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.
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.
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