Australian kids show us the way

Last week I came across a video made by a kidz4kidz.aus, a student group aiming to raise awareness for children in detention centres in Australia. The video features members of the group reading actual statements made by children in Australian-run detention centres taken from “The forgotten children: National Inquiry into children in Immigration Detention” released last year by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The message is simple – as kidz4kidz.aus say in the introduction to the video – they are giving voice to children who are voiceless and nameless due to the inhumane policies of the Australian government. The words of one unaccompanied child are especially haunting “…We don’t know when we will be free. Our hope is slowly going. Maybe I will be killed.” This highlights what perhaps is the cruelest cut of all – we have taken away hope from these children and indeed all people held in Australian detention centres.

A series of Australian Immigration ministers have taken macabre delight in assuring asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat that even if they are found to be genuine refugees they will never be allowed to settle in Australia. At the moment going to Cambodia, or staying in Papua New Guinea or Nauru appear to be the only options.

I have witnessed first hand what the removal of hope does to people living in refugee camps. In 1977 and 1978 I worked with the YMCA of Thailand in one of the refugee camps along the border of Thailand with Laos. There were more than 10,000 people living in the camp and though conditions were quite primitive, people were generally in a positive mood. This was largely due to the fact that every Tuesday a fleet of buses would arrive in the camp and take people away to settlement destinations in the US, France or Australia.

I visited the camp again in 1980 and although physical conditions had improved – the food available was more varied and nutritions and health services more established- the mood had changed. People were lethargic and levels of opium addiction had skyrocketed among those remaining in the camp.

Why? The buses had stopped coming and the 3000 or so people who remained in the camp realised that they were not going anywhere. Hope had been removed and despair had taken over.

This year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects more than 400,000 people to embark on perilous journeys seeking to escape war and persecution. The  response of  Australia to asylum seekers stand in stark contrast to that of Germany and a number of other European countries.

refugees welcome

Germany has said that any of the asylum seekers currently arriving in Europe are welcome to seek refuge in Germany. Germany expects more than 800,000 people this year alone will take advantage of this offer.

The European response for the most part has been one of compassion – one thing that is sadly lacking from the Australian response to the current refugee crisis.

We need groups like kidz4kidz.aus to help us move towards a more compassionate and sustainable response.

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In the land of the blind

Two months ago I received an invitation from Vicki Salisbury, Director of the Umbrella Studio in Townsville, to open the exhibition “Suspicious Suspension” by Tehran born artist Hesam Fetrati.

In the invitation Vicki said that the exhibition, opening 22 May, was the artist’s interpretation of the distress caused by the harmful and common global activity of displacement. Vicki went on to say that it was a powerful exhibition and an opportunity for me as an Amnesty International representative “to speak out and stir the (melting) pot regarding the issues of refugees”.

Hesam discusses his work at the Exhibition opening

I accepted the invitation and on the Friday morning before the opening went to the studio to meet Hesam and to be introduced to his work. We went across the road for a coffee and I found out more about Hesam. Hesam was born in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution in the late 70s. During his childhood he witnessed the horrifying effects of the 8 year long war that followed the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussain’s forces from neighbouring Iraq. He subsequently became an artist and used cartoons to comment on what he saw happening around him.

In 2011, reaction from authorities to Hesam’s political cartoons resulted in him applying for a student visa to come to study in Brisbane. Hesam is currently finishing his PhD at Griffith University and he has permanent residence in Australia.

Following our coffee Hesam introduced me to the art work in Suspicious Suspension. This exhibition contains Hesam’s work from his first two years in Australia and also contains several pieces of more recent work. His works focus on the experience of refugees and asylum seekers making the hazardous journey to Australia by boat and the perceptions of them from the people and Government of Australia.


Screaming Fish

Hesam portrays refugees in several ways: as severed tree trunks, as fish and as suitcases. The severed tree trunks symbolise the displacement of refugees from their culture. I asked Hesam why the fish images have large teeth and look quite fearsome. Hesam replied that refugees are perceived by many Australians to be dangerous people.

Hope is the theme of a number of paintings in the exhibition. Hesam explained that hope sustains refugees on their often perilous journeys that in many cases go on for years and years. One of the cruel twists of the current Pacific solution introduced by Kevin Rudd is that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat are told that there is no hope that they will ever be allowed to settle in Australia. The devastating effects of this can be seen be seen in the incidents of self-harm that have occurred in the off shore detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru.

Blindness is another theme explored in a number of works in the exhibition. I immediately thought of current government policies that ensure that Australians are kept in the dark about the practices employed by the Navy as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. There are no images of people who are currently seeking to come to Australia by boat and no chance for us to see them as people and empathise with their plight.

Selfishness medallion

The final piece in Hesam’s exhibition is the Selfishness Medallion. Hesam designed this medallion for the immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Australia in the past 230 years and yet have no compassion for the current wave of refugees. We talked about Hesam’s desire to present this medallion to Tony Abbott, who is an immigrant to Australia, and one who has little empathy with more recent arrivals to Australia.

I talked with Hesam about his hopes for the exhibition. Hesam said that sales of his work would be welcome but his greatest desire is that people will look at his work and gain a greater understanding and empathy for the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. He said that if one person experienced a change in heart after viewing the exhibition then his work would be worth it.

Hesam’s exhibition will continue at Umbrella until the end of June and I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.

No war

Postscript: “No war” – one of Hesam’s current works that examines the related themes of patriarchy and peace.

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New Parliamentary report “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?”

scott M

How many of you like me watched last Monday’s Australian story “Just call Jamal”.

It was good to see another side of Scott Morrison. I am so used to seeing his poker face telling asylum seekers that there is no hope and to prepare themselves to rot in island detention centres or settle in Cambodia – it was a change seeing him smiling and genuinely relating to Muslim Australians.

The problem is not necessarily that our leaders have no compassion – it is their black and white thinking that pervades the public discourse on asylum seekers and so many other pressing issues of our time. On one side we have the fifteen million “genuine refugees” waiting patiently in refugee camps on the other side of the world and we are constantly being told that their rightful places are being taken by “economic refugees” who employ people smugglers to jump to the front of the queue.

This world view is challenged by a recent publication of the Parliamentary Library “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?” written by Janet Phillips.

One of the first things addressed in the report is the use of “illegal” when describing asylum seekers. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is cited which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum and goes on to say “…The UNHCR emphasises that a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’ as the very nature of persecution means that their only means of escape may be via illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation.”

The report reminds us that there is no orderly queue for asylum seekers. Of the sixteen million refugees in the world, the UNHCR estimates that 800,000 currently are in urgent need of resettlement with 80,000 as the maximum number of resettlement places available in any year. This means that only a small percentage of those whose refugee claims are successful in any one year will be successfully resettled.

We are also reminded that the majority of asylum seekers arrive by air. These people arrive on a tourist or business visa and claim refugee status on arrival. Their claims are processed and they are allowed to remain in the community while this happens. If they are found to be genuine refugees they are usually allowed to settle in Australia.

child in detention

In contrast those who arrive by boat are told that there is no chance of their ever settling in Australia. If found to be genuine refugees the best hope they have is to be sent to Cambodia or possibly allowed to remain on Nauru! Ironically over the past twenty years, the percentage of refugees arriving by boat granted refugee status is much higher than for those arriving by plane.

As for the claim that most of the asylum seekers arriving by boat are economic refugees, in the words of the report “…Past figures show that between 70 and 100 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat at different times have been found to be refugees and granted protection either in Australia or in another country.”

The information presented in the report supports what critics of current policies have been saying for some time – “stopping the boats” might be a political solution but it ignores the plight of those needing to leave their home country to escape persecution, torture and possibly death.

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The Death Penalty – it is important we keep talking

Last week the JCU Amnesty International Action Group had a stall at the Market Day held as part of the JCU Orientation Week activities. I spent several hours there collecting signatures on a petition addressed to Indonesia’s President Jokowi asking for clemency for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.


While sympaethetic towards the two condemned men, many students I spoke to would not sign the petition. They thought, that because the two Australians knew they could face the death penalty for drug trafficking in Indonesia, Indonesia had every right to carry out the executions.

ABC radio station TripleJ recently published the results of a SMS poll on this issue conducted by Roy Morgan Research in late January. 52 per cent of the 2123 people contacted agreed that Australians convicted of drug trafficking in another country and sentenced to death should be executed.

The debate on the death penalty has resulted in calls for Australian governments to consider the re-introduction of the death penalty for certain crimes. A letter published in the Townsville Bulletin last week suggested that a referendum should be held to assess people’s views on the death penalty. Over the next few days there were a number of texts to the editor in support of this proposal.

In response to this letter and ensuing texts, there was a timely letter from correspondent Mark Enders reminding people why the death penalty was abolished in Australia.

Ronald Ryan was the last person to be executed in Australia in 1967. In Enders’ words “…Those who were involved in his state sanctioned murder- from journalists, to the sentencing judge, to the prison workers who had to carry out the act, to his family were all deeply traumatised for decades.” A report by the Australian Coalition against the Death Penalty “Hanged Innocent”, reviews the inconsistencies and doubts surrounding the conviction and execution of Ronald Ryan.

Ronald Ryan

Ela Ghandhi, Mahatma Ghnadhi’s granddaughter, who recently visited Australia, campaigned for many years to have the death penalty abolished in South Africa. Ela Ghandhi interviewed on ABC radio said she opposed the death penalty for many reasons, and that she was especially concerned about the dehumanising effect on those entrusted with carrying out the sentence.

Mark Enders also referred to evidence from research that shows that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and that support for the death penalty is largely motivated by the desire for revenge.

Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer and anti-death penalty campaigner from the US, visited Australia recently as a guest of the Perth Writers’ Festival and spoke against the death penalty. In the US, 32 of the 50 states still retain the death penalty on their statute books.

bryan stevenson

Bryan Stevenson pointed out the racial nature of its implementation in those states still using the death penalty – a black person who killed a white person is 22 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white person who kills a black person. Bryan Stevenson said that the question should not be “does a person deserve to die for the crime they have committed” but rather “do we deserve to take a person’s life under any circumstance”. Bryan Stevenson presents his view on the death penalty and other justice issues in a TED talk that has received more than 2 million viewings.

Around the world the majority of countries (140) have abolished the death penalty in law or practice – and most of these have done so in the past 40 years. The campaign to abolish the death penalty is one of the great human rights successes of the 20th century and it is important that this momentum be sustained in the 21st century.

One thing we can all do is inform ourselves on the issues surrounding the death penalty and discuss those issues with people around us. A fact sheet available from the Amnesty International Australia web site is a very useful discussion starter on this topic.

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Ela Ghandhi on simple living, non-violence and the death penalty

Ela Ghandhi

Ela Ghandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Ghandhi was in Australia at the end of January to deliver the annual Gandhi Oration at the University of New South Wales.

Ela Ghandhi is a former South African Parliamentarian who spent many years under house arrest for her anti-apartheid activism. In an interview on Radio National on 29 January she was asked by presenter Jonathan Green to comment on her grandfather’s legacy.

She commented that simple living and non-violence were central to Mahatma Ghandhi’s message and they are as important today as they were then. Ela Ghandhi said that many of today’s problems such as inequality, poverty and climate change are caused by people wanting more and more. If more of us had followed Ghandhi’s teaching 80 years ago then we would be living in a very different world.

Ela Ghandhi suggested that the increasing violence in our world is largely caused by inequality as more and more of the world’s wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people. A recent Oxfam publication drew attention to the fact that by the year 2016, 1% of the world’s people will own as much as the remaining 99% and that currently 80 billionaires now have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population!

Ela Ghandhi is an exponent of non-violence. She grew up in South Africa, was an associate of Nelson Mandela and spent nine years under house arrest for her anti-apartheid activism. From 1994 to 2004 she was a Member of Parliament in South Africa and she retired from Parliament to concentrate on campaigning against violence.

Ela Ghandhi’s is strongly opposed to the death penalty and was asked in the interview to comment on the impeding executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Drawing on evidence from Austin Sarat’s book “When the State Kills”, she said that capital punishment leads to a more violent society. Studies have also shown that when the death penalty is abolished, the rate of violent crime actually decreases. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, and 27 years later in 2003 the murder rate had decreased by 44%.

A recent Information Sheet on the Death Penalty from Amnesty International Australia makes the point that there is clear evidence from around the world that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect.

Ela Ghandhi raised concerns about the effect that capital punishment has on the executioner. In the case of Indonesia we can only imagine the impact on the young soldiers who carry out the executions.
It now appears that there is little hope of averting the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. In a recent article in Eureka Street, Pat Walsh puts the current executions into context – “Indonesia has had the death penalty on its books since Independence, but has not employed it often. Capital punishment was not practised during Indonesia’s first 24 years and a de facto moratorium has been intermittently in place in recent years. The period 2009-2014 saw only four executions and there were none last year.”

Pat Walsh suggests one positive that might come out of this sorry affair is that it will support the cause of Indonesian human rights activists working for abolition of the death penalty.

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Why we have Tony Abbot to thank for the US – China deal on climate change

Obama-Xi-v2The secret is now out. The historical US China announcement was not the plan of bureaucrats but an impromptu decision that came out of an informal chat between Xi and Obama held before their official meeting in Beijing.

This is what happened:

The two Presidents were chatting cheerfully about the upcoming APEC and G20 meetings and the health of their fellow world leaders.

“Angela is looking great” said Obama “Nothing like that party for 25th anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall to give her a boost”.

“Yes,” agreed Xi,” and David is a lot chirpier. Must be the jump in his approval rating in the opinion polls. I am glad we don’t have to worry about such things in China.”

“Poor old Vlad is a bit down”, said Obama.”14 years at the helm of Russia would wear anyone down”.

Xi continued, “He has 80% approval in the opinion polls … but there’s all that messy business about Ukraine”.

“And to cap it all off, to have the budgie smuggler from down-under threaten to shirtfront you…” Obama rolled his eyes.

Abbott in BS

“Ah that’s what I meant to check, shirtfront … I looked up budgie smuggler this morning.” Xi motions to an aide who passes him the KRudd Chinese Dictionary of Aussie slang which Xi reads and then looks up surprised. “That’s a bit rich”.

Obama went on “We might have to do something to put him in his place. Remember how he kept pestering us all the first six months of this year to take climate change off the G20 agenda. And he did not want to do anything about Ebola”.

“Yes I couldn’t understand that. Even we in China are pretty worried about climate change. We can manage the economy but managing the climate is proving a bit trickier.”

Obama responded “Back home those extreme weather events and record temperatures have even got the Tea party a bit worried. In the end I went along with what Tony Abbott wanted. After all, there is a lot of talk and photo opportunities at talk fests like G20 – but no-one really expects anything productive to come out of them.”

Xi thought for a moment then said “Maybe this one could be different, I think it is time we started to take Climate Change a bit seriously. Maybe your country and mine could something together on Climate Change.”

“Hmm…” Obama responded, “US and China –could have electoral appeal – and it would certainly tip a bit of rain on Tony Abbott’s party.”

And so just two hours later President Xi and President Obama made their historic announcement.

Post script: The evening after his meeting with Obama, President Xi was leafing through his KRudd Dictionary. He called out to one of his advisers “What does fair suck of the tomato sauce bottle mean to you?”


And so now you know, and sometimes in the real world, truth is stranger than fiction.

If you don’t believe this read:

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Australia’s shameful response to the Ebola crisis

I am ashamed of the response of the Australian Government to the current Ebola epidemic. The World Health Organisation(WHO) declared a Global Health Emergency on 8 August. Their predictions were frightening – if Ebola was not contained immediately there would be more than 500,000 cases by January 2015 and it would soon spiral out of control. WHO says there are two very good reasons for making a sustained global response to the current Ebola epidemic – the first is a humanitarian response to the current and prospective suffering of thousands of individuals in West Africa – the second is to make sure it does not spread to other countries who are not equipped to manage an Ebola outbreak.

WHO appealed to nations around the world to respond and in most cases the response was immediate. Barack Obama was quick to pledge more than 3000 health personnel to the effort, David Cameron pledged over 1000 and other countries followed suit. Tiny Cuba with a population on 11 million and national wealth per capita far less than that of Australia, made an immediate commitment of 165 health professionals and have almost completed training a further 296 for deployment to West Africa.

The response of the Australian Government was similar to what we have seen to other threats to the future of our planet. In the beginning they made a few concerned noises and then seemed to ignore it – perhaps hoping it would go away.
climate change salute(Photo thanks to Townsville residents demonstrate the “ostrich” approach to threats to the planet as perfected by the Abbott Government.)

Finally the British Government in late September, perhaps embarrassed by the lack of response from its Commonwealth “little brother”, invited Australia to provide medical staff to a treatment facility that was being built in Sierra Leone.

Messrs Abbott and Dutton gave all sorts of reasons why they could not immediately accept this invitation. Meanwhile the AMA announced that there were more than 350 Australian health personnel who had indicated they would be available to take part in an Australian health mission to West Africa.

To their credit the AMA kept chipping away at the Government intransigence. Some in the media supported them. They were joined by a number of NGOs such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. Finally the Government were shamed into action. This is how Oxfam’s Conor Costello described this apparent change of heart in a letter to supporters: “The Australian Government finally seems to be heeding the calls to adequately respond to the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa — and it’s thanks to the efforts of health professionals and concerned citizens like you.”

But as Oxfam warns, there is a still a long way to go. Sustained pressure from us all is needed to ensure that the announcement rapidly leads to real action on the ground.

While we have been slow to provide humanitarian aid – Australia has the dubious distinction of being the first country in the world to place a blanket visa ban on citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In doing this we are ignoring the advice of the experts and taking steps which are sabotaging the efforts of others to fight the disease.

Here is what UN officials and regional leaders say about the Australian visa ban:

Anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate,” Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission (UNMEER), told Reuters in the Ghanaian capital Accra.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf urged Australia to reconsider its travel ban. “Anytime there’s stigmatization, there’s quarantine, there’s exclusion of people, many of whom are just normal, then those of us who are fighting this epidemic, when we face that, we get very sad,” she told a news conference.

Neighboring Sierra Leone called the Australian move draconian. “It is discriminatory in that … it is not (going) after Ebola but rather it is … against the 24 million citizens of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea,” Information Minister Alpha Kanu told Reuters. “Certainly, it is not the right way to go.”

In a letter to a number of Federal MPs, Townsville resident David Andersen explained why the ban is both unnecessary and counter-productive.

“According to the latest figures from WHO, there were 13567 reported Ebola cases in the three affected countries as of October 31, 2014. This amounts to 0.06% of the total population. Imagine if 0.06% of the people of France or of Korea were suffering from a deadly infectious disease, do you think we would impose a blanket visa ban on the other 99.94%. What effect would that have on all the business people, university students, conference participants, whose plans to visit Australia were suddenly interrupted? Would France and Korea feel that Australia was treating them like a friend or an enemy? Why are we treating the business people, university students and conference participants from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia as if they were from an enemy country who should be penalized?

David Andersen continues “This policy is intended to protect Australia from the risk that an Ebola outbreak would occur here. How big is that risk? Obviously there is zero risk from the 99.94% of the population who would be healthy travellers. And if someone already had an advanced stage of the disease, they would not travel. What people worry about is that someone without obvious symptoms might travel here and then come down with the disease in Australia. What do the experts say about this risk?

With regard to health workers returning from West Africa the AMA website states, “The risk to the Australian public was essentially zero. Health care workers returning from West Africa go into quarantine for 21 days. People are not contagious unless they show physical symptoms such as fever, vomiting, or diarrhoea. Every appropriate precaution is taken. ( David Andersen asks why we are taking draconian measures to guard against a risk that the experts regard as being extremely low. David Andersen concludes “That sounds like panic to me, rather than the courageous and sensible response that Australians usually give in the face of crises”.

 Ebola treatmentThere are a number of things we can do to put pressure on our government and other governments to prioritise the global response to Ebola. Like David Andersen we can share our concerns about the inadequate Australian response by writing directly to our Federal MPs. Both Amnesty International Australia and Oxfam Australia have current online campaigns addressing this issue.

We can directly support action on Ebola by donating to one of the NGOs supporting the WHO lead initiative in West Africa – MSF (Doctors without Borders), Oxfam, Red Cross, Caritas International to name just a few.

The last word belongs to Monsignor Robert Vitillo, the special Adviser on Health and HIV to Caritas International whose report on a recent visit to Liberia was published in Eureka Street.

Robert Vitillo wrote”On my recent visit to Liberia, I found a ‘different Africa.’ From the moment that our plane touched down at the Monrovia airport, we were confronted with buckets of bleach water with which to wash our hands and people armed with ‘gun thermometers’ to take our temperatures.

Perhaps the most striking difference from my other visits was found in the ‘no touch’ policy. Africans usually are warm and physical in expressing welcome – they offer hearty handshakes. Now, in the Ebola-affected countries, everyone seems uncomfortable as a result of the need to avoid physical contact in order to prevent further spread of Ebola.”

Robert Vitillo continued “The Ebola situation in the country is grave and continues to disrupt everyday life for most of the population.

Many hospitals and clinics are closed, so it is very difficult to get medical treatment for other diseases. Some people die in the streets looking for medical treatment for infection or for a whole host of other diseases. Schools and many government offices are closed.”

Reports like this from West Africa illustrate the gravity of the situation – but they also describe the resilience and strength of local people in responding to the situation. What they need now is the whole-hearted support of the rest of the world.

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