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Palm Sunday protests demand a better way



In its original setting Palm Sunday was a day of transitory celebration against a week that culminated in rejection, torture, death and the apparent end of a cause. Apparent, because of an unanticipated rising from death at the beginning of the new week.

Palm Sunday marchIn Australia it is the occasion for marches that honour and appeal for compassion for people who have come to Australia seeking protection. These, too, are moments of solidarity and celebration that punctuate the prevailing text of rejection, callousness and apathy on which are written the lives of people who have sought asylum.

Moving and shocking human stories of imposed suffering are ordinarily shrugged off and ignored. But occasionally a little detail reveals the human reality of our refugee practices. Last week it was a phrase spoken by a woman in a routine snatch, detain and deport job by Border Force.

Nadesalingam and Priya and their Australia-born daughters, nine-month-old Dharuniga and two-year-old Kopiga, lived in the central Queensland town of Biloela. They were well liked by the local community among whom Priya worked. Originally from Sri Lanka and married in Australia, their appeal for protection as refugees had been rejected at every level.

Priya, however, had been granted a bridging visa. As its expiry date drew near she approached Department officials to have it renewed. She was told that a new visa would be sent by mail from the Department.

At 5am the day after the expiry of her visa, however, officials from Border Force and Serco accompanied by police called at the house and ordered the family to come with them, giving them ten minutes to pack. They were taken in vans to Gladstone, flown to Melbourne and put in detention before their deportation to Sri Lanka. Nadesalingam, like many young Tamil men, had been associated with the Tamil Tigers during the civil war, and fears for his life on return to Sri Lanka. UNHCR regards those fears as justified.

Those are the external events of the story. There is no indication that any government officer did anything illegal or unusual. Just business as normal. But in any such story, it is the small details that are telling. In Priya's own words, she and Nadesalingam were driven in separate vans to Gladstone airport. The children travelled with Priya but were not allowed to sit with her, despite their distress and her pleas.


"No, we would not treat our own children, or anyone else's children, in this way. And, yes, we shall encourage one another to demand a better way."


She describes the scene: 'I asked the guards, "If it were your children would you treat them this way, or is it only because we are refugees?" I was humiliated. I was made to feel worthless. I will never forget that experience.'

Humiliation and worthlessness may be seen as no more than fringe benefits of this routine Border Force operation. But Priya's words continue to hang in the air. Her question is also put to us as Australian citizens. It asks us whether we do believe such treatment is decent, and if not, why we would not intervene to prevent it.

Priya's words give a human face to people seeking asylum. They reveal the inhuman face behind the flannelling words in which the Australian treatment of people who seek protection is veiled. The people of Biloela have been stirred to marshal a protest against the deportation of the family. It may be unavailing but it vindicates humanity.

Priya's words also explain why the Palm Sunday marches and similar demonstrations matter. Critics are right to say that they will be ineffectual in the face of bipartisan and popular support for Australia's brutal behaviour. But the faces of those who take part — members of refugee communities and of activists, of older Australians and children, of churchgoers and atheists, of professional demonstrators and of the accompanying police — witness that the Australian community can wear a compassionate face.

More important, this march and other gatherings offer a whispered, inadequate answer to Priya's question. 'No, we would not treat our own children, or anyone else's children, in this way. And, yes, we shall encourage one another to demand a better way.'

Let us leave the scene with the bewilderment of Priya's children who have not yet learned that in Australia their friendships are treated as a concession, to be snatched away at will. In Priya's words, 'They don't understand what is happening. My daughter is asking to go to her friend's house in Biloela.'

As critics say, the humane treatment of people who seek protection may be a lost cause. So also did seem the cause of the man who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on the first Palm Sunday.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Palm Sunday, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

I love Andrew Hamilton's articles! They are well written, well researched and more importantly so compassionate. Eureka Street is a refreshing voice in our too often bleak media landscape.

Maree Brown | 21 March 2018  

“But in any such story, it is the small details that are telling. In Priya's own words, she and Nadesalingam were driven in separate vans to Gladstone airport. The children travelled with Priya but were not allowed to sit with her, despite their distress and her pleas.” Let’s grab a bull by the horns. Segregating the two parents and separating the children from physical contact with their mother but in mutual sight of each is not Bull Connor Jim Crow but to stop hostage situations from occurring. The officials know that the adults whom they are transporting will likely be desperate and possibly irrational. The administrative procedure is in response to realities. Let’s grab another bull by the horns. When Palm Sunday marchers self-divert their attention from the principle of exclusion/expulsion to the processes by which the principle is implemented, the principle wins. As it should, being based on the notion that it is absurd for Australia to be itself held hostage to the inability of foreigners to run their own affairs efficiently and humanely. Whether you like it or not, North Korea does all the countries around it a favour by fencing in its suffering population, or South Korea and Japan would be inundated with refugees. And how do you mitigate the suffering of the North Koreans? If at all, it will be by persistent and arduous diplomacy, unless you want to airlift all millions of them to Darwin. The impractical Left keeps forgetting (or maybe it chooses to ignore) that Australia’s doorknocker problem is caused by other people.

Roy Chen Yee | 21 March 2018  

It is a very difficult area, Fr Andrew, and, thank goodness, we as non-governmental citizens do not have to sleep with the responsibility of the decisions government ministers and their agents make on our behalf. Without making any judgements, I wonder how many of us would accept in this country a Tamil Tiger, a member of a terrorist organisation responsible as a group for many innocent persons' deaths, who applied for admission to Australia as an immigrant under our immigration procedures. I suggest very few, if any. I wonder why we change simply because someone chose to come here to escape the legitimate Sri Lankan government forces protecting its people from terrorist attack, when these same people could have escaped to the Tamil State in India only 80km away where they originally came from. Perhaps the Tamils in India were not welcoming to Tamil Tigers?? I seem to recall a couple of years ago, some 850 Sri Lankan refugees chose to return voluntarily to Sri Lanka rather than pursue the difficult course of gaining asylum here.

john frawley | 21 March 2018  

This is a story about a family, living in a community and contributing to that community. What has occurred in their lives before becoming part of the Biloela community should not impinge on their freedom to love their neighbour. The daughter of the family has a friend in Biloela, a house she visits. What a shocking lack of compassion by our government in taking that away from a child. When we roll up to vote in the next federal, or state, election we can exercise our power in this situation.

Pam | 21 March 2018  

True, Pam. And compassionate. But we are all expected to obey the law of the land for the good of society and when a visa has expired the law requires that the holder leaves the country. Tough? Yes. But laws are meant to be tough - otherwise they would be of no value. And all visa holders know the rules better than you or I, I suspect. Perhaps the parents should have thought about the future of any children if their visas were only temporary and not guaranteed renewal. And, God forbid, what if the children were nothing more than a lever to gain permanent residency because of birth place? It has happened before as we all know.

john frawley | 21 March 2018  

The Border Force. Ah yes, where did I read about them recently?

Frank | 22 March 2018  

"Priya, however, had been granted a bridging visa. As its expiry date drew near she approached Department officials to have it renewed. She was told that a new visa would be sent by mail from the Department." Unlike John Frawley and Roy Chen Yee, I cannot condone the bloody-minded duplicity of the Department of Home Affairs, who tell Priya that the updated visa will be sent by mail when, at that very time, their own quasi-military Border Force, with police and their contracted "security firm", Serco, were planning the pre-dawn attack on Pria's house and seizure of herself and family. Eunhee Park's inspirational account of escaping oppression in North Korea - her escape facilitated by a people smuggler - enables those of us who dare, to continue to believe in a future Australia welcoming to all asylum seekers, including those who arrive by boat and without papers.

Ian Fraser | 22 March 2018  

John Frawley might care to reflect on the fact that many Australians have ancestors who willingly participated in the hunting and slaughter of indigenous Australians whose lands they were stealing. Should their descendants be deported? Many Irish-Australians would have similar connections to those who were "terrorists" against the British colonisers. And what of those who opposed the "legitimate" laws of the Third Reich? The simple truth is that the treatment of those people from Biloela was harsh -- deliberately so -- and hurtful. whatever the "law" can that be condoned? And would we acceit such treatment of our own families?

John Carmody | 22 March 2018  

This is another important article by Andrew reminding us of the need to show compassion for people who have escaped from war, repression and disaster and the need to demand that their human rights are respected. We must not forget that many of the upheavals that asylum seekers are escaping from have been caused by US policies, which the leaders of our two major political parties continue to endorse without question. This means that we have a moral responsibility. In the case of this family being Tamil and previously supporting the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka, we must be careful not to blame a whole race for the crimes of a few. Our history of WW2 should remind us that there were many Germans who opposed Nazism and Japanese who opposed the fascist military class in that country. If they are sent back to Sri Lanka, their lives may be threatened. Already, a number of asylum seekers forced back to their countries of birth have been murdered. Let us use Palm Sunday to tell our leaders that we want asylum seekers to be treated with compassion and their human rights to be respected. Australia has the reputation of treating asylum seekers badly. This has to stop.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 March 2018  

Thanks Fr. Andrew for this thoughtful article which is drawing some interesting responses. Within the letter of the "law" there is also the spirit of the letter of the "law". This spirit calls upon examining as many assumptions as possible - such as, why (reasons) did these people come to Australia; what had they done to help ameliorate the situation prior to coming to Oz; when & how did they come to Australia; who did they bring and leave behind in their family unit etc; what are their prospects back in Sri Lanka and what have they contributed to Australia during their time here. I can't imagine the anxiety and even panic that people must feel when their Visa is up for renewal. What right have Australians got to treat people of good faith with such harsh and inhumane treatment AS PART OF THE PROCESS of either entry or exit from our country? I find many people who have never come into direct contact with Institutional harshness and brutality in Australia (e.g. Centrelink) do not have ANY idea what it's like to be a human being one minute ... and the next, an object to be kicked out of the way at the will of others. The trauma caused rolls on into the next generations ... and the next ... the sin in this is that it is deemed acceptable to TREAT people this way in the process of the decision that is being made. It's enough to kill some people. Tell me, where is God in this process? I'm afraid I sense a bit of Pontius Pilate on some of the commentary below ...

Mary Tehan | 22 March 2018  

John Carmody's wild exaggeration does not help the genuine causes of indigenous and partly indigenous people. It is simply not true that "many Australians" have ancestors who "willingly participated in the hunting and slaughter of indigenous Australians". I only know the upper north shore and the hills district of the 19th century, not heavily populated by settlers then - with family members there orchardists and timber-getters, in one or two cases convicts (one I think married to a Maori brought to Parramatta by the dreadful Samuel Marsden). Family memories and stories, and historical studies of that time, do not support that exaggeration. Some Australians no doubt do have ancestors involved in the relatively small number of terrible events (such as the one we commemorate here at Appin every year) but we are not responsible for what they did. "Sorry" is so regrettably ambiguous. I am sorry in the sense of regretting what was done (and trying to do what is right now in the complex situations that confront on the occasions when we are able to do something practice and not just preach). I am not sorry in the sense of apologising. But Andrew's article and the comments upon it are welcome for giving us facts and factors that need to be thoughtfully considered.

Chaplain J.R.Bunyan | 22 March 2018  

I have reflected on the questions you raise, John Carmody, and must say that none of them are applicable to the situation being discussed here. It could be informative if we were privy to the view from the other side of this story rather than relying solely on the word of one who feels badly done by. Emotion adds many different colours to the picture and tends to confuse rather than resolve issues.

john frawley | 22 March 2018  

Sure, laws are laws and are to be applied. However it is the interpretation, the validity and the basis in principal as well as the practice which need interrogation here. There are principles and practice in applying laws which independent judges exercise every day. Principles of compassion and hard cases are there for guidance. But it is the intent of laws in the article above laws which bothers me. It seems that the political motivation for the law is 'to send a message', 'to make an example' so that others of immoral mind or behaviour are excluded from Australian residence. As if those targets will take any notice and not just find other ways of grafting the system. The current situation seems to me like the practice of controlling feral animals on a grazing property by killing some and hanging them on the fence to let their plight dissuade others. Oh and by the way the Stasi, Stalin and Duterte governments have or have had laws and interpreted them strictly. (If you treat drug dealers strictly enough they won't trade any more drugs.)

Michael D. Breen | 23 March 2018  

Ian Fraser: “welcoming to all asylum seekers, including those who arrive by boat and without papers.” How many is ‘all’? How can there be a moral obligation to perform the mathematically impossible? 5000 men, and their women and children, only had a moral right to the boy’s five small loaves and two small fish because, in the special circumstances of that case, the mathematically impossible could be performed with those items. Otherwise, they, being the boy’s sustenance, would morally have been his to reserve. Multiple and repeated recitation of high moral intention do not a practical solution make. Propose a feasible solution. Then, we can open the borders.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 March 2018  

Thank you Andrew, A very sad but unfortunately not uncommon event these days. Boarder Force was quite intimidating, when we returned from overseas and see these black shirted uniforms at Customs. Must be even more intimidating to those from countries where such a uniform is equated with oppression and lack of human rights. NOT a good look! By our lack of concern we are condoning the slide down the slippery slope.

Gavin | 26 March 2018  

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