The humanity crisis
It’s August 2001 and the Tampa crisis is unfolding. Some 438 rescued refugees are stranded on a lonely freighter. The army has been arrayed against them. Bills hurried through parliament. Innocent men and women demonised in the press and by government members.
Two months earlier, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) had opened its doors. A handful of people had attended our first volunteer information sessions, but they would become thousands. Thousands of ordinary people who refused to let these hateful salvos go unanswered. In the 15 years since, through all the highs and the lows, it is this compassion that continues to give me hope.
The suffering, limbo and grief experienced by the refugees we have worked with are a stain on our collective hearts. The stories and memories of the past 15 years stay with me. The original membership book of the ASRC holds the names of the first 7529 people seeking asylum whom we assisted. They are not numbers; they are stories of extraordinary sacrifice and courage, of people who would split the world in half and cross its lands and seas for the love of their family and freedom.
I remember their faces. The 10-year-old girl whose hospital bed I rushed to in the middle of the night because she had just tried to hang herself with a bedsheet to end the terror of detention. The young desperate man, facing immediate deportation, whom
I was talking to on the phone at 1am, trying to stop him from cutting his throat with the broken glass he held. The father who had lost his five daughters and wife on a boat travelling to Australia, who was on a temporary protection visa and so was unable to sponsor his family to come to Australia safely.
I remember spending time with the extraordinary Amal Basry, a survivor of the SIEV X, the sunk vessel that saw 353 people die at sea while seeking our protection. Amal would tell me how the endless uncertainty of a temporary protection visa was her punishment from the Australian government for not drowning. Up until her death, Amal would speak out fearlessly for the human rights of refugees and advocate for an end to the visa class that trapped her in unknowing. She campaigned to end the captivity of refugees in a cruel existence of temporary freedom, hopes and dreams.
I remember our detention rights advocate, Pamela Curr, finding Cornelia Rau rotting away in an Australian detention centre. I recall an occasion – one of many – where our human rights lawyers rushed to court to get an injunction to force the grounding of a plane that was about to deport a refugee to danger. I remember the thousands of children who have lost their childhood in immigration prisons.
The ASRC started in the space of eight weeks as a TAFE class project and as a lesson on how my students could change the world. We began in a tiny 20-square-metre shopfront in Footscray, provided rent-free by my mate Pablo. The furniture was donated by my mum. We only had a couple of hundred dollars but, in line with a principle that continues to this day, we took no federal government funding. As a result, we almost had to close our doors at the end of each month. Each week, we didn’t know how we would fill the shelves of our food bank or pay for people’s medicines or even the rent. Somehow, though, it would be okay. Out of nowhere, a carload of food would arrive, either from a school food drive or from a local business that was wanting to do their bit. Other times, a cheque would come in the mail from an anonymous donor telling us it was their way of not feeling helpless or of dealing with their shame at our government’s treatment of refugees.
The ASRC has survived because of the generosity of everyday Aussies. People such as pensioner Stephen Roberts, who has been sending us a donation from his pension every fortnight for the past 14 years, his only request being that we put it to good use helping “our people who are treasures”.
Over the past 15 years, the ASRC has been a barometer of our country’s humanity at its best and at its worst.
Its best is the collective compassionate response we see daily. It is the grandmothers who spend their autumns knitting scarves and gloves so that refugees don’t go cold in winter. It is the young children who spent last weekend making and selling lemonade to raise funds for the ASRC. It is Sister Rita, a Catholic nun who has volunteered at our centre since 2003 and whose beaming face has brightened our food bank.
At its worst, it is the vile hate mail, either directed at me personally or at the ASRC. It is the terror of an Iraqi woman who told me how her hijab was ripped off in broad daylight. It is the lies successive governments have tried to feed us about refugees.
All this hit rock bottom under former prime minister John Howard and never recovered. We sold out our compassion, human decency and pride. We replaced it with fear, self-interest and racism. We were encouraged to buy the lies and slogans, to forget that these were real lives that mattered and which we were able to save, that refugees were human beings who were fleeing the horrors of Daesh and the Taliban, to name a few. The Coalition, the Labor Party and the Murdoch media have each tried to sell us the illusion that all solutions have been exhausted and that deterrence is the only way. The greatest lie to justify our barbaric policies has been that they are enacted to “save lives”; but neither major party gives a damn about the refugees living here or those trying desperately to reach safety. It has nothing to do with saving lives: they just want these people to die somewhere else.
There has been no real political debate, just a race to the toxic bottom. A real debate would have been anchored in questions and moral challenges to our nation, such as: How do we save more lives? How many refugees can we save? What would be possible if, instead of wasting billions on offshore detention, we spent that money on integrating and settling refugees? We might ask: Why don’t we safely settle refugees en masse from Indonesia? Why don’t we invest in community-based settlement and let people work and give back? We might ask: How do we get our neighbours to share humanitarian obligations based on mutual respect, engagement and investment in capacity and human rights?
Sadly, as a refugee movement, we haven’t forced either the Labor party or the Coalition to truly justify, defend or explain themselves. As a community, we haven’t demanded better of our leaders. They are cowards, opportunists and predators; there is no line they won’t cross or refugee’s life they won’t sacrifice to win.
But after 15 years, I am still hopeful. The more the debate has soured, the greater the humanitarian response from the Australian community has become. We are a minority as a refugee movement but we are, as I like to say, a minority of millions who have refused to be silent. Most significantly, refugees have resisted with their bodies, spirits and courage. Today, more than 1500 refugees continue to bravely protest and fight for their freedom on Manus Island and Nauru. Right now, 30,000 are fighting for their freedom in the Australian community under a new draconian system where up to 90 per cent of federal government funding for legal assistance has been slashed.
The more the dog whistle blows, the more donations of food, money, aid and goodwill surge into refugee charities and action groups. The worse the debate becomes, the more people from every generation and background come through our doors. These people are not full-time activists; they are everyday mums and dads, doctors, carpenters, lawyers, teachers, musicians, students, business people – every walk of life, mobilised, ready to help.
For years, the community has rallied around refugees. This has come in so many different forms: former prime minister Malcolm Fraser coming to our aid; 600 people I had never met volunteering to help build our new home in 2014 in response to a simple callout on Facebook; the 250 pizzas delivered to the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital after a single tweet asking for food to support those protesting into the night to protect baby Asha.
The greatest story of the past 15 years has been the successes of refugees against all the odds. While Immigration Minister Peter Dutton talks of burdensome and illiterate refugees in an attempt to further vilify them, we see another story of resilient and resourceful human beings. In our Innovation HUB more than 700 people successfully graduated from TAFE and dozens have started their own small businesses. Young people who arrived by boat without a word of English are now studying double degrees at university, and approximately half of all the paid professional roles in our Innovation HUB are now held by people from refugee backgrounds.
For 15 years I have been surrounded by thousands of the most compassionate and dedicated people. I can’t lose hope among the thousands of everyday Australians who care and are working tirelessly to build a just and welcoming Australia. Australians who are creating the change that politicians won’t.
The real, and long overdue, change in the debate is now starting to be led by refugees themselves. As it should be. Change is guided by their struggles, lived experiences and voices.
Each morning, I tell our volunteers it is in the darkness that you need to burn the brightest, and why it matters that they are here, and why we can’t surrender hope. Not now, not ever.
It is up to us as a community to raise the flag of hope and the hand of welcome to refugees. Politics has abandoned these people; let’s make a promise that we won’t. Our borders are safe; it is our humanity that is threatened.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 18, 2016 as "The humanity crisis". Subscribe here.