Helping those who need our help

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Photo Refugee Action Collective

It was International Human Rights Day yesterday. The Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne held a forum which I spoke at, about the Pacific Solution Mark 2. They showed a harrowing documentary which had been made by the BBC in 2002 about the Howard refugee policies, including the Tampa and the inhumane conditions on Nauru. Well worth a watch - particularly to reflect on what the Gillard Government is doing today. Lucy Honan from RAC gave an excellent speech bringing us up to speed on the current conditions on Nauru, which underscored how we haven't moved on from the oppressive and racist policies of a decade ago. My speech is attached and below

Helping those who need our help

A few years ago I lived next door to a refugee from Cambodia. She was a mother whose children had died in Pol Pot’s killing fields. She was warm and spirited and despite her tragic loss, loved the company of my children, gave them Christmas and birthday presents.

When you meet someone whose family has been murdered by a brutal regime, you can’t help but open your heart to that person, you can’t help but think of your own family, you can’t help but consider how lucky you are to be living in safety, with all the opportunities and comforts of our privileged community.

The desire to help others, to stand against bullies and tyrants, and to stand with those brave individuals who have been made to suffer and fear for their politics, for their beliefs, for being a threat to the powerful and the fanatical, is and has always been part of who we are.

I believe that the way we treat asylum seekers is critical to the future of Australia. It is not just a question of intake numbers and types of processing. It is a question of who we choose to be, of what type of place we choose Australia to be. 

We can choose to open our hearts and be a generous society, a society that provides and embraces opportunity and leads the world in confronting the most difficult global problems. Or we can continue on our current course towards a closed and fearful society that only embraces the prejudices of the past.

We can choose to increase our humanitarian intake of refugees; empty the detention centres and give asylum seekers the rights, protections and services that they need to become happy, settled and productive members of Australian society.

When we see people arriving in Australia by boat as our future neighbours and friends, then it’s obvious that we need policies that help them establish a new life as quickly and easily as possible.

But instead of acting humanely in this way Australia’s current approach, as we all know all too well,   is to try to discourage Asylum seekers by threatening them with the prospect of being trapped whether onshore or offshore, in a kind of visa purgatory. The strategy of the current government has been to say if you come and seek asylum in Australia we will frustrate your claim with lengthy delays, we will export you and deport you, and even if you are found to be a genuine refugee we will restrict your right to work, your right to services and most importantly your right to permanent residency.

Yet over 90% of the people put through these trials are found to be genuine refugees – with life stories as harrowing and disturbing as my former neighbour Hoi. They deserve better.

Most concerning of all is that opposition to the just treatment of refugees has been marked by the use of veiled racism as a tool for political advantage. It is the feeling being dangerously exploited by some of Australia’s political leaders; that a few thousand desperate and needy individuals; the people who most need our protection, somehow represent a threat because they look different, have a different religion and come from another place.

It is also that very modern form of racism, the fear of nations and peoples we once regarded as inferior. We fear them becoming richer, and more like us as a result, we fear that we may no longer have a reason to regard ourselves as special, as better than people from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as more deserving of our way of life, and so able to justify to ourselves that it’s the natural order of things that we have so much whilst they have so little. The consequence of these fears is that we punish people for not being Australian by making it as difficult as possible to become Australian.

Tony Abbott has calculated that reviving racist sentiments is his key to political power and Julia Gillard’s Labor party has been too cowardly to stand up to him. It’s a chilling rerun of the Howard years and the Beazley acquiescence from a decade ago.

In contrast, in parliament, the Greens strive to represent refugees and those who campaign for their rights.  Our members of Parliament refer to asylum seekers and their families by name, to bring them into parliament with them as real people, not statistics.  We focus on the 690 plus children in detention on the mainland and Christmas Island, to try and find a sliver of compassion in the old parties.

We are relentless in naming health and humanitarian problems in the detention centres.  Victoria’s first Greens Senator, Richard Di Natale, together with Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has introduced legislation for an independent panel to monitor the physical and mental health of asylum seekers offshore.

We have introduced legislation to give basic procedural fairness to people – including children - held in indefinite detention. 

When appealing to humanitarian instincts fails in parliament, we point out the cost benefits of settling people onshore compared to the indefinite economic black hole of the Pacific Solution. 

And we don’t see Parliament as the whole picture.  We encourage action in the community, from the rallies we attend and take inspiration from, to helping publicise initiatives like Philip Feinstein’s music and musical instrument program for detention centres.

And we have a plan to save the lives of refugees right now by providing a safer pathway to Australia.   It includes escalated resettlement from Malaysia and Indonesia, while working consistently towards the establishment of a New Regional Plan of Action and an increase in Australia’s humanitarian program, including providing more funding to the UNHCR in Malaysia and Indonesia so recognised refugees can come here by air, instead of living in despair or getting on leaky boats.

And we would maintain onshore claims assessment for people who do come to Australia, because no person is illegal.
It is incomprehensible to me that others of our political leaders are blind to the extraordinary risks they are taking when they seek to pander to the worst of human nature.

It is incomprehensible to me that anyone could fail to understand the importance of encouraging people to think and act in accordance with the most noble human instinct, the instinct to show compassion and to help others when they need help.

I applaud all of you in this room and those in the broader community who are disgusted by the cynicism and callousness of Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers.

We can feel dispirited at times because it doesn’t seem we are making progress, but we must persist. Today, International Human Rights Day, we can support each other, and acknowledge the important work we are doing. I salute all of you in the room who are doing so much great work. We must continue to get the message out, continue to have conversations across the community about caring for people who desperately need our help and support.

From my perspective, standing for election, I ask you to support the election and re-election of Greens Members of Parliament and others who share our policies, so we have the power to do good, so we can share our power with those most in need. I commit to you all tonight that I will be a strong and powerful voice for refugees, both in the election campaign, and if elected; like the MP’s I will be joining, Adam Bandt, Richard Di Natale, Sarah Hanson Young.

We are campaigning not only for people who need our help but also for the very spirit and soul of the Australian nation. We need to continue to tell people that there is a better way, that there is nothing to be afraid of and that being ready and willing to care, to help others will bring extraordinary rewards and satisfaction. If we send THAT message people WILL listen .  By continuing to appeal to people’s better selves eventually we will win. We will win a better life for those most deserving and a more humane country for the rest of us. And, we will win an Australian nation that has learnt how to help others again.

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