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Memories of refugees

Refugee week is less about activism than about reminding us of what matters. It calls to mind the faces of those who seek asylum, the stories of why they left their own lands and culture, of their flight and of their wait for protection.

For many it is a walk down Memorial Drive, honouring the names of those now dead and those who still live. I remember the 250,000 Cambodians in Site Two by the Thai border, and among them Chea, the sister of a friend, who died when the camp was shelled. I remember the thousands of asylum seekers who left Vietnam by boat to enrich the nations which accepted them, and among them Meo, the sister of another friend, who never arrived, presumably killed by pirates. I remember the many who spent years in Australian detention centres, the joy of those who were able to begin life again in Australia, and the sadness of watching as the light went out of the eyes of those detained for more than six months.

It is hard to switch from these alternating stories of death, flight, welcome and genteel brutality to reflect more generally on the way in which we Australians see and treat asylum seekers today. It is like moving out of the harsh sunlight into a dense fog where the moving shapes of our fears and prejudices are taken for reality.

This year the news has been dominated by the increase of people arriving by boat, fleeing from upheaval and danger in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. They arrived after the Government had announced changes to the treatment of asylum seekers, but before those changes could be codified in law. This hiatus has been to their detriment.

Two years ago the Government announced a new policy towards asylum seekers. Under this policy, asylum seekers would no longer be routinely detained until their cases were definitively resolved. Their continued detention would need to be justified by the Department. But those who arrived by boat would be processed on Christmas Island in a process that was not reviewable by law.

This change in policy, however, was not enshrined within legislation. When an increasing number of boats began to arrive, the Department came under increasing pressure to provide basic services. As a result few resources are available to enable asylum seekers to live within the community.

The result is that the asylum seekers are caught in no-man's land and their treatment is governed by expediency not by a principled policy. Contrary to the changes introduced by the Howard Government, children are routinely detained on Christmas Island, and minors in Australia. The places of their detention are not called detention centres but immigration centres. Regulations make it very difficult for them to receive visitors. Detainees live under crowded and isolated conditions with few services, and little opportunity to contact lawyers or others.

The suspension of processing asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka means that people are detained for longer under harsher conditions. The asylum seekers' mental health deteriorates, but there are few resources to alleviate the harm done them by detention.

The delay in processing claims and in conducting security checks and the pressure on the Department to make decisions quickly and to repatriate those who are found not to be refugees inevitably creates doubt about the fairness of decisions that are not subject to statutory review. It has also generated legal action to question the process and to halt deportations. The courts risk becoming the primary instrument for ensuring justice, and not the last resort.

Because those who arrive by boat are still mandatorily detained, they are now being transferred to remote areas in Australia. This is costly and further limits their access to legal and other services.

When you look at the faces of asylum seekers, it is impossible not to ask how we came to this inefficient, costly, demeaning and ill-regulated system. It is hard to imagine a framework that is less likely to encourage the trust required to adjudicate claims, welcome refugees and remove those found not to be refugees. No-man's land is a costly place to maintain, an unsafe place to be and not a place that encourages reflection.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, refugees, christmas island, Cambodia, Site Two



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Existing comments

I think because for some weird reason the media have caught the lie that only refugees in other countries have the right to come to Australia when the complete opposite is the truth.

This rank cruelty drives me crazy and Frank wonders why I have no faith that the ALP will enforce any human rights framework when we don't enforce our own law anyway.

Marilyn Shepherd | 21 June 2010  

Father Andrew, this is not directly related to the topic that you are addressing here. However, it came up recently as a hypothetical (although it may well relate to some real cases) in a conversation with a friend.

Imagine a fit, young man of military age arrives in Australia from Afghanistan. He claims asylum in Australia because of the Taliban. Should he be allowed to stay, or should he be told that he should go back to his own country, join the Afghan Army and fight the Taliban along with the Australian Army and the other nations of the coalition?

I hope you can the issue I raise. Is it fair that we send our own young men and women to help make Afghanistan free, but not insist that citizens of that country also fight for their own freedom?

I would appreciate your thoughts.

Patrick James | 21 June 2010  

Why do we have to continue to isolate people when everyone knows that isolation is exactly what they do not want or need.

They leave their country because they are desperate and look for a more humane country to have a life and given their children opportunities that are reachable and sustainable.
We have to stop being so cruel.

rhonda danylenko | 21 June 2010  

Patrick that is not really a sensible question because not everyone is capable of fighting or wants to fight.

Those who come here are murdered or tortured by all the other sides in this conflict because they are more Asian and are shi'ite muslims and not sunnis.

After 10 years that is something you should know.

Our soldiers are volunteers, why would an Hazara volunteer for certain death after 30 years of invasions by other countries like ours?

We have zero right to send them away.

Marilyn Shepherd | 22 June 2010  

I am a Dutch born Australian,child of a freedom fighter, and most of my life I was incredulous that the people of Germany said they did not know about the death camps where 6 million human beings, men women and children were systematically, efficiently murdered.

Now I know that may have been true, because millions of my fellow Australians do not know what our Government is doing to asylum seekers in the new concentration centres on Australian soil. No, we are not murdering them, but we are denying them their freedom, their right to work, their childhood. That, inspite of the well documented consequences of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation,broken minds, damaged psyches which accompanied immigration detention in Port Hedland, Curtin, Woomera, Nauru, Manus Island, Baxter, Villawood, Maribyrnong, Perth, Darwin, Port Augusta and now Christmas Islands, Leonora and motels in Brisbane and Darwin.

Only those who worked there had access to Hitler's concentration camps. In today's Australia, a community person wanting to visit, to bring gifts for the children in detention, is obstructed by a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure. Detainees have little or no contact with society, not even with community members who can pray with them in their own language, bring them food from home, tell them what is happening outside their prison. Unaccompanied minors, no criminal record, no criminal charges against them - kids without their family -are locked up, and it seems, indefinitely.

Why are we not storming Parliament House?

Frederika Steen | 28 June 2010  

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