Battling for asylum seekers: a personal journey

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Colleen O’Sullivan

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Support the right to seek asylum – Refugee Action protest 27 July 2013 Takver flickr cc

Over the past 15 years, the words Maribyrnong, Villawood, and Woomera have been etched into the Australian lexicon, and the words Manus and Nauru no longer conjure up images of small Pacific settlements, but of people living in makeshift camps behind wire fences. It makes one wonder whether referring to asylum seeker ‘issues’ or ‘debates’ gives an accurate description of this uphill battle. Perhaps the tireless work of campaigners and refugees themselves would be better described as a human rights movement in the same category as some of Australia’s most important movements, such as the struggle the First Peoples fought for recognition, and the women’s rights movements.

In my role as a media officer for a not-for-profit agency (NFP), I was recently asked: “What can we do differently media-wise to promote the plight of the asylum seekers?”. It is a difficult question to answer when pro-refugee organisations have long since established strong media contacts and articles promoting the contributions of refugees, and when the appalling mental health consequences of detention are a regular feature in our independent media and occasionally in the News Ltd-owned media too!

And while not opposed to the valuable concept of self-reflection, I recall similar pieces doing the rounds last year, when the two major parties once again cemented bipartisan support for offshore detention. I was sickened by the offensive implication that people opposed to offshore detention were somehow contributing to deaths at sea. In light of recent events, I think the better question in this instance is: how did we get here? And if this is a human rights movement, are we prepared to fight another 10, 20, or 30 years until punitive refugee policies are overturned and replaced with the timely processing of asylum seeker applications in a fair and just manner?

Exactly how did we arrive at the point at which 153 Tamil people on board two vessels bound for Australia disappear with our government refusing to confirm if they have been detained on Christmas Island or, in an unprecedented move, possibly returned to Sir Lanka? How did we arrive at the point of paying asylum seekers increasingly large sums of money to return to their homelands? How did we arrive at the point of the Coalition government in June introducing legislation to Parliament that asylum seekers would be returned to their home countries if the probability of them facing discrimination or even torture was judged to be less than 50 percent? The previous benchmark for refoulement (return to home countries) was whether asylum seekers faced only a 10 percent chance of persecution. How did we arrive at the point at which the former Labor government excised the Australian mainland from the migration zone in a bid to deter asylum seekers, ultimately paving the way for the harsh policies we see today?

Was it, as I suspect, a matter of MPs and members of the public viewing such legislation as technical in nature, without realising the life and death consequences their actions posed to men, women, and children? Although Australia might be in denial about the life and death repercussions of the aforementioned policies, the fact that our policies have grown nastier and nastier by the year has not gone unnoticed by the international community. Only last month the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, was attending international talks in Geneva when he criticised Australia’s “strange obsession” with people who came by boat.

Refugee supporters are not immune to experiencing denial themselves, and find it hard to fathom how the majority of their neighbours and colleagues support offshore detention, but when your views are mirrored in the opinion pages of independent news outlets, it’s easy to forget many more people are reading the News Ltd press, which as human rights lawyer Julian Burnside aptly described at a recent address to the Edmund Rice Network in Melbourne, is “a megaphone for the government”.

On a personal level, my own support for refugees and asylum seekers took off to a rocky start when, in 1999 as a tourist on my second day in London, I witnessed a large rally in the city and was asked to sign a petition for “asylum seekers”. I didn’t recognise the term and didn’t sign the petition, but a year later, back in Melbourne, my eyes were soon opened. The first election in which I voted was in 2001 – dubbed the “Tampa election” – and in my final years of university bus trips were organised from Melbourne to Woomera to protest against the extremely harsh conditions of the camp. Again, I didn’t attend, but I watched as the Woomera breakout made national news in Easter 2002.

There were highs and lows in the following years, most notably the dismantling of the offshore system when Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007, and more recently the race to the bottom by our major political parties to implement the harshest of deterrence policies. I do not claim to be able to add to the debate in the way of advocates and human rights lawyers, but when it comes to the asylum seeker debate, every little helps. I have to believe that, while small and irregular, the donations I’ve made, the after-school English tutoring I’ve done, and my work with not-for-profits make a difference, and I think many pro-refugee supporters feel the same.

So in answer to the question, “What can we do differently media-wise to promote the plight of the asylum seekers?”, I’m afraid it would look very much like the current media plan, only more targeted. The frontline advocates will continue putting into the media any way they can the untold stories of people in detention and those en route to Australia. The NFPs will continue to pitch stories to the media to spread the word that the overwhelming majority of people who have been through our detention centres have gone on to become Australian citizens.

What we will need to do more is to help keep the voices of former asylum seekers firmly in the public spotlight. Sadly, some among this group remain frightened of speaking out, but others have the ability to speak out, as exemplified by 2013 Young Australian of the year, Akram Azimi, among many others. Pro-refugee supporters must continue to lobby their MPs and write letters to the editor. We must make a point of airing our views in the mainstream media, especially in the commercial networks and News Ltd outlets, and stomach the knockbacks and put-downs until the pro-refugee message is brought to the attention of a broader cross-section of the public.

That is why we’ll continue pitching news stories to A Current Affair and among others, and keep enabling former asylum seekers and their children who have arrived in Australia in recent years to tell their own stories, until the people who sit on the sidelines of this human rights issue can no longer ignore the appalling policies being carried out in their name.

Colleen O’Sullivan works in the not-for-profit sector, and is interested in social issues and politics.

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