Since the first Australian churches offered sanctuary to the 267 refugees facing deportation to Nauru last week, a steady stream of voices have joined the call for compassion. Among them now are over 44 churches, five cathedrals, 21 mosques, and the premiers of five states.
The initiative seems to have sparked a nation-wide awakening. On Monday night, for a second time, thousands of people rallied around the country under the banner of #LetThemStay — the hashtag launching a heartfelt campaign from our screens to the streets.
Seas of protesters stood in public spaces holding banners, placards and candles, pleading for a show of humanity.
On the same night, human rights abuses in offshore processing centres continued, reiterating the necessity of the campaign. Australian friends of asylum seekers on Nauru reported that detainees had been physically assaulted by guards for taking extra fruit to eat from the centre.
Such allegations that do not exist in isolation. A senate inquiry into the detention centre on Nauru last year found that there had been 30 official reports of child abuse by staff, 24 of those involving physical contact, and an additional case of excessive force by the end of 2015.
Yet in light of the protests, the cry 'the tide is turning' can be heard from refugee advocates and activists across the nation. And though the currency of compassion we have seen blossoming in recent weeks seems a new development, the seeds have been sown for quite some time.
From the First Home Project in Perth that houses resettled refugees, to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre that serves hundreds daily, to persistent calls from Gosford Anglican Church to hold onto common decency in the wake of Islamophobic unrest, many have been at work suturing the wounds left on vulnerable people by an emotionally stunted nation-state that has closed its border and its heart.
The levels of psychological damage caused by mandatory detention have been well-documented in adults and children alike. Even the chief medical officer of the Australian Border Force has spoken out on this, and rightly so. The foundations of medical ethics lay in beneficence, a notion that must be revived and universalised to overcome the neglect asylum seekers are forced to endure.
Several of the refugees facing a possible return to Nauru suffer from severe physical ailments, including cancer and terminal illness. For any other patient, the immorality of causing them further harm would be seen as unequivocal; here, our dehumanisation of asylum seekers serves as a twisted justification.
Conservative discourse around granting asylum is framed in the language of loss — refugees are spoken of as a threat to everything from job security to 'our way of life'. Our deterrence policies are founded on a brittle idea of national security as a dire necessity — an attempt to show strength in a time of fear.
We conflate perpetrators of violence overseas with its victims who come to seek asylum, merging them into the same racialised threat. The clearest example of this could be the 2013 name change of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
In our quest for national security, however, we have only served to increase our fragility.
Compassion is one avenue to change. As a political language, compassion is itself a reclamation of power. Extending safety, resources, or even a mere welcome to people in need proves that we have something to give. Strength is embodied by a capacity to aid and assist, rather than in cruelty.
The show of concern by Victorian premier Daniel Andrews rippled through the populace as a reminder that for too long, politics has ignored the affective. Empathy, care and compassion are traits that facilitate human connection, appealing to us on a level of emotion that runs deeper than mere rhetoric. A nation that had abandoned its moral compass is being guided back to it, slowly and instinctively.
From pastors to politicians, doctors and lawyers to comedians, #LetThemStay has united people in a cohesive call for change. As two protesters unfurl a banner from the Yarra Bridge today, a week on from the beginning of the campaign, it's evident that a resurgence of compassion is here to stay.
The collective humanity of the Australian nation hinges now, more than ever, on the undoing of apathy and indifference to ensure a pursuit of justice. While the momentum continues to build, it's crucial that our hearts do not harden once the dust has settled.
Somayra Ismailjee is the recipient of Eureka Street's inaugural Margaret Dooley Young Writers Fellowship.
Somayra is a 17-year-old writer from Perth, of Indian and Burmese heritage. She has an interest in current affairs, ethics and social justice, particularly the intersections of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and classism. Her work has appeared in New Matilda and Right Now Inc among other publications.
Follow her on Twitter @somayra_
Main image: Andrew Hill, Flickr CC
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11 February 2016
While I applaud the hashtag campaigns for raising awareness of the plight of refugees, a more compassionate Australia is still to be realised. We are an affluent society that doesn't want to lose hard-won benefits. Self-absorbed and selfish as it is, it is also a common trait of humanity in general. When we find ourselves in very difficult circumstances and emerge on the other side, we can show empathy and compassion. But two things: sometimes we don't emerge fully or in good shape, and our difficult circumstances are subjective. Having said that, we need passionate people to lead us in our fight against our instincts to be self-serving.
12 February 2016
Thanks Somayra. While compassion may be a motivator, I don't think it alone is an avenue for change. How can we stop the deportations and eventually close down Nauru and Manus and their Australia equivalents. While offers of sanctuary are a start, they don't deliver the results of sanctuary. That would require a campaign of civil disobedience to protect the 267. Further, we need to braden out our reach. We could for example reach out to unions and union members, the people who ultimately could stop any deportations back to the concentration camps offshore. For example we could as rank and file unionists move motions in our unions calling on members to ban all actions that might assist in any deportation of even one refugee or asylum seeker. As Martin Luther King said in his letter from Birmingham Jail the oppressor does not yield to the demands of the oppressed merely because the cause is just. We need to challenge the power of the oppressor, and that means the movement needs to consider civil disobedience (e.g. giving flesh to the calls for sanctuary, refugee defence groups formed in the cities, unionist banning all actions that might lead to deportation etc).
12 February 2016
I applaud your article Somayra, and thank you for your compassionate perspection. How has Australia come to the conclusion that ''Two Wrongs do Make a Righ''t We are going in the direction of some dictatorships, in the last century,where human life is expendable. We need to be very much aware of the results of such a philosophy. History is a great teacher.
One of the aspects of our Govts. behaviour regarding conditions in Nauru, is the lack of transparency, resulting in secrecy This is completely unacceptable, which is very obvious from the recent public outcry against sending refugees back to Nauru.
Let us keep sending this message of outrage to the Govt. until it reverts to the real Australia, which history shows, has been welcoming and caring.
Thank you to those wonderful people who are standing up publicly
Roy Chen Yee
12 February 2016
Is describing #LetThemStay as "compassion" facile? Should it, instead, be "restitution"? If 'stop the boats' is immoral, #LetThemStay must be about restitution for the refugees, and THEIR forgiveness for our poor hospitality. If the maritime policy is moral, then also is the deterrence of detention as some boats are bound to get through the blockade. The applicable description would be "compassion", being OUR magnanimity towards and forgiveness of the arrivals for breaking the migration laws by taking a short-cut rather than applying to join the official annual humanitarian intake channel of 12-13000 people. The disciples were allowed to pick wheat on the Sabbath, it being made for man and not the other way around. Short-cuts may be permissible sometimes if 'stop the boats' is made for man and not the other way around. Advocates of 'compassion' should do some analysis in public and tell us how many humanitarian intakes Australia should receive every year and in what circumstances 'stop the boats' is immoral. It would be nice if, as protagonists, we're not divided between those who think their antagonists are emotionally stunted and those who wonder why their naive opponents can't at least have brains as big as their hearts.
12 February 2016
Why is the plight of refugees represented as either being granted citizenship or being barred from entry? It seems most of those fleeing war or persecution are simply looking for temporary shelter until conditions on their homeland settle down so they can return home. There seems to be plenty of homes where they would be welcome for the time it would take to enable peace to return to their homeland. This would obviate the need for so-called 'off-shore processing' which turns out to mean 'no processing at all'.
12 February 2016
Roy, thank you for this intelligent response. The people smuggling enforcement has undoubtedly saved many lives. Would these same advocates of open boat policy take responsibility for the murder of these same people they are trying to save? Of course not.
These are not easy issues. Protecting the lives of ordinary Australians by properly vetting immigrants in the immigration process is vital. The general population demands it of their government. We have see in the last weeks that many ISIL infiltrators have made it into Europe. Indeed these are the people that murdered more than 100 people in Paris. The current policy I'd unfortunate for those that took the chance of turning up to the border and being granted asylum but they took the chance. Somayra, are you aware that Germany currently lists 60-70 percent of refugees "economic" ? Did you read the think tank report commission by Tony Blair that lists 80% of the current asylum seekers in the UK as "sympathetic" to ISIL. Does my concern with that report label me as Islamaphobic ? Does my insistence as a citizen that these issues are dealt with competently by the government label me as suffering Islamaphobia ?
This policy ensures safe passage of those refugees that are applying through the right channels as well as stopping the human smugglers operating out of Infonesia and other south East Asian countries. It ensures the safety of men and women that wear Australian naval uniforms. It ensures the safety of ordinary Australians as we walk around the streets.
I will watch the protests with great interest and I pray for all those people displaced by war and conflict.
13 February 2016
Wonderful to see full page ad' in the Australian on Thursday 11th February on 'let Them Stay, and also to hear on TV new today that Brisbane hsospital doctors are refusing to discharge the Asylum-Seeker baby in their care, to prevent its being returned to Nauru. Let's stop - not 'the boats' but our sao-called leaders' focus on the short-change term - 'de-radicalising;, and begin trying to 'include' those who need our help, and work steadfastly to 'integrate' refugees and asylum-seekers. That latter term come from the latin word 'integer', which means 'together' . We will all be Better Together as we focus on welcoming and affirming people who have suffered so much, but can grow in confidence and help us to be more compassionate, as a new, and envigorated society. Also impressed by article in Herald, also last Thursday, about and Iraqi asylum-seeke woman who has recently died, but spent the greater, best part of her life moving beyond that experience, and using it as the basis for her work with and for other asylum-seelkers, and children in detention, especially using her skills as an artist, with them. Get them out - od detention - and Let Them Stay!
16 February 2016
Thank you for this very thoughtful article Somayra. The entire language surrounding the plight of refugees trying to enter Australia is one of scarcity (and loss)... detention, dehumanisation, border protection etc ... this language also needs to name the reality of cruelty and deprivation ... the loss of the Will to Live ... a sinister form of spiritual abuse. The commodification of refugees by the people-smuggling trade being used as the justification for such inhuman Aussie refugee policies, is another tier in the landscape of dehumanisation and spiritual abuse. When peoples' fundamental Will to Live is deliberately being crushed, without any hope, or any secure options available ... we have all leant into our worst selves and fed this beast. It is an election year ... use your vote for good ... for life ... for vitality ... for hope ... (FYI: I do support an orderly process of assessment to enter Australia, but not the double negative of punishing both the smuggler and the refugee INDEFINITELY).