Towards a compassionate response to refugees and asylum seekers

Refugee Awareness week was recently celebrated at JCU by the SANTE student group. SANTE stands for Supporting All Nations Towards Equality and the group is based in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. Highlights of the week included a Q&A Refugee Panel held on Tuesday and a Cultural Awareness lunch on Thursday.

SANTE panelThe Q&A was a lively event attended by more than 80 students and members of the public, and followed the format of its namesake on ABC TV. The convenor of the panel was Dr Farvardin Daliri, founder and organiser of the Townsville Cultural Festival and  Director of the Townsville Intercultural Centre. The four panelists were Dr Julie Mudd a Senior Lecturer at JCU, Dr Brian Senewiratne a consultant physician from Brisbane, Jenny Stirling a social worker with Townsville Multicultural Support Group and Federal MP Ewen Jones.

The first question was asked by SANTE President Jithendri Weerasingha and referred to the report “The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)” released by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report documents compelling first-hand evidence of the negative impact on the mental and physical health of children held in Australian Immigration Detention Centres. Ms Weerasingha asked that as many of the people in these Immigration centres will ultimately end up in Australia, did it make sense to hold them under conditions that would lead to ongoing health problems and then be faced with addressing these when they eventually end up in Australia.

The first on the panel to respond was Federal MP Ewen Jones who told the audience he gave the report by the Australian Human Rights Commission no credence as it was “politically motivated”. He repeated accusations made by various Federal  ministers about the Commission. Ewen Jones also repeated the assurance by a succession of Federal Immigration Ministers that none of the asylum seekers currently on Nauru or Manus Island will ever be allowed to settle in Australia. Presumably we don’t have to worry as their ongoing health will not then be our concern.

child in detentionOther panelists immediately took Mr Jones to task. They said that if evidence exists that we are damaging the mental and physical health of children, surely the important thing is to address this – not to score political points by suggesting the possible political motivation of those making the report.  Dr Brian Senewiratne ,who has treated scores of former refugees for mental disorders, graphically described the terrible impact of immigration detention on the people he has worked with.

Another question from the audience made reference to the Border Force Act – legislation that was recently passed that would allow the jailing of someone who speaks up about abuses in detention centre. The panel were asked to comment on the implications of this legislation for medical staff working in Immigration Detention Centres. Julie Mudd said that this legislation puts medical staff in a completely untenable situation. Statements of Ethics in all health professions are firmly based on the principle of “do no harm”. If medical staff are not allowed to speak out about cases of abuse, then this is in direct conflict with their Code of Ethics.

Brian Senewiratne referred to a 92 page letter signed in late 2013 by 15 doctors who have practiced inside the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. The letter documents “numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards” and is  the most comprehensive document ever seen on the failings of medical procedure inside detention centres in Australia. Dr Brian said if the doctors had sent this letter today, under the new legislation they would be subject to prosecution and could possible be sent to jail.

Julie Mudd later commented outside the meeting  it was a chilling reminder that Nazi Germany had used  similar legislation to ensure that most people in Germany were not  aware of the mass killings and heinous “medical experiments” taking place in Nazi concentration camps.

A number of times during the evening, Ewen Jones made the comment that it all came back to dollars. He said that we could treat asylum seekers in a more compassionate way but it would send Australia bankrupt. It we are to balance the budget then we need to stop the boats.

Both Jenny Stirling and Jule Mudd challenged him on this point each time he made it. They suggested that if the offshore detention centres were closed, then the billions of dollars saved could be used to house asylum seekers in the community until their claims are determined, to assist the speedy processing of asylum seekers currently waiting in South East Asia, and to facilitate the orderly settlement of those whose refugee claims are substantiated.

Boat-PeopleSuch a regional solution would cost less that the current failed system, and would stop the boats because if there were an orderly processing system, people would no longer need to risk hazardous sea journeys seeking safety.

There was applause for a member of the audience who questioned the high cost of the current system. He said it was tragic that a system that costs so much still resulted in the terrible health outcomes reported by recent independent investigations. Where is all the money going he asked. Good question.

I was impressed by how well informed the audience were and this was evident from the thoughtful questions asked. It was disappointing that Ewen Jones spent the majority of the session trying to defend the government position regardless of the question or information being shared by experts in the field of mental and physical health and social issues.  Towards the end of the session Jenny Kelly, JCU staff member and  Amnesty member, implored Ewen Jones to go home and reflect on what the young people in the audience were saying.

By the end of the evening it was apparent to many in the audience that the current system of offshore detention has failed. To stop boats arriving in Australia, Australian  Governments have been prepared to spend billions of dollars to house asylum seekers in offshore detention centres that destroy their mental and physical health;  the navy has been used to send boats back with no concern as to what might happen to people in the boats; and they have used secrecy to attempt to hide what is happening from the Australian public. As Julie Mudd told the audience on Tuesday, the boats may have stopped but those sent back are left where they started – living in desperate conditions with little hope for any real change to their situation.

Post Script: The panel took place on 1 September. Six days later Ewen Jones came out on National media calling for Australia to take up to 50,000 refugees from Syria. It appears that Ewen Jones followed Jenny Kelly’s suggestion.

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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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