best way to deter further asylum seekers from coming here.

Fear.

The government sells us on these policies because they tell us that asylum seekers are to be feared. For example, Senator Cory Bernardi, late last year, said that there could be terrorists amongst the Syrian refugees and said that there were examples of those involved with terrorism among previous refugee intakes, and while he’s not wrong, he was vague on detail. Of those granted asylum here who have been involved in any way with terrorism, they appear to have been people who arrived by plane (like most asylum seekers in Australia), on visas. Often, they have arrived here as children.

Whatever radicalisation they experienced happened right here. We know that the vast majority of people who have arrived here on an asylum seeker boat have been genuine refugees and yet we refuse to see it. We know that people fleeing for their lives may not have adequate documentation and we know why– but politicians like Bernardi use it to arouse suspicion, to sow the seeds of fear and distrust. And we let them. Our hearts are closed and our minds made up. We quite literally voted in a party who promised not to help those in need but to make sure they couldn’t come to us for help. We voted in a government that would rather spend hundred of thousands on keeping each person out.

Yes, we do this.

We actively further disempower traumatised, brutalised people who come here seeking our help. We spread fear and ignore facts. Why? Are we so racist that the idea of people from another country making a home here is too much? Probably. Is Australia so wonderful that it must be jealously guarded from all who seek to live here for whatever reason? Are we so blinded by fear? So many people who claim we mustn’t let asylum seekers in drag out that tired old fear: terrorism. I’m not saying it’s wrong to fear terrorism, but what we are doing is so backwards in preventing it. Why do people become “radicalised” in safe countries like ours? Some believe (and it makes sense to me) that they do so because they are so disenfranchised and feel so powerless. They don’t belong anywhere. They aren’t welcome. They are treated with suspicion and distrust. So they join these groups in order to feel a sense of purpose, of belonging. There may be many other pressures that contribute but what it comes down to is that people want to belong. So where we allow fear to make us refuse to allow people to belong, we are creating an environment ripe for breeding the very thing we fear.

This is probably an overly simplistic way of explaining it, but when I read and read and read about what is happening, what we are doing and what we are not doing, eloquence is hard to come by. I just want us to help. I want us to stop viewing every person seeking safety with suspicion and fear. By all means, process their claims for asylum. Do what needs to be done. But don’t do it behind a barbed-wire fence while those entrusted with their care do them further harm. Don’t make the ridiculous assumption that people make their way here, facing death at every turn, because they wish us harm. Common sense says that people are not getting on boats for a lark. They are getting on boats to leave places like this:

Not everyone in Australia is okay with what is happening in our names.

Many people are not- I’m not! But plenty are, so shouting at politicians, while understandable, isn’t going to be what changes things. Many politicians will happily maneuver this issue, these people, like chess pieces on a board in an effort to win their game. They are only telling us what most of us seem to want to hear. So, until Australian public opinion changes, nothing else will. The troubling thing is that changing that seems to be a very difficult task. How do you change the hearts and minds of the majority of the voting public?

It’s a perfect example of what happens when fear guides you; you are stumbling around in the dark, making things progressively worse. You have your fingers jammed into your ears and your eyes squeezed shut. So you don’t hear the facts, you don’t hear the stories, you don’t see the tragedy or the devastation and you can’t give voice to a solution or to feel empathy. You can only keep bouncing off things you won’t see and ignoring everything you refuse to hear. No one gains anything when we willfully remain in the dark and meanwhile, people are suffering.

 

How do we change it?

 

#FYBF @ With Some Grace

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  • As always I love reading your blog because you do the reading, you do the research. You don’t just throw out an opinion without backing it up with your extensive study and research. Thank you for writing something that needs to be written. Thank you for writing it so well. Thank you yet again for saying what the rest of us can’t find the words to say.

  • As usual, brilliantly and eloquently written, Amy. I don’t know how we change it but I do know we really need to.

  • LydiaCLee

    This is a very important post – I had an argument with an American friend who said they shouldn’t let in muslim refugees but they would happily send troops to fight ‘over there’ for them. As I discussed in my post last week, that’s not really furnishing the reality correctly – you can’t sit safely in your house while the fighting goes on somewhere ‘outside’. There’s no power, no access to food, and at any moment your dwelling could get blown to bits, or even if you are trying to leave the city, you’ll be murdered (as we sadly heard this week). I think in years to come, those that aren’t already ashamed of our behaviour will be, as the history books will not look kindly on Australia in this matter, and as your figured from the UN attest (60 million and we’re going beserk over 1400??) As for what to do, keep writing, keep talking, take to the streets and protest, I know some people physically going to the detention centres, do what you can and turn the tide. If the politicians can shout a mantra, we can drown them out in chorus.

    • That’s the kind of response that makes me feel more hopeful- thanks Lydia,

  • Ingrid – fabulous and fun life

    How do we change it? I think it all starts with everyday people like us becoming more informed and starting to ask questions. This blog post is a helpful step in that direction.

  • Absolutely agree. I am totally ashamed. The other thing that gets me is the numbers. Compared to other countries we have SUCH minimal numbers of people seeking asylum. SURELY we could process them more quickly and humanely? Great post.

  • TeganMC

    Common sense says to me that if a terrorist organisation is sending people to infiltrate our country, they aren’t going to do it with a leaky boat. Why would they risk losing all of their supporters at sea?
    The government has so much to answer for but I just can’t understand how people can read and see the hardships of asylum seekers and be happy to turn their back.

    • Exactly. Common sense, it turns out, isn’t all that common!

  • We’ve got a spare couch. And I’m sure one of the boys would be happy to give up their room. The Australian public are sympathetic; it’s leadership that’s the problem.

    • If I go by my Facebook feed, I feel everyone is sympathetic. It’s when I venture into the comments on articles etc that I realise that many are not in the slightest. They voted in Abbott to stop the boats, after all.
      We’d love to be able to offer room as well!

  • Alicia-OneMotherHen

    It breaks my heart to think that no one in power gives a stuff about refugees. It saddens me that they are being treated the way they are, does this equate to war crimes against the government? People are dying or suffering, trying to make a better life, it seems as a country we are signing the death warrant. I would rather our taxes go to house them than not, the sums seem to add up.
    On the other hand, our justice system seems good at giving the ones who do commit crime second chances instead of deporting them. The logic has got me stuffed. But I haven’t done the research, so what would I know?

    • I believe Australia is guilty of human rights violations, for sure.

  • Peta

    I understand the sentiment Amy, and I see the tragedy too. But a couple of points I’d like to raise:

    1.If we ‘let them stay’, we know from experience that a flotilla of leaky boats will be launched towards Australia within the month. Do you recall how many people died under Rudd’s ‘more humane’ policies towards refugees? More than a thousand people. Drowned.
    Do you have a solution to this obvious problem? If not, how is a policy that results in huge numbers drowning at sea more compassionate than a policy which doesn’t have this result?

    2. If we ‘let them stay’, we are effectively not accepting the most needy. We are allowing those who can afford the airfare to Indonesia and the people smugglers’ fees to come here. Meanwhile, the poor and most needy remain poor and needy in their home country. Is this a solution?

    I support the Greens idea that we massively increase our humanitarian intake. But I don’t agree that we should return to a system that results in whole boatloads of people disappearing without trace whilst leaving the people most in need to continue to suffer.

    • 1. Let’s look into a way to help people arrive safely. We could use some of the hundreds of thousands we are spending imprisoning people who haven’t broken any law. Obviously I haven’t costed this proposal but it’s just one of many possible solutions that would be better than imprisoning traumatised people in the care of guards who abuse them, without sufficient resources or access to medical care. What we are doing is brutally punishing innocent people to prevent others seeking safety here. I agree the boats are a massive danger so we need to look at a much bigger picture in order to find a solution. I don’t know what the best solution is- but I know it’s not the horror of fear mongering, racism and xenophobia that birthed the current human rights crisis that is our current one.
      It’s also pertinent to mention that stopping the boat arrivals has not stopped those in need from existing. They might not be drowning- but how many have died in other ways?

      2- some of these people sell everything they own to fund their journey. Others pool money to send as many family members as they can. It’s a generalisation to assume that those on boats are not poor. What we can assume about them is that they are utterly desperate. I would love a solution that made those boats unnecessary but until then, do we turn away people who are desperate enough to board boats because they are not poor enough? Why can we not up our intake from the UNHCR camps as well as doing our best to prevent boat tragedies and assist those that are trying to get here, remembering that we are signatories to the refugee convention and Indonesia is not.

      There is no simple answer. We have plenty of areas we could trim the proverbial fat from in terms of more funding. But until Australians see these people as people and not as something to fear, nothing will change.

  • The whole situation is heartbreaking. I’m completely embarrassed at the way our government is handling this. It’s ironic how Australia started out as the country to send criminals, and now we won’t even take in people who are in need. For shame.

  • Mel Roworth

    We don’t have to look too far to find racism in Australia. It’s embarrassing, to say the least.
    I think Rebecca has the answer right there. Give us the option of opening our own homes. My home, my choice.

    • Not far at all, it’s a national shame I reckon. I like Bec’s idea too!

  • It’s really hard to see what’s going on in the world these days and the way in which we are treating asylum seekers. I understand not wanting to let people in without checks etc but at the same time, I don’t believe in locking them up endlessly and continuing to traumatise them. What’s the answer? I don’t know. The government (both major parties) have done a great job in scare-mongering. That annoys me no end. While I don’t want people risking their lives on shoddy boats and dangerous seas, any idiot can see that only the most desperate would take that option. We have no clue, no idea of even remotely what things are like in countries like Syria. Sure, we see images and footage but then conveniently are desensitised and move on. In my last job, we had clients from refugee background and listening to tales of people being gunned down, people being forced to pretend they were a different religion in order to survive, children watching their parents being killed — they were all horrific! I can see why they would view us as a safe place. But while we may not have bombs going off, we still treat them like crap.

    • That’s why community based detention makes more sense- far cheaper, better for those involved on many levels but, as many will say, it’s not “punishing” enough and might convince others to come here. Why can’t we help them get here safely, I wonder?

  • I just read a kid’s book called “Boy Overboard” by Morris Gleitzman and apparently there’s a movie as well. All children should read it then the world might be a better place in ten years. Maybe a few adults should read it too.

    • Yeah! And also the Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do

  • jess

    Fear as a tactic has always really pissed me off, and you just see it everywhere in politics these days.

  • Kitty Black

    It’s the how to change it that’s really tricky, it just feels like our voices are falling on deaf ears and common sense has just buggered off. I remember hearing somewhere that Abbott passed responsibility for asylum seeker arrivals to the Navy, and it’s illegal to report on Navy activities, so effectively the public was given no information about boat arrivals which made it look like they’d stopped for a bit. He’s a jerk. (I hope I remember that correctly!) Anyway, great article, thank you!

    • Yes! It’s the how, for sure. I heard the same re the boats- they’ve stopped? Or they’ve stopped being reported on? Big difference isn’t it?

  • Helen King

    It’s so naive to think that, by ‘stopping the boats’, we stop the problem. And the problem is that people are, for various reasons, leaving the countries where they live. Usually for reasons that, if we were in the same place, we would expect – demand – that countries like Australia take us in. So if they don’t come here, they are going somewhere else. And – after a while – those places will stop taking them too (if they haven’t already), and all the while the suffering continues. To really address it is going to take quite a bit of acceptance in Australia, because there is likely to be a change to many of our lifestyles, and often, its the ones who have least here that will be asked to give up what little they have. We’re going to need programs to better help with integration, PTSD, practical issues such as access to employment, schools, medical assistance and housing. Which are challenges in our capital cities (housing is limited) and regional areas (for the other support programs). We have to put these processes in place. And that takes resources. So my view is that those of us who have more need to be prepared to give more – and those who have a lot more, and have influence and power, should give even more. But that’s such a change for us, isn’t it – who’s going to want to give up part of what they have to make this happen? Julian Burnside (who I know is now being dismissed by both parties) sets a great example with his wife and their ‘rooms for refugees’ program – as well as his advocacy and pro-bono work. I think we all need to keep doing what we can, even if it feels limited, as the collective impact will be what makes the change.

    • It’s definitely not an overnight, one step solution. I just feel that acceptance and the desire to help would be such a great leap forward for our society- like, if we had that hurdle overcome, we could wrk towards the rest, you know?

      • Helen King

        I think that acceptance and desire to help is the first, and hardest step (but it shouldn’t be so hard – surely?)

  • I have so many things I want to say on this that I don’t even know where to begin. First, as a migrant to Australia, I have to puzzle over the lucky lottery that allowed me the ability to come to this country – the fact that I had access to the thousands and thousands of dollars it takes to process a resident visa and purchase an airline ticket. The fact that I had the luxury of time to wait for a visa that allowed me to leave one peaceful country for another. These things have NOTHING to do with my inherent worth as a person or potential to contribute to Australian society, but a stroke of pure luck of birth.
    When we were travelling in Serbia last year, we met a number of Syrian refugee families, who spent their days in parks with their children. I don’t know any parent who can look in the faces of these families and suggest that they are not worthy of a safe place to raise their children.
    Finally, perhaps there are “terrorists” amongst those we are holding offshore, but making all of these people spend their lives in limbo is no kind of a policy for any country to have. Even if we don’t allow all of them to stay in Australia, we owe them at least the right to have their asylum seeker claims processed in a timely manner and a decision made about the rest of their lives.

    BTW, I just heard this incredible story on Nauru on This American Life. It really gives perspective on how hopeless life there must be. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/253/the-middle-of-nowhere?act=1#play

    • I often wonder if detaining these people isnt just breeding resentment and hatred in itself. Thanks for sharing that link with me!

  • Lisa Shearon

    This is the BEST piece of writing on asylum seekers I’ve ever had the good fortune to read. Good on you Amy. I remember going to vote a few years ago and a Liberal leafleted asking me who I was voting for. I told him that I was voting Green. “OH, I suppose you’d let boat people in too, would you,” he snarled. “Um, yeah?” I know it’s not straightforward, but if we lose our compassion, then we’re fucked.

    • Haha, I had a similar interaction and a similar response! What’s with those guys?

  • This is a great, well written piece. So many people make up their mind on topics like this, being misinformed.

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  • Grace

    Love this post, Amy. We talk about how fear hinders us – as individuals – from reaching our potential. We fail to see that as a community at large, fear stops us from compassion and empathy. In the case of asylum seekers, fear puts us in creating life threatening situations. I wish we could all see that and act on it.

  • Really good post on a really hard subject. I thoughts are exactly like you have said here, these people seeking refuge by taking life into their own hands can surely not be choosing to so they can cause havoc in Australia. They also aren’t crazy, they have no other option. If my home was rubble and the lives of all those around me endangered, hell yeah I would take any option out too. If I was in a burning building and the only way out was jumping from the window, I wouldn’t stand there and hope it got better because it was a dangerous way to go, I would be gone!

  • I have missed your words Amy. Such an excellent well thought post. I have been thinking about this stuff a lot lately. We need to get over ourselves as human beings. Nobody is superior to anyone else. It’s very sad

  • I’ve only just read this. I love how you’ve simplified this message, don’t apologise for it, it’s generally the only way we can understand how simple these issues really are without being totally overwhelmed by what the media tells us. My grandparents were refugees after WW2, who in my opinion have only bettered Australia, with their culture, their skills, their family & friends. x

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