Author Archives: riserefugee

A globally responsible solution for displaced refugees

Australia’s policy on refugees continues to be driven by the personal ambitions of politicians in government and opposition who have demonstrated a lack of respect for Australia’s stature as a standard bearer of international laws in the Asia pacific region and a lack of concern for lives of communities that are displaced by war and conflict.

Seeking protection from fear and persecution is not a luxury, it is a basic human right; the statement by the Gillard government that offshore processing helps break the people smuggling “business model” ignores this right by dehumanising the lives of human beings and turning them into commodities. Do those who craft policies for government in this country understand that creating offshore processing centres will not stop the basic human instinct to take risks necessary to escape from danger or are they allowing themselves to be driven by cynical political motives?

It is time we recognised that this is a global issue and not a national “border protection” issue. Offshore processing centre may lower the numbers of people coming directly to Australia by boat but it cannot put a full stop to people attempting to make the journey by boat to seek the protection they desperately need. The offshore processing centre will just add to the tally of interim camps for refugees who will keep trying to reach for a more permanent and secure location whether there is a policy to stop this or not. We need to recognise that oppression reduces the limits of risk and desperation. We need to come up with a more humane and globally responsible solution for displaced refugees and not place an extra burden on less wealthy countries to serve our national interests.

Our condolences for those families who have lost their loved ones in the boat tragedy off Christmas Island

RISE is highly critical of AMSA’s rescue centre not taking immediate response despite receiving calls from the vessel indicating it was experiencing difficulties on Tuesday 19th of June 2012. It took over 40 hours, since receiving the call, until the Customs and Border Protection flight departed from Christmas Island to search for the boat. Deaths are sure to be expected. This is not just the Indonesian authority’s responsibility, it is ours also.

Asylum seekers take the ultimate perilous journeys to seek refuge, this being a great example of their desperation for freedom and safety. It is shameful Australia has made it a pawn in their fight for power. The deaths of these asylum seekers attempting asylum in Australia, over the last decade, seems only to result in a recurring theme of debate and rhetoric with no progressive and humane solution being provided.

(Photo credit: Adam Chamness)

RISE Review: Hope in Settlement—Emerge Festival 2012

Dominic Golding (ONE STAR):

The theme for this year’s Refugee Week is Restoring Hope. In this vein, the Ethnic Community Council of Victoria (ECCV), Multicultural Arts Victor (MAV) and Adult Multicultural Education Services (AMES) got the Playback Theatre Company to present a performance of stories by refugees with the goal of achieving community engagement.

Hope in Settlement is described in the MAV program as “actors and musicians bring[ing] the audiences stories of hope and resilience in a way that this is entertaining, surprising and transformative”. It intended to be an improvised psycho-performance staging of the narratives on settlement, housing and employment and politics of inclusion. The Playback Theatre’s methodology or approach is that by playing back the client’s life journey, the performance validates the client’s place in the world; rebirth from an evil land. It is meant to be a therapeutic approach to working with communities.

Themes of hope, struggle, trauma, freedom, courage, love, new beginnings, new homeland depicted by the backdrop of visual art works from the Heartlands exhibition are teased out by a facilitator coaching the audience to open up . Four life stories from the audience were explored by four actors. Essentially what was presented was a series of vignettes, skits, signed imagery, and a re-enactment of a story. At face value, Hope in Settlement did re-enact a person’s story well, and I believe the participant got a lot of lovely surprises in seeing their story played back to them. The audience was also genuinely entertained.

However, I believe that a number of environmental factors did not play well to the “transformative” angle of the performance:

The audience was mainly migrant or former refugee staff workers and executive of ECCV, AMES and MAV. However, there was a marked absence of members of the general public in the audience considering that the production is listed in the Emerge Festival program. Out of the four participants, only one clearly identified themselves as a refugee and I strongly believed he was planted because the facilitator admitted he knew of the client’s history prior to the event. This undermines the random, improvisational nature of the production. This initial narrative was of a client – a boxer of African background who sought asylum in Australia while competing here for the Commonwealth Games. The other three stories were from AMES staff – a housing worker, a migrant employment worker and the General Manager of AMES. The oral stories as a stand-alone public act were the most interesting, full and honest out of the whole show. The actors did do a commendable job with the material given.

I can confidently state Hope in Settlement was not empowering to any refugee sitting in the audience. With the limit of five minutes for a participant to tell their story, the participants fell back on clichés and set-pieces which projected the standard humanistic narratives about refugees. The themes reiterated signs, symbols, and myths of benevolence; the West assisting the “44 million refugees of the world, and that we in [a] rich country can do so much more” (AMES General Manager narrative). It was a play where the stakeholders can give themselves a nice validating pat on the back for doing a job well done at the end of the night. At best, it was preaching to the converted. At worst, it was self-marketing to brag about how fantastic your service is to fellow NGOs—a glorified networking exercise.

There was no mass body of any refugee community to really “create a unique performance from the stories of audience members” (Emerge Festival program). It takes trust to get a person to open up and be genuinely frank about their experiences. Usually, a Community Development project takes three to eight months to unpack raw emotion relating to displacement and the struggle to find a place “in the new heartland” (Heartlands Exhibition program) – the type of stories that I came to see and hear and that mainstream community members need to see. The production limited itself by not broadening its audience base, given that community engagement was the intention. There is no easy answer to breaking down the communication barriers and myths surrounding refugees but I believe a good start is to empower refugees by giving THEM the tools and the skills to tell their own stories, not through replication by a group of well-meaning Anglo actors and facilitators.

Criminalising smuggling does not prevent the free movement of people

RISE is highly critical of ABC’s Four Corners report on people smuggling which aired on Monday 4 June, 2012 in its failure to address the most pressing aspects of the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. We condemn ABC’s obvious descent into the fear-mongering and dog-whistling around this issue that has been indicative of Australian politics since mandatory detention was instated as official policy, and perhaps well before that when White Australia was the state’s prerogative.

Criminalising smuggling, which is the narrative this report chooses to contribute to, cannot and does not prevent the free movement of people, particularly in the current climate of global financial instability, food scarcity and war. Millions of people are forcibly displaced from their homes due to factors such as persecution, war, state terror and natural disasters. In the search for a safe life for themselves and their loved ones, people will move to escape these circumstances. Opposing “smuggling” – a means through which people travel to ensure their safety and well-being – is to take a position against refugees and asylum seekers.

Rather than focusing on this non-issue, ABC could have taken a more productive and critical look at why people are fleeing their circumstances in the first place. The Four Corners report could have looked into political and economic arrangements between Australia and some of the countries from which people have been forced to leave – Australia’s complicity in atrocities in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka has been documented. In short, it could have taken a more journalistically honest and thorough look at the environment that allows an industry like smuggling to work.

Appalling Medical Services for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the Community

RISE is extremely concerned about the current, appalling medical situation that refugees and asylum seekers are facing while they are settling in Australia. There are a number of medical cases that have not been properly reviewed or given high priority, as they should be. This creates more and more disadvantage amongst refugees and asylum seekers who have already struggled with coming to Australia and have been detained in detention centres for great lengths of time.

According to RISE findings, there are a significant number of medical cases that have been neglected by refugee case workers, not knowing where to refer people or locate proper medical resources. RISE findings also show that many asylum seekers have mental illnesses and have not had the opportunity to be seen by a psychiatrist – even after a year of settling in Australia, they still struggle to establish adequate arrangements for mental health care. Some of the assigned medical organisations and centres have refused to assist cases because they have overwhelming waiting lists and are not equipped with sufficient resources or suitable strategies to accommodate the health needs of former asylum seekers.

Our findings also show that when asylum seekers are prescribed medical drugs, they are not provided with suitable information regarding their use and side effects. There are also a number of former asylum seekers who are amputees, and have not received proper medical assistance or special benefits from Centrelink – and despite this dire lack of services, media and public hysteria regarding benefits to asylum seekers abounds.

According to RISE’s recent findings, asylum seekers have been released into the community by the Gillard government in a hand-washing gesture that does not examine the deeper settlement or health needs of former detainees whilst in the community. This extends to insufficient documentation and research regarding asylum seeker health needs, and totally inadequate federal funding for targeted medical services. We urge the Gillard government to responsibly follow up the settlement needs of asylum seekers within the community, or risk making the transition to community based arrangements for asylum seekers hollow and harmful.

The deteriorating situation at MITA

Asylum seekers and refugees held in MITA (Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation): A man attempted to hang himself this week. Last week a teenager cut his neck. About a week before that a man was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after he was found speaking to balloons he kept in his room that he said was his brother, mother and baby daughter. About 8 of these detainees are refugees being held indefinitely with adverse security assessments; one of them has been held in Australian immigration detention facilities for 34 months so far.

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

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