Townsville Refugee Advocates meet with Federal MP Cathy O’Toole

On Wednesday 16 November, a delegation from local refugee advocacy organisations met with Cathy O’Toole, the member for the Townsville-based Federal electorate of Herbert. The group was made up of Meg Davis from Townsville Multicultural Support Group (TMSG), Dinithi Dissanayake and Nimath Malawaraarachchi from JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Tamara Townsend from Amnesty International JCU Action group and Jeanie Adams and Peter Hanley from Amnesty International Townsville Action Group.

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These four organisations had worked together to organise a number of public events in Townsville in the past three years – the most recent being the 2016 JCU Human Rights lecture given by Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre(ASRC) and attended by more than 200 people.

The meeting followed Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement in late October that the Federal Government would introduce legislation to ban refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru from ever coming to Australia. The announcement was met with condemnation from refugee advocates around Australia. Lawyer David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said the move would punish refugees. “The majority of these people are refugees, and the policy is rapidly destroying them,” he said.

Refugee supporters in Townsville protested the move at the monthly First Friday Vigil for Refugees and Asylum Seekers held on Friday 4 November outside Cathy O’Toole’s office. We delivered a letter signed by those present at the vigil asking that she oppose this legislation. In our letter we said that the proposed law was unnecessary, cruel and also contrary to international human rights law. We also asked supporters to write to Cathy supporting our call and made the appointment for 16 November to speak with Cathy about refugees and other Human Rights related issues.

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After receiving our letter, Cathy contacted us and assured us that she would not support the proposed legislation, and that she had made her position clear to a number of Labor Party colleagues.

We opened our meeting with Cathy by asking her about the level of commitment to Human Rights the current Federal Parliament. We gave as an example the high profile of the Amnesty Parliamentary group in past years. She said that a big change has been the number of advocacy groups now operating in the human rights space. These included disability action groups, development NGOs, mental illness groups, and LGBTI advocacy groups. She said that Amnesty International occasionally brought speakers to the Parliament and that she had heard part of the address given by Anna Neistat on the situation on Nauru.

We went on to talk about the legislation introduced by the government to ban refugees and asylum seekers from entering Australia. Cathy said that she had received a flood of messages asking to oppose the legislation. She referred us to a speech she made in the House of Representatives opposing the legislation and in that speech she read out two of the messages she had received.

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Cathy believes that to change public opinion on this issue we need to be constantly challenging people who support punishing of refugees and asylum seekers. We told Cathy about the strong message that came from Kon Karapanagiotisis that we need to change the conversation to focus on values. Cathy agreed with this and also said that there is a strong connection between the way we treat refugees and asylum seekers and the way we treat our First Nations people. She said that in the light of the shameful treatment of our First Nations people, it should be no surprise that those who come to our borders seeking protection and compassion are also harshly treated.

Cathy asked the JCU students present about their experience in advocating for refugees and First Nationals people at the university. Dinithi, Nimath and Tamara agreed that while racism on the campus was not as overt as in the general community, many people they encountered expressed negative sentiments towards people from minority groups such as First Nations people and refugees.

We also discussed the Community is Everything Campaign and the high level of concern in the Townsville community around the issues of crime and violence. Cathy reported on the Town Hall meeting held in Townsville the previous evening with Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Several speakers raised concerns about the level of crime and violence in Townsville. Bill Shorten had pointed the connections between drugs, alcohol, unemployment, disengagement from schooling, and domestic violence and suggested some measures to address these problems. We talked about some initiatives that had been recently announced to address disengagement of young people and we agreed that they need to be community driven and support community justice values.

We left the meeting inspired by Cathy’s strong commitment to human rights and social justice.

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Changing the conversation around Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Last week, Kon Karapanagiotidas presented the 2016 Human Rights lecture at James Cook University on the topic “How to champion human rights from a values based model of action and engagement”. In his address, Kon assured us that all the facts in the world are not going to sway someone who is fearful of asylum seekers. He suggested that we need to go back to values and to engage those of differing opinions in conversations that ask “what are the values of the Australia that we want to live in”.

The Human Rights lecture has been held at JCU for the past three years. Previous lecturers were Refugee Advocate Julian Burnside, National Director of Amnesty International Australia, Claire Mallinson and Refugee Surgeon Dr Munjed Al-Muderis. This year’s lecture was timed to coincide with the celebration of Refugee Week at JCU by the group JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

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Promotion of the lecture was done largely through social media and it was great to see that the majority of the audience of 200 were under the age of 30. The evening opened with an acknowledgement of traditional owners by JCU lecturer Max Lenoy. Following this were short introductions by the groups who had organised the lecture – JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, the Townsville Multicultural Support Group (TMSG) and the Amnesty International Townsville and JCU groups.

Kon began his address by addressing the young people in the audience. He urged them to be fearless in defence of human rights and not to listen to people who might discourage them from following their passion. He drew from his experience of working with a number of marginalised groups before starting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) when he was 28 years old. Kon and a group of his students from TAFE commenced their operation from a shopfront giving out donated items to asylum seekers living in the local community. In the intervening 15 years the ASRC has grown into an operation with an annual budget of ten million dollars that has assisted more than 12,000 asylum Seekers in Victoria, and now has more than 3,000 volunteers involved in its work.

Past experience has taught Kon that it is important to lead with compassion and empathy and that given the right circumstances, most people come to understand that the material world is meaningless and that one thing that gives our lives meaning is community.

Kon shared research carried out last year into how we might change the current fear of refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian community. The research revealed that approaches by refugee advocacy groups that concentrated on facts were ineffective and in some cases counterproductive. He summed up these approaches as myth busting – based on the premise that if the general population only knew the real facts then they would support a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers.

The reality is that, in Kon’s words, “Fear trumps Facts” every time. He gave some examples of how this happens – when people who are fearful are told that it is not illegal to seek asylum, the message they get is “oh so they are breaking the law”. When they are told that asylum seekers are not queue jumpers their response is “ah so there is a queue”. Worst of all – when they hear about the terrible conditions in the countries that people have fled, and the suffering that refugees experience in our off-shore detention centres they think “ we don’t want the assort of thing happening here so we better keep these people out”.

So what should we be saying and doing? Kon told us that it is important that we are clear about who we are trying to reach. The research showed that the Australian population could be broken up roughly into three groups – 20% who know our current policies are wrong and need to be changed, 24% who agree with Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hansen and other extremists and are not going to change their viewpoint whatever they hear, and 56% in the middle who are uncomfortable about our current policies but can see no other way of dealing with the issue.

Our task, said Kon, is to be talking to the 56% and convincing them that there is another way. The way to do this is by “values based” conversations. He asked the audience to imagine they were having a conversation with a close relative or friend who was in the 56%. Would the person be swayed by the fact that Australia has spent $9.6 billion on off-shore detention centres since 2012 to detain 2000 people. This amount is much greater the annual budget of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who is entrusted with the welfare of 65 million people.

This might be compelling evidence of the scandal of our current policies to us in the 20%, but to our friend or relative, these are likely to be seen as meaningless big numbers.

Kon encouraged us to have a different conversation. He suggested that we ask them about their own experience of adversity. Perhaps members of their family came to Australia as refugees or migrants – talk about the struggles they had and the ways they had overcome the challenges of settling into a new homeland. Talk about the contributions that such people made to Australia and the resilience and diversity they brought with them. Ask about the sort of society they wish to live in – do they want a caring compassionate society or one that condones child abuse in off-shore detention centres and that cruelly allows the destruction of people’s lives through hopelessness and boredom.

In our conversations, we need to be talking about saving more lives and helping people with safe passage to safety, not defending our borders and destroying the business model of people smugglers. As an aside, Kon reminded us that the courageous people who assisted thousands of Jewish people to flee Nazi Germany before and during World War 2 were not seen as people smugglers – after the War they were recognised as heroes and many were given official recognition of their bravery.

Kon concluded by encouraging us not to lose hope and to always believe in the preciousness of life. His address received thunderous applause and was followed by more than half an hour of questions. During the questions he told the audience that he would like to return to Townsville early next year to hold training sessions for people who would be empowered to go into the community and engage in the “values based” conversations that he had described.

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Photo: Kon with Dinithi and Nimath from JCU Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Several days after the lecture, the Townsville Bulletin(16 September) reported that the Queensland Government had admitted it should not have taken so long to introduce mandatory child abuse reporting laws following a campaign by Townsville grandparents. In June last year the Federal Government passed the infamous Border Force Act which “makes it an offence for an “entrusted person” (an Australian Border Force employee) to make a record of or disclose “protected information”. This is widely defined to include any information obtained by the person in their capacity as an employee. The penalty for the offence is two years’ imprisonment.”

It is important to have mandatory child abuse reporting on the mainland but the opposite situation occurs in the off-shore detention centres – under the Border Force legislation a health worker could go to gaol for reporting child abuse. I thought back to the message from Kon’s lecture. Here was a great opportunity to be engaging with those around and asking “is this situation compatible with the values we want for the society we live in?”

Kon’s address can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib4_w9Yv7UQ

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Young people show the way

Last Friday I attended the “Day of Diplomacy” held as part of the Young Diplomats Program (YDP), an annual event sponsored by the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University.

The YDP commenced in 1997 as a partnership between JCU, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) and Education Queensland (EQ) and gives young people interested in world affairs a wonderful insight into the world of International Diplomacy.  Teams of Year 10 students from local schools test their research and diplomatic skills in a mock UN style Forum where they are judged by  diplomats from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and representatives of the University.

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(Nick Murphy from DFAT addressing the “Day of Diplomacy”)

This year is the 20th year of the program and the Diplomatic Scenario was based on the Communique released following the Pacific Islands Forum held in September 2015 in Port Moresby. This communique focused on issues of regional significance such as the impact of climate change, gender equality, sustainable economic development, Information and Communications Technologies, health challenges and West Papua.

Delegations from six schools attended Friday’s event representing six Pacific nations – Kirwan State High School representing the Solomon Islands, Malanda Stare High School representing Tonga, Northern Beaches State High School, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Pimlico State High School representing Palau, St Margaret Mary’s College Samoa, and Townsville State High School, Papua New Guinea.

Chairperson for the day was Professor Nola Alloway , Dean of the College of Arts, Society and Education who welcomed participants to the day. Opening remarks at the event were made by JCU Vice-Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding, newly elected Federal member for Herbert Cathy O’Toole, and Nick Murphy, Pacific Liaison Officer for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Professor Harding spoke about the State of the Tropics report released in 2104 that set out to answer the question “Is life in the Tropics getting better?’. She reminded us that more than 40% of the world’s population now lives in the Tropics and this is likely to be close to 50% by 2050. The region generates around 20% of global economic output and is home to some 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Cathy O’Toole told us how excited she was to be the newly elected member for Herbert. Her speech at the event was her first public address since becoming our local member. She told those present that she was proud to be the first woman to be elected in the seat of Herbert. Most of the students present were female and she shared from her own experience how important education was in enabling women to take leadership roles in the community. She also reminded us that Port Moresby is closer to Townsville than Brisbane. Nick Murphy continued on this theme and described how important Papua New Guinea was to the Queensland economy. Nick also welcomed the interest in diplomacy of the students attending.

YDP2(JCU Chancellor Bill Tweddell greets the delegates from St Margaret Mary’s College representing Samoa)

 

The first part of the Day of Diplomacy involved presentations from each delegation on what they saw as the key issues for their country and for the region. They also outlined what they would like to take away from the forum. There was general consensus that climate change, gender equality and economic development were three key issues facing the region. There were poignant moments when delegations shared issues that were having special impact on their country.

The delegation from the Marshall Islands shared the devastating impact of the nuclear tests carried out in the 1950s by the US that are still affecting large areas of their nation today. Papua New Guinea informed the forum of the severe drought that currently affects large areas of the country. The Solomon Islands delegation made reference to the ethnic violence that rocked their nation from 1998 to 2003#. Tonga reminded the forum that they are one of the Pacific nations that will disappear under the waters in less than 100 years if global temperatures continue to rise. They reported that sea level rise is already having an impact on some islands.

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(Students from Northern Beaches High School representing the Marshall Islands during the negotiation round)

Following the presentations there was a session of bilateral negotiations between country delegations. In discussions between Solomon Islands and Tonga, a major focus was working together to influence larger polluting nations such as China and the US in global forums such as the United Nations. Delegates welcomed the agreements made at the Paris conference last year but said that strong words need to be matched by strong actions. Delegates also discussed how they might work together to improve the status of women in their respective countries and how they might encourage economic development in their respective nations.

The next round was between Palau (population 20,000) and Samoa (200,000). Both delegations stressed the importance of working together with larger nations in the region to bring about important changes. They were keen to investigate further a proposal to develop tourist cruises that would visit a number of member countries. As in the earlier negotiation, climate change was a keen concern and both these smaller countries said it was essential that Pacific nations work together as a bloc to influence global forums.

I was impressed both by the knowledge displayed by delegates and also the empathy displayed for fellow nations. The Solomon Island delegation opened their negotiation round by reassuring the Tongans that they would favorably consider requests for resettlement should sea level rises necessitate this. The negotiation skills displayed by all delegates were outstanding. Delegates listened intently to each other, identified common interests, and then employed well developed problem solving skills in addressing any outstanding differences. It was refreshing to see a group of young people who clearly understand that co-operation and empathy will be needed if we are to successfully address the major issues now facing our global community.

Follow this link to a report on the day made by Journalism students at JCU.

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The noble art of losing face

During 1986, the International Year of Peace, I was inspired by creative friends to explore clowning as a way of communicating the importance of peace-making to a world that desperately needed to make peace at all levels. I became “Peppo the Global Lifesaver” whose mission was to save the world by encouraging peaceful resolution of conflict in people of all ages.

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In 1988 I came across the wonderful saying of Piet Hein “The noble art of losing face may one day save the human race.” Pien Hein was a Danish philosopher, scientist, mathematician, designer, author and poet.

To lose face, a person needs to be able to admit they are wrong and sadly this is something that many of us find great difficulty in doing. This is true at the international level where national leaders  have started wars to “save face”and at the personal level where  relationships break down when people are unable to admit they are wrong.

In the intervening 30 years I have actively sought to lose face in all sorts of ways and have had lots of fun in doing so. At the 1994 Woodford Folk Festival, I discovered that wonderful musical instrument the kazoo, and since then have been part of three kazoo bands that have given hundreds of people the opportunity to lose face with me.

In 1996 we formed the JCU Kazoos whose mission was to “lose face” in an environment where people can take themselves way too seriously. One wonderful memory was the 1997 JCU Open Day  when 76 members of the university community including professors, senior administrators, teaching staff, professional staff and students performed the JCU Kazoo Tattoo in true Edinburgh style.

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In a similar spirit “of losing face” the Amnesty International Kazoo band was invited to perform at the 2003 Woodford Folk Festival and was a great hit with attendees at the festival.

Several months ago I decided find more out about this saying and its author Piet Hein. It is taken from a longer poem:

The noble art of losing face my some day save the human race
and turn into eternal merit what weaker minds would call disgrace.

Piet Hein was the author of many such short cryptic poems – called “gruk” in Danish. In fact he composed more than 10,000 gruks both in Danish and English and these are published in many volumes.

Another gruk I love:

Living is
a thing you do
now or never —
which do you?

As indicated in my introduction Piet Hein was a person of many talents. In 1959 traffic planners in Stockholm came to Piet Hein with a knotty problem. As part of the redevelopment of the centre of Stockholm they needed to design an intersection of two major motorways but the space available did not allow for a roundabout – the usual solution.

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Piet Hein went away modelled the problem and came back with his solution – the superellipse. The superellipse has since been used in furniture design in many applications requiring the best use of available space. Piet Hein is also the designer of many games and puzzles.

I have been invited to share my thoughts on this saying and its author Piet Hein this week at PechaKucha Townsville. PechaKucha is a style of presentation where each presenter displays a total of 20 slides and has 20 seconds to speak to each slide – a total of seven minutes all up. It promises to be an interesting evening with eight topics on a wide range of topics.

Might see you there on Wednesday.

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Can continued economic growth be sustained

On Tuesday I attended the Environment and Election Forum for the Herbert Electorate hosted by the North Queensland Conservation Council at the Townsville Yacht Club. Herbert is the electorate that takes in most of Townsville.  In attendance at the Forum were the sitting LNP member Ewen Jones, ALP candidate Cathy O’Toole, Greens candidate Wendy Tubman, Colin Dwyer from Katter’s Australia Party, Michael Punshon from Family First, and Aaron Raffin from the Glen Lazarus team.

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Prior to the Forum I thought about what question I would like to ask. Given the “jobs and growth” mantra coming especially from the two major parties, I decided I would ask a question about economic growth. Economic Growth has been a goal of governments since the 1940s and certainly in the 50s and 60s was responsible for improvements in the quality of life of many Australians.

Today after 70 years of striving for economic growth, the picture is not so rosy.

Sustained population growth together with increased economic activity has left our agricultural areas barren and eroded, many previously pristine areas degraded, and our coastlines badly damaged. Another result of continued economic growth over these years has been increased inequality.

In 1989-90 the total salary of a CEO, including base pay and bonuses, was 18 times that of an average worker; today it is 63 times higher. Translated into weekly earnings, an average CEO is paid $65,000 a week, or around $11,000 more than the annual wage of an average worker. With just five weeks’ pay, a CEO could buy outright the modest home that most people spend their entire working lives paying off.  These figures are taken from a study by Dr John Shields of Sydney University published in the Journal of Australian Political Economy. His paper reviews the movement in the CEO salaries paid by 51 corporations that are members of the Business Council of Australia (BCA).

Back in 1989-90, the 90%+ of the population who had jobs could buy more consumer goods(“stuff”) than their parents could even dream of. Today those in jobs still have access to even more “stuff” but the numbers of unemployed have increased. And both major parties keep telling us that what we need is more “growth”. Can’t help but think of the quote sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

My question to the panel – I asked given the evidence – did they think it might be time to move away from an economy based on growth and make sustainability and equality the goal. The first to respond was Colin Dwyer who is an economist and seemed genuinely surprised by the question. He went on for a while about economic theory and concluded by saying that we need even more growth if we are to address inequality and world poverty. Perhaps Colin needs to spend more time pondering Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Sitting member Ewen Jones said that we need growth to support our ageing population. Cathy O’Toole agreed that GDP was not the best measure of the health of a community. She suggested that it was time that we look for other indicators (Gross National Happiness perhaps?). Wendy Tubman of the Greens said that central to Greens policies was the notion that continued growth is no longer sustainable if the earth is to have any future.

Back in 1972 the Club of Rome published the   “Limits to Growth” a study which modelled the consequences of continued growth in a world with finite resources by examining three different scenarios. The chilling prediction from that report was the “business as usual scenario” would result in the collapse of the global system in the second half of the 21st century.

In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) published a paper called “A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality”. In this paper Turner examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the ‘business as usual’ scenario modelled in the original study. Other recent studies have agreed – unless major changes are made to the current global economic system we are facing a disastrous collapse of that system in 50-60 years.

That may not concern those of us enjoying the second half of life but what of our children and children’s children.

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Responding to Reclaim Australia

Several weeks ago it was announced that Pauline Hanson will be the guest speaker at the Reclaim Australia rally to be held in Townsville on Sunday 22 November.

Pauline H at Reclaim Australia Rally

This announcement was met with great jubilation by people posting on the Reclaim Australia Facebook page. The Facebook page gives an insight into the motivation and aims of the Reclaim Australia movement. Since the terrorist attaches in Paris the nature of posts have become even more extreme and racist than they were previously.

The Reclaim Australia page has often linked to the page of the United Patriots’ Front (UPF). In a recent article in Eureka Street correspondent Jeff Sparrow reviews the questionable activities of the United Patriots’ Front and concludes that the organisation is fascist because “Fascist” is an accurate description of the behaviour the group espouses. Sparrow reports  the response of UPF leader Blair Cottrell several years ago to a Facebook image of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler – ‘there should be a picture of this man in every classroom and every school, and his book should be issued to every student annually’.

Kim Vuga

Local spokesperson for Reclaim Australia Kim Vuga gained national attention earlier this year with her participation in the SBS documentary “Go back to where you came from”. From the Reclaim Australia page we learn that Kim Vuga will be a guest speaker at Brisbane’s Reclaim Australia Rally this Sunday.

Interestingly the Townsville Amnesty group was referred to a number of times in an article on Kim Vuga by journalist Nick Galvin in the Sydney Morning Herald. The incident described in the article happened in June when Kim and three supporters turned up at our monthly vigil for Refugees and Asylum Seekers which is held outside the office of Federal member Ewen Jones. We were not chased away as Kim suggests but decided to leave as we saw no point in giving Kim and Co the confrontation that they were seeking.

Members of the Townsville Amnesty group do not support any form of counter protest to the Reclaim Australia rally.

We believe this would only lead to confrontation which would be counter productive given our recent interactions with members of this group. Instead we are asking supporters to attend the Townsville Climate Change Rally on Saturday 28 November. This is a global event that will involve people around the world calling for meaningful action from world leaders at the Paris climate change conference that will take place in early December.

On their Facebook page, Townsville Reclaim Australia oppose any action on climate change and see it as a UN-lead conspiracy. A large turnout on the 28th will show that large numbers of people in Townsville do support decisive action on climate change from the Australian Government.
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On the issue of how Australia and other nations should respond to the attacks in Paris it was good to see Independent Senator Nick Xenophon give Liberal Christopher Pyne and Labor’s Kate Ellis a brief history lesson on last week’s Q&A program on the ABC.  Nick Xenophon reminded others on the panel that the failing of the Iraq war, which began in 2003, led to Islamic State’s rise to prominence. He warned that military force alone would not be successful  in achieving a peaceful outcome to the conflict in Syria.
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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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