Monthly Archives: March 2012

Minister Scott Morrison’s fear tactics

RISE is concerned by the comments of Scott Morrison, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, who on 27 February 2012 said “when illegal boats turn up in our waters there will always be the risk that people on these boats will carry serious communicable diseases. The more boats there are, the greater the risk of serious diseases presenting…Despite the best efforts of our health professionals and other officials responsible for dealing with these situations, there are no guarantees that the arrival of people carrying these diseases could not lead to an outbreak on Christmas Island or the transfer of these diseases to the mainland. This is the risk of failed border protection policy.” The full text of Mr. Morrison’s press release is available here.

The comment made by Scott Morrison is yet another tactic to drive fear into the minds of the Australian public towards asylum seekers arriving by boat—this time cloaked in the seemingly neutral language of ‘health.’

While there have been a small number of cases of communicable diseases found amongst asylum seekers, he conveniently neglects to mention some important points. First, the number of the infections he lists is small compared with the numbers found within the Australian population.

Second, nearly all the infections listed, except malaria, already exist in Australia. In discussion with Dr Uma Parameswaran, Infectious Diseases Registrar, for most of the diseases listed by Scott Morrison, “you don’t have to arrive from overseas or even travel overseas to get these infections… for example, hepatitis B and C are both found in Australia ….and diseases like syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia are sexually transmitted infections for which there are a large number of cases being diagnosed amongst Australians each year”.

Third, most of the diseases listed pose a very low risk in terms of infectivity or risk of transmission to other people. Nearly all the diseases Mr Morrison refers to cannot be contracted (as he suggests) merely through being in the presence of asylum seekers. Hence, the very low risk of transmission to people at Christmas Island, and so the wider Australian population.

For further statistical information on asylum seeker health in Christmas Island (including the insignificant numbers of infectious diseases, and the means through which these may possibly be transmitted) , we refer to an open letter from Dr Trent Yarwood Infectious Diseases Physician and Public Health Registrar.

Finally, and most importantly, given Australia’s legal obligations under international refugee law, health concerns are irrelevant in determining refugee and asylum seeker status.

Submitted by Mathavan Parameswaran

Where are you from?

Two days ago I was walking on my way to work and, as always, I have my coffee on Flinders Lane in central Melbourne. While waiting for my coffee, a well-meaning Australian came up to me and asked me what my ethnicity was. I had no idea who he was nor did I know what he wanted.

Who is he, and why is he so enthusiastic to ascertain my identity – where I come from? Did I find him racist and condescending? Yes. Was there a power dynamic inherent to this question? Yes there was.

On this occasion, I pondered the situation silently, which put the questioner in an awkward position. “Here we go again”, I told myself. Do I answer this, or tell him what I think, that he is just another racist trying to judge people by where they come from or what they look like? If I were to question or argue with him, would my actions be interpreted as reverse racism on my part?

I chose to simply walk away rather than answer the question. I found myself in a similar situation two months later. I was in an elevator with a friend and colleague, a fellow Melbournian who was born in West Papua. A lady entered, looked at us, and, with no hesitation, she straight away asked “where do you blokes come from”? I replied with “I’m from North Melbourne and my friend’s from Thornbury”. She responded with “no, I mean where you are originally come from”. I told her that I found it condescending to be asked where I came from, and she said she was just trying to be nice. Is she? Then why is she labelling me?

“Where do you come from?” is a common question that some Anglo-Australians use to interrogate the identities of people of colour the moment that they meet them. I am a brown man and have experienced this sort of behaviour all my life. This is what I have to put up with every single day and I find it very irritating. Do you realise that the question “where do you come from?” immediately sets in place a structure that excludes people, rejecting them with a form of passive racism? It does.

The question itself automatically assumes that the person you are demanding this information from could not possibly be from “here”. They must be the “other,” from somewhere else. I don’t blame the individual: I blame the society which, led by politicians, enables passive racism to be acceptable. In a friendly conversation, let alone a political one, a person of colour – whether they are born in Australia or not – is obliged to automatically go through this process of questioning. It is demeaning and makes you feel that you don’t belong here. Why?

Australia has a way of segregating cultures, looking down on people, giving them labels, putting them in boxes. Day to day this manifests through questions and comments like “Where are you from?” Not all white Australians fit into this category, of course. Those who are politically conscious or aware will say it is not acceptable.

If I were to say that in Australia there is passive racism and uninformed racism everywhere, there would be mass rebuttals; confusion and questions would fly everywhere. One of those questions would inevitably be “If you hate Australia this much, why you are here?” I could easily say the same thing: “Why are you wasting your time here, oppressing people?” But of course I don’t, because I’m neither ignorant nor do I go about not accepting people based on their colour.

In Australia there is a pattern of racism and it pervades all aspects of society: the non-profit sector, the private sector, governments, hospitals, schools and elsewhere. A perfect example is the treatment of Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens; not to mention the locking up of asylum seekers and refugees who arrive to Australia by boat while there are thousands of backpackers in this country without valid visas. Some call it cold punishment and it is a dishonourable treatment of people.

One should not forget this land was stolen, and not in the past only; a modern day indigenous land grab is happening around the country so don’t tell me to stop living in the past.

“Where do you come from?” is a question that you should ask yourself first before you ask others.

Submitted by Ramesh Fernandez

Our views on offshore processing

RISE is extremely concerned about the continued raising of an asylum seeker deal between regional and Australian governments, recently rehashed by Independent MP, Rob Oakeshott.

Minister for Immigration and Labor MP, Chris Bowen has recently announced his support for Oakshott’s dangerous proposal to reinstate offshore processing. This decision to punish asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia is neither an ethical solution to the problem nor a deterrent for those of us arriving by boat.

If the majority of the Senate go ahead with the decision to support Oakeshott’s bill, it will be further evidence of Australia’s shocking discrimination against people fleeing from war and persecution. Offshore processing to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or Nauru will only serve to make Australia’s notorious immigration detention system even less transparent due to geographic and bureaucratic isolation from Australia itself, but it will also put refugees and asylum seekers in great danger by trapping them in countries that are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention.

In Malaysia, for example, it is very clear that there are many existing problems in the country’s existing refugee camps that the UNHCR has failed to address or solve. It is also well known that Malaysia has not upheld the basic human rights of refugees in the past and is under no legal obligation to do so. Why then does the UNHCR condone Australia sending asylum seekers and refugees there?

Further, as of March 2008, there were 39,000 individuals registered with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) in Malaysian refugee camps. 33,000 are from Myanmar and there are refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, including: 1,300 Sri Lankans and 600 Iraqis. Camps are crowded and lack adequate sanitation. Many refugees have poor health because of this. Refugees and asylum seekers there also have no work rights; their children have no study rights. They are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation and poverty. Malaysia and Indonesia are both known to imprison asylum seekers and refugees in jails. This means that families, including children, whose only “crime” has been to flee their countries of origin are being incarcerated.

The rhetoric that Australian politicians espouse on asylum seeker issues is callous: hard-line solutions, temporary protection visas, Pacific and other offshore solutions, indefinite detention, forceful deportation, and now, a possible continuous Malaysian refugee and asylum seeker trade. The past has shown us that treating asylum seekers and refugees harshly does not work. It does not stop them coming, but it does tarnish Australia’s reputation and leads to the decline of mental health of already vulnerable people. The deal should stop immediately and Rob Oakeshott needs to open his eyes before he further disfranchise our community.

Protests are democratic actions

Both Liberal and Labour parties have cited last year’s protests as “criminal actions”, but Australian detention centres are being used as crypts to bury the voices and narratives of oppressed men, women and children who are seeking freedom. What democratic options do such people have?

When asylum seekers try to have peaceful “non-violent” protests, they are constantly ignored, denied and rendered invisible. Today most of the asylum seekers involved in the protests have obtained protection in Australia. Where is the media discussion of this reality?

As Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison demand an audit of the damage to buildings and property in Christmas Island and Villawood detention centres, RISE asks if they would have the courage to be equally strident in appealing for an audit of lives lost and damage caused by mandatory and indefinite detention?

We also ask Chris Bowen to stop asking for extra ministerial powers to deport a small group of refugees and asylum seekers who are being used as scapegoats for the repeated breakdown of an inherently flawed system.

Rather than using coercive power to silence detainee dissent, the Gillard government should address the legitimate concerns raised by detainees during their acts of protest and resistance. We ask Senator Bowen and the Gillard government to consider the critical issues raised by non-governmental humanitarian organisations, independent monitors, legal and health experts, and most importantly, the refugee community itself, to create a more humane system to deal with those seeking asylum.

Submitted by Ramesh Fernandez

Xenophobia or racial discrimination?

Is this a form of xenophobia or racial discrimination? Seeking asylum is not a crime and it is a right that is upheld by the laws of this land as well as the UN Refugee Convention that our country has pledged to support.

Yet in recent times, successive Australian governments have begun to fundamentally disregard this pledge. People imprisoned in detention centers as a consequence of seeking asylum in Australia include children. Australia only receives 0.1% from the world refugee population of 11,400,000.