Caring for refugees

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09 04 14 - 13:48


Photo: Nawroz Festival Dandenong, April 2014 with Greens Candidate for Dandenong, Hazara Refugee, John Gulzari

I was a teenager, growing up in Altona when Australia accepted hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. They didn’t speak English. They looked different. Lots of them weren’t Christian.

My family and I were struck by the changes in Footscray, our regional shopping centre, and had to deal with the sense of change in our town. We got used to it.

The bipartisan approach from Whitlam and Fraser of accepting refugees was critical.  Both genuinely recognised the importance of treating people humanely, and this in turn was incredibly important in shaping community attitudes. We realised that although the Vietnamese didn’t speak English well, looked different and lots weren’t Christians that they were actually ok. That we had more in common than was different.

As an adult I moved to Footscray. I fell deeply in love with Footscray as a place of amazing diversity where wave after wave of migrants from every trouble spot in the world would arrive to start a new life.

When my kids were at primary school the amazing strides that kids made who had only been in the country for six months brought tears to my eyes. The school community included families from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Burma, as well as a steady flow of family reunions and second generation Vietnamese and Chinese, and families of international students and business migrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh

And I realised that although I still tended to see these kids as different, my kids didn’t. They were just their mates. I thought back to my school days, and thought of my school friends who had families that came from Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and realised I grew up not giving a toss about my friends’ backgrounds either, and just took names like Gramsbergen, Mirisklavos and Curmi for granted.

In Footscray I heard the stories of my friends and neighbours who had fled Vietnam and Cambodia. One friend Nam who I sang with in the Multicultural Choir had fled Vietnam by boat three times before they finally made it to Malaysia. My neighbour Hoa  loved to see my children play, and gave them Christmas presents. When I asked her whether she had had any children she told me simply that yes she had, but they had died very young in the terrible times in Cambodia.  Her nieces and nephews went to school with my sons and were great Aussie kids and are probably doing amazing things as young Australian adults now.

As a society we felt proud of accepting refugees, celebrated our multiculturalism, and things continued without much change until Howard won office in 1996.  The number of boat arrivals grew steadily during the ‘90’s but there was not much of a fuss. We processed people’s claims for refugee status, and settled refugees as we had done for the previous fifty years.

Then came 2001, the Tampa election. I blame John Howard for everything that is awful and inhumane and callous and cruel in our treatment of refugees since then. Because Howard broke what had been bipartisan support for fair, caring and humane acceptance of everyone regardless of background; and rejected the right that asylum seekers have under international conventions to seek refuge.

The horrible policies, the horrible practices since then have been a result of letting this racist, xenophobic genie out the bottle, pandering to the underlying racism of a small minority in our community for political gain. No leader of the Labor or Liberal parties has being willing since to take a strong stand against this racism since.

It’s a fundamental attack on who we are as a people, as multicultural Australians, people who celebrate the diversity of our country as a nation of immigrants, other than indigenous Australians whose lands we invaded over 200 years ago.

And the current Abbott government is the most extreme case yet. Their cruelty towards asylum seekers links  with their plans to repeal of section 18C of the racial discrimination act, and George Brandis’ assertion that we all have a right to be bigots.

The big question is of course the political question of what do we do about it.

In policy terms it’s simple. We have to accept more refugees from the region, from Indonesia and Malaysia, from Sri Lanka and from Pakistan. That’s the caring and humane way of how to stop people feeling they have to get on dangerous boats, compared with the out and out cruelty of Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island, indefinite detention in appalling conditions, murder and towing back boats to unsafe conditions.

The Greens platform is to increase the number of refugees we accept to 30 000 per year, to resettle an emergency intake of additional 10,000 UNHCR refugees from the Asia-Pacific region, with at least 3,800 of those new places to go to urgently resettling refugees directly from Indonesia and places where there is a backlog, and to fund an extra $70 million per year for safe accommodation and welfare protections in Indonesia to provide shelter and welfare to refugees while they wait.

We would close Manus Island and Nauru – and save billions of dollars in doing so, and stop indefinite detention. People should only be detained for as long as is necessary to undertake health and security checks

In political terms – how to get this policy implemented; we have to reframe the debate. We have to appeal to the 80% of Australians who aren’t racist. We have to create the spaces that they can hear people’s stories, and connect that if they care about what’s happening to people then they have the power to stop it, by speaking out and by voting.

I’m in politics, about to take my place in the Senate because I believe in our political process.  I believe it can be used for good, that we can make our democracy work for us. We just need to get people to vote for the things they value, they believe in, they feel strongly about.

I ask all of you to Think. Act. Connect and Vote, and get others to do the same. In short, get active, reach out to people, get political – join The Greens or another party if you think they better represent your views – and in particular vote, and encourage others to vote for the parties that represent your views. We saw in the WA by-election that the Greens are still growing, increasing our power, our influence, our ability to get results. 

The next two and a half years are going to be tough. We need to build the community campaign in this time so that come the next Federal election we can turf out Tony and place The Greens in a position where we can negotiate powerfully with the Labor Party for change to a caring and humane approach to refugees and asylum seekers; caring for people who are fleeing for their lives to a safe haven and new life in Australia.

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