A blight on our collective soul – the treatment of unaccompanied children who seek asylum and refuge in Australia

refugee child
(Image credit : UNHCR)

“Protecting the Lonely Children” is the title of the Final Report of the Australian Churches Refugee Task Force released in July. The report contains recommendations to the Australian Government and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with respect to unaccompanied children who seek asylum and refuge in Australia.

The Chair of the Task Force is the Very Rev. Peter Catt, Dean of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. In the opening words of the report, Dr Catt states “Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable in our society and throughout the world; they have been forced, separated or orphaned from their families through reasons of violence, fear and persecution.”

Dr Catt goes on to say that many Australians would not be aware of their predicament because as they have no-one to advocate for their needs, their stories are rarely heard. The report paints a sad picture of the plight of these children. In the worst case some children have been forced back to the homelands from where they have fled persecution, before they had the chance to tell their story and have their claim for asylum justly processed.

Some of these children have been sent to detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island where they live in limbo – an existence that threatens “great and lifelong harm to their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing”. These children have been given only temporary respite and safety. Yet they are not accepted here and returning them home could possible mean torture and death.

Dr Catt quotes the Australian Catholic Bishops who stated recently that current asylum seeker policy “…has about it a cruelty that does no honour to our nation”. The Australian Anglican Primate, Dr Phillip Aspinall said “Putting children behind razor wire is never a loving response to people in need. That breaks people’s hearts… There has got to be a better way for us to deal with these issues”.

The recommendations contained in the report seek to show that “better way”. The Task force has synthesized the issues into six problem areas and suggests solutions for each of these. Dr Catt is quick to agree that the Taskforce is not the first to express these concerns and to make such recommendations. The Task Force have joined a long line of academic institutions, Australian medical colleges, law societies, child welfare groups and others who have called repeatedly for such changes – sadly with little or no response from our Federal Government.

The first problem identified in the report in the untenable position of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection who is both the legal guardian for unaccompanied children and also their judge and jailor. The report calls for the immediate replacement of the Minister as legal guardian and the appointment of an independent guardian who is not beholden to the Minister or his Department.

The second problem identified is that the Australian Government has failed to provide institutional child protection and welfare which has caused individual and generational damage. The Taskforce demands that the Government stop treating unaccompanied children like unwanted cargo and instead uphold the children’s best interests.

The full report makes compelling reading and needs to be read widely. Sadly so far our Government have given little indication that they are taking the report and its recommendations seriously. I will leave the last word to Rev. Prof Andrew Dutney, the President of the Uniting Church in Australia who, when reflecting on our treatment of these children stated:

“Somehow it has come to suit us to treat this particular group of vulnerable ‘others’ as we would never want to be treated ourselves. That’s what the opinion polls seem to say. And that is deeply disturbing. Measured against the Golden Rule, it points to a neglected, enfeebled, imperilled Australian soul”.

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Messages from Melanesia

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My first time out of Australia was in 1970 when I went on an amazing adventure to Papua New Guinea. In those three months, I spent six weeks working on the Highlands Highway between Wapenamanda and Wabag, climbed the 3800m high peak of Mount Hagen, went on a 4 day trek through the most spectacular scenery, hitch-hiked the Highlands Highway from Lae to Mount Hagen, watched Birds of Paradise flying across mist-shrouded rainforest valley, and participated in a ten-day National Fitness camp at Mount Hagen with young people who were to become the leaders of the soon-to-be independent nation.

The highlight of this time was the amazing hospitality I experienced from the Papua New Guinea people wherever I went. I enjoyed it so much I was back next year for another three months when, as a newly graduated engineer, I surveyed a road through earthquake prone country to the North of Madang.

My time in Papua New Guinea whetted my appetite for exploring the world and from 1974 to 1978 I worked in Malaysia then Thailand as part of the Australian Volunteers Abroad program.

History has not been so kind to Papua New Guinea since the heady days of self government and independence in the early 1970s. I had always thought that I would end up working back there, but the news coming from Papua New Guinea has not been that positive. Recently Dee, a woman from Manus Island, lived with us in Townsville for three years. Dee spoked glowingly about her village and family back on Manus but also shared her fears about going back to live in Port Moresby – she bore the scars of a machete attack that occurred while returning with her children from a shopping excursion.

I felt ambivalence towards a country that had given me so much. When I thought of Papua New Guinea I remembered the wonderful hospitality of the people I met there 40 years ago but this was tempered more recently by the violence experienced by friends who have worked there, and the negative media reports of PNG that highlight the violence and corruption. The reports from the detention centre on Manus Island did little to improve my perceptions of the current situation in Papua New Guinea.

Several experiences in the past month have got me reconsidering these negative attitudes. The first was a recent Facebook post by Hilda, a student from Papua New Guinea studying at James Cook University where I work. She wrote

“Western Culture is so unbelievably lonely, even the neighbours don’t talk!! Everyone seem to be all caught up in their own little ‘busy’ worlds, there is no sense of community, everyone seem to be detached completely from fellow humans around them, nature, surrounding environment, etc. … I can live here in this house for 2 years and never get to know my neighbours who live just 5 metres from the corner of my room, they are (an) old couple and if they die tomorrow I will never know and no one will remember them.

It’s such a sad lonely life…Compared to back home, everyone is a family, you meet a stranger for the first time and without even knowing your first name, they will treat you as if you were very much a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister. You move into a completely strange neighbourhood or village and the whole community invites you for meals or always bring you a plate or plastics of peanut or buai. On the streets people will pass you by always with a smile and greeting. There’s always that warm feeling of being at home.”

Food for thought. We in Australia certainly have a lifestyle abundant in material possessions but Hilda reminds us of what we might have given up in the process.

Awareness of the need to re-think some of my attitudes was heightened last week as I listened to a presentation by Flora Pondilei, a Cairns resident and JCU graduate who comes from Manus Island. In her talk to the Cairns Institute entitled “Manus Island – Hell-hole – Hell no! Misrepresented – Absolutely”, Flora reminded the audience that the forgotten victims of the Off-shore Processing on Manus Island were the women and children of Manus. Manus Islanders traditionally were famed for their friendliness and the hospitality shown to visitors. This easy-going lifestyle has been changed, probably forever, by what has happened in the past twelve months.

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Flora said that while Transfield were awarded a contract of $1.2billion to run the detention centre for 20 months – both the health and education infrastructure for Manus Islanders remained hopeless. The infamous agreement to establish the Manus Island detention centre, negotiated by former PM Kevin Rudd with Papua New Guinea PM Peter O’Neill, undoubtedly brought great benefits to the Papua New Guinea Government – however few of these rewards have been passed on to the residents of Manus.

The Manus Island detention centre certainly is a scandal – an institution set up by the Australian Government to break the spirit of the asylum seeker inmates, so that they might then agree to return back to where they come from and face persecution and even death.

Flora reminded us that the asylum seekers in the detention centre are not the only victims of this morally bankrupt system.

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Not in our name please Scott Morrison

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On a recent visit to Sydney I attended a panel discussion on refugees and asylum seekers sponsored by the Pennant Hills AIA group. The first speaker was Graeme McGregor, the refugee campaigner for Amnesty International Australia (AIA).

Graeme visited the Manus Island Detention Centre in late 2013 as part of an AIA delegation. His presentation painted a frightening picture of a place where inmates live in horrific and hopeless conditions. Drinking water is inadequate, there is little shade and people are given no idea of what is going to happen to them.

Graeme says that the only conclusion we can draw is that the aim of this regime is to break the inmates both mentally and physically. The government hopes they will then agree to go back to where they came from.

One group of asylum seekers recently agreed to return to Syria and when the International Office of Migration (IOM) advised it was not safe to go back, the Department of Immigration and Border Control offered to arrange it.

In pursuit of their immoral policy objectives, our government is prepared to send people back to situations where their lives will most definitely be at risk.

Graeme told us that Australia’s detention regime cost  $1 billion last year – all taken from the aid budget. He told us that this works out as $500,000 per person and in that time one (yes only one!) refugee was resettled. Graeme’s full report is featured on the AIA website.

In the comments section directly below the report, a worker on Manus Island disputes some of the claims made in the AIA report. In his response Graeme painstakingly addresses every point made in the Manus worker’s letter and details the evidence for making the claims. This evidence-based approach illustrates clearly why Amnesty International is such a well respected human rights organisation.

The AIA delegation met with Scott Morrison after their visit to Manus.

After they told him about what they had witnessed, Scott Morrison’s response was “Where things are presented that can improve, then of course we will do that”.

In the following three months the amount of shade on Manus has actually reduced and the amount of drinking water provided is still inadequate. And many more people have been diagnosed with severe mental illness. So much for the promises of Scott Morrison.

Graeme’s presentation left me feeling very sad and struggling to accept that an Australian government could be capable of acting in such a cruel and heartless manner. And let’s not pretend we can expect any better from the current Opposition.

After all the Manus Island “solution” is an ALP creation. In an earlier entry in this blog, I shared my amazement and despair at hearing Opposition Immigration Spokesman Richard Marles berate the Government for not being committed to the Manus Island solution.

Now as never before, human rights defenders are mobilising to declare their opposition to the policies of the Abbott government. In February, Townsville activists joined thousands of people round Australia in staging a “Light up the dark vigil” in memory of Reza Berati the young man killed in the recent unrest on Manus Island – a victim of Australia’s border protection policies.

In the next few months pro-refugee activists in Townsville are planning a number of actions aimed at changing the hearts and minds of Townsville residents.

The first is that we will participate in the May Day parade this year with the aim of getting at least 200 marchers under our banner “Protect refugees not borders”.

We have also enlisted local artists to assist us with a major art installation for the Eco Fiesta, a celebration of the earth and the environment to be held on the 1st of June

There will also be three public seminars in the lead-up to World Refugee Day on Friday 20 June. The first will be presented by a representative from the Centre for Refugee Research at the University of New South Wales, the second by Graeme McGregor or another representative from AIA, and the third seminar will give participants the opportunity to hear the views of some of our political representatives.

On World Refugee Day pro-asylum activists will gather outside the office of Federal MP Ewen Jones to condemn the barbaric treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian Government and to proclaim that these actions are “not in our name”.

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Bondi Surf rescue

Between the flags Bondi

Last week I was telling people in my work tea room about by impending
trip to Sydney and plans to go surfing at Bondi. A colleague joked
that she did not want to see me on Bondi Rescue. Well I was involved
in a rescue – but as the rescuer not the rescuee.

As a bit of background, while I am not a strong swimmer I spent four
years in the late 60s as a surf lifesaver on the Gold Coast and
understand surf well. Well there  I was out at Bondi enjoying some
nice little waves and started chatting to a young visitor from London
(I have discovered you never meet anyone from Bondi at Bondi). He
asked  if we were safe from sharks – I pointed to a person several
hundred metres out from where we were who was swimming across the
mouth of the bay. I said that that person was my insurance policy.
Surely any smart shark would sample him/her before us.

I then noticed that we were in a backwash. This is a phenomena where
after a set of large of waves, water returning out to sea can carry
unsuspecting swimmers 20 or 30 metres out before they realize what is
happening. This had happened to us.

From past experience I knew all we needed to do was swim slowly
towards the shore and incoming swells would assist us to get back into
shallower water. The danger in these situations is that people panic
as the progress can be slow, and start swimming wildly and often take
in sea water which makes the situation much worse.

This is precisely what my London friend did. I managed to calm him
down and told him just to keep swimming slowly and after five minutes
we were back to where we could stand up. I escorted him back to the
shore and cautioned him about going out too far when he was unsure of
the situation. He thanked me and said how terrifying it was when he
started swallowing salt water.

So there you are my own Bondi surf rescue! If you want to read more
exciting bodysurfing adventures please like my Bodysurfing on Magnetic
Facebook page www.facebook.com/bodysurfingmagnetic

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Why I Marched in March

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(Photo: Simon Foale)

Yesterday thousands of Australians from all round Australia took part in the March in March as a national vote of no-confidence in the policies of the Abbott Government. At the Townsville event there was a fantastic turnout of well over 500 people. I marched for a number of reasons but for me the greatest failing of the current Government is the complete and utter lack of compassion shown towards Refugees and Asylum seekers.

My own involvement with refugees began in 1975 on a visit to Thailand from Malaysia where I was working as an Australian Volunteer Abroad. The wars in Indo-China had just ended and outside the Thai city of Nong Kai I came across a vast refugee camp housing 20,000 people who had come across to Thailand from Laos.

12 months later I was back in Thailand to work at the Ban Sob Tuang Refugee Camp in the Northern Thai  province of Nan. There were 10,000 refugees in the camp from the Hmong, Yao and other minority ethnic groups. Many had worked with the US forces in Laos and feared retribution now that the Communists had taken power. As a water engineer I spent eighteen months working with people in the camp building two earth dams for water supply. By most standards conditions were harsh but the atmosphere in the camp was positive as there was a steady flow of people out of the camp heading for resettlement in third countries – mainly US, France and Australia.

Late in 1978 I returned to Australia where the Fraser government was settling more than 25000 Indo-Chinese refugees a year. A large factor in the success of this program was that it had bi-partisan support in the Parliament. The Labor opposition had decided not to make refugee resettlement a political issue and supported the resettlement program.

In 1980 I visited Thailand and discovered that the situation in Ban Sob Tuang had changed for the worse. The flow of people to third countries had slowed to a trickle and many of those remaining had lost hope. Some of the men I had known from my previous stay had turned to opium for solace and were now shadows of their former selves.

The other shock was to find that there were now more than one million refugees living in Thailand. The most recent arrivals were from Cambodia where the policies of the  Pol Pot government had driven more than six hundred thousand people across the border. The Thai government and people had great sympathy for the plight of these people and were happy to offer them refuge for as long as was necessary. Perhaps if the Thai government had been lead by men of the likes of Abbott, Morrison, Shorten and Marles an extra six hundred thousand people might have perished in the Cambodian killing fields.

Throughout the1980s I was actively involved in the resettlement of refugees into the Townsville community and also became involved in Amnesty International’s campaigns on the refugee issue.

Fast forward to August 2001 and the infamous Tampa incident when the Howard Government were prepared to over-ride the principles of International Law in the interests of short-term political gain. I will never forget a conversation I had at the Culture Fest that year with several young Norwegian visitors. Access to Australian waters had been denied to the Tampa, a Norwegian vessel with its cargo of 438 asylum seekers who were for the most part Hazara people from Afghanistan. The young Norwegians kept asking why Australia had refused access to the Tampa. They were not angry – but perplexed. They had found Australia to be a civilised country with values similar to their own and could not understand the lack of compassion shown by our Government towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Both the Tampa issue and the ensuing Pacific solution pale into insignificance beside the policies of the Abbott and Rudd Governments. Who would have thought that Australia could have come up with the current policies towards asylum seekers that have lead to riots on both Nauru and Manus Island. We should not have been surprised by what has happened. What should we expect when people are detained in hopeless situations? In the Manus Island detention centre people are repeatedly told that there is no chance to come to Australia and that the best they can hope for is to return to their own country or to be resettled in Papua New Guinea.

The message implicit in Australia’s current policies is “come to Australia and we will do our best to make sure you will end up in a place that is worse than where you came from”. David Marr, writing recently in the Guardian, said we should not expect the boats to stop. Marr said that the boats will always come back, and that Australia will have to “draw on fresh reserves of cruelty” in response.

Will Australia, once recognised for its compassion and respect for human rights, become renowned for the cruelty we are prepared to inflict to protect our precious borders. Yesterday I had the chance to join thousands of others around the country to say “Not in our name!”.

Some of the speakers yesterday called for an alternative government. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can expect better from the current Opposition. Many of the current harsh policies were inherited from Labor, and only last week Opposition Immigration Spokesman Richard Marles berated the Government for not being committed to the Manus Island solution.

It’s not an Alternative Government we need but a Compassionate Government!

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Vale Pete Seeger

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On Tuesday 28 January legendary folk singer Pete Seeger passed way at age 94.

Not everyone would recognise the name but all would recognise his music – songs he sang and made famous included “If I had a hammer”, “Turn!Turn!Turn! – To everything there is a season”, “Michael Row the boat ashore” and “We shall overcome”.

I had heard the name Pete Seeger but I only got to know his amazing story by chance when I saw the musical biography “One Word…WE! – The songs and story of Pete Seeger and friends” performed at the Woodford Folk Festival in 2001. I was luck to catch the performance again at the 2009 Festival when it was performed on New Year’s Eve. “One Word…WE!” was written by Sydney musician and union activist Maurie Mulheron and performed by a group of musicians from Sydney.

The musical biography featured the cast singing the songs of Pete Seeger interspersed with stories from his life.  One story that I will never forget began in 1949 when Pete Seeger was invited to sing several songs at a concert organised by Paul Robeson at Peekskill upstate New York. 1949 was at the height of the cold war and Robeson and other performers were known members of the communist party. Thousands of people rallied to protest the concert featuring known communists and as Pete Seeger and other performers left the concert they had to drive through crowns wielding clubs and hurling stones. All the cars were badly damaged and a number of the performers were injured.
50 years later Pete was invited back to perform a concert for the people of Peekskill and he was warmly received by the local  people there. Pete was heartened to think that some of the people in the audience enjoying his music would have been the children and grandchildren of those who had stoned his car all those years before.

Pete Seeger became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and one the songs he made famous “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem for the movement. The FBI carried out an investigation to try to work out what sustained the civil rights movement and concluded that music was a major factor. One of the proudest moments of Pete’s life came in January 2009 when Pete was invited to sing at the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Pete Seeger influenced generations of US musicians – people such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. This is some of what Bruce Springsteen had to say on the occasion of Pete’s 90th birthday.

“As Pete and I travelled to Washington for President Obama’s inaugural celebration, he told me the entire story of We Shall Overcome. How it moved from a labour movement song, and with Pete’s inspiration, had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang This Land Is Your Land, I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the 60s in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable, and Pete had 30 extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, ‘Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!’ “

Check out the rest of what Bruce Springsteen had to say from last Saturday’s Weekend Australian. For an inspiring look at Pete Seeger’s life and legacy it is hard to beat the PBS biography “The Power of Song” recorded  in 2007. For an Australian take on Pete Seeger listen to the great interview with Andrew Ford from RN’s music show recorded in 1999.

And as Arlo Guthrie said this week: “Of course he passed away. But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

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Better green than mean

The day after the recent Federal election I went for a walk along the river near our house. My mind went back to that morning six years before when I made the same walk excited by the election of the Rudd government the previous day.

I remember thinking how wonderful it was that we now had a government that was committed to taking meaningful action against climate change,that was committed to treating refugees humanely and committed to supporting indigenous people and other marginalised groups in the Australian society.

Six years on from the election of the Rudd government we now find both sides of government in agreement that we need to treat asylum seekers inhumanely in order to stop the boats and while we currently have a carbon price this seems set to disappear and will be very difficult to re-introduce.

What went wrong? The coalition have been able to convince us that Australians are doing it tough and in tough times “harsh measures are needed”. If abolishing “big taxes” and harsh measures against refugee and asylum seekers are needed to bring back the good times then so be it.

To emphasise how bad things were the Coalition announced days out from the election that they would slash foreign and the money saved would be used to improve road infrastructure.

The reality is that most Australians are better off economically that we have ever been.

The “genius” (if you can call it that) of the coalition is that they convinced more than half of us to support policies that are based on fear of the other – whether the other be asylum seekers or climate scientists.

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