Mehdi Ali
Defending the dignity of refugees

It’s like this. I speak to a friend who went through the hard times of Nauru. He is a refugee. For several years he has been in Australia. He can work but he has few other rights. He does not have a permanent visa. He does not know what will happen to him next.

“I cannot do what I want with my visa,” he says to me. “I cannot leave the country and see my beloved ones. My brother died a while ago and my mother is sick. I have to renew my visa every six months. My case manager calls me sometimes and starts threatening me: you will never resettle here.”

I speak to another friend, similarly living in Australia on a temporary visa. For him it has also been like this for years. “We have no rights here,” he says. “We have no right to defend our dignity when we are insulted. We have no right to defend ourselves when we are attacked. Because defending our dignity comes at the cost of detention for us, because we do not have equal rights with others.”

In the traditional way of the world, in an election like the one just gone in Australia, it would be customary for the most important programs and priorities of the rival parties to be presented to the people so a vote could be held for the most desired option based on that program. In this way, the vision and perspective of a government can be identified.

Before the election, we very much hoped that the human rights of asylum seekers deported to remote islands would be a point of difference between the two rivals. As one of the people who spent their childhood to adolescence in the harsh conditions of the far islands, I was very optimistic. I hoped strongly that there would be a realisation of the legal rights of these oppressed people after years of exile and that our punishment would be considered.

All those of us who spent our childhoods and adolescence alone in the far islands and in the horrific environments of those areas, without trial and without sentencing, were also hopeful that at least one of parties would see us as the oppressed and finally offer to us some peace.

We hoped that they would offer permanent residence to those of us in the community, held in limbo with no crime to answer. Perhaps, after all these years and all the hardship we have endured, they would give those of us here some clemency.

Beyond that, possibly they would start to talk about compensation for how we were treated. For someone like me, who spent my childhood in detention, maybe there would be some acknowledgement of everything I have lost and will never get back, of all the cruelty and suffering.

In reality, the question of our human rights was given almost no attention. The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, reiterated support for offshore detention. After winning, one of the first acts of the Labor government was to continue with the turnback of an asylum-seeker boat.

The readers of this article may want to remember that people like me came to Australia because we believed it would be wonderful to live in this country. We took the deadliest and most terrifying voyage across oceans, with very basic equipment, and suffered great psychological damage along the way. After escaping the wrath of the ocean, we had to pay the penalty of trying to reach this country.

What happened was unique in its kind and the decisions of the officials were unprecedented. We were imprisoned without end. Children, women and adults were taken to harsh and remote areas. Wherever we went became our cage.

There was no due process. I was 15 years old when I entered this detention and I was 24 when I left.

After this tragedy, I was very hopeful that the election might promise us some change. I was heartbroken and angry when it did not. What the two major parties completely forgot was that the inhabitants of their island prisons were all human beings. Like other human beings, we survived with hope and have the right to receive special attention in a country whose rule is based on democracy. Unfortunately, this expectation was not met. No chapter was dedicated to us or our oppression. I emphasise that ignoring this issue is contrary to the spirit of democracy that Australia has been so proud of for so many years.

How to appease and compensate for the losses inflicted on those who are really oppressed? What should happen now for the people who were most punished by this system? Is not this kind of long oppression a modern form of slavery?

Personally, I would say that Labor must finish what it started. For many of us, our detention began while Labor was in power. Now that they are in power again it is time to remove the refugees from Nauru and Manus Island and address the material and spiritual needs of the deportees.

Refugees, like many other citizens, have been involved in the development of Australia for many years in many ways. Unfortunately, because of the dire visa situation, instead of being praised for this development and assistance and useful work in Australia, we have spent our days in uncertainty and fear. I am settled in America now but many others are not. They spend their days in disarray. This took its worst form during the Coalition rule and especially when Peter Dutton was Immigration minister. It is a cruel irony that he is now leading the Liberal Party.

The situation of the people damaged by Australia must be taken care of. More than that, the few survivors who have been forgotten in offshore detention and have become the toys of some oppressors must be rescued as soon as possible.

We really have to use the word salvation, because they are in danger. We really hope that the Labor government will take serious and immediate measures to free the refugees abroad and to reform the refugee visas so that they can live in safety.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Defending dignity".

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