Author Archives: riserefugee

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.

Refugee with psychiatric illness bashed by drunken men

A refugee with a psychiatric illness who was granted a protection visa more than a year ago has still not been assisted by government subcontracted settlement service providers to apply for a carer visa to bring a family member over to be with him.

He wandered into a restaurant after 12 midnight because he was hungry and wanted a burger, but didn’t have more than $2 on him, got beaten up by two drunk men and was admitted to hospital. He came into our drop in centre with a bruised and swollen face and broken tooth. It is likely that even if the visa application was lodged this week, it would take another 2 years to bring down his family to help look after him.

Asylum seekers at Scherger detention centre

Two asylum seekers from Scherger detention centre in QLD have to go to court this week without a lawyer and are likely to lose their case because of this.

Immigration detention is supposed to be for “administrative purposes”-does this mean “doing everything unfair to slow down or stop the visa process”? There are only about 20 computers in Curtin detention centre, in a remote desert, 2700 km from perth and very few phones that work, so how do people get legal help or do research for their cases?

To fax a document from Scherger Immigration detention centre located in the remote mining town in Wiepa Queensland, a request has to be made a day in advance. Lawyers who have gone to Curtin have said it is difficult to locate their clients. When a detainee is transferred to another detention centre, DIAC does not inform close family, friends or legal representatives.

Lawyers who have gone to Curtin have said it is difficult to locate their clients. When a detainee is transferred to another detention centre, DIAC does not inform close family, friends or legal representatives.

Even in Maribyrnong IDC and Melbourne Transit accomodation, audio recordings of immigration interviews on CDs cannot be listend to because there are no CD drives on the computers or CD players for people to listen to the recordings in privacy.

ALERT from Curtin IDC

Asylum seeker (wife and two preschool aged children living in conflict zone) detained 1 year and 11 months, attempted to hang himself on Friday. He has been discharged from hospital today and back taken back to Curtin. He slept in a tent for 9 months when he was in Christmas Island IDC. The RISE Advocacy team and his psychologist had already registered their concerns to DIAC about his mental health months ago.

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