Pressure unrelenting

In python stories, the serpent grasps its victims, suffocates them and digests them, and all the while the bystanders stand around in helpless distress.

The python is an emblem of Australian immigration policy that crushes asylum seekers in order to excrete them. It grasps them in detention centres and in legal processes. Then, by depriving them of income and benefits, it ‘persuades’ them to leave Australia.

The 1600 East Timorese asylum seekers in Australia are now entrapped in this process. Many have lived in Australia since 1990. They sought refugee status, but Australian governments did not at the time consider their cases, fearing the disapproval of the Indonesian Government. In the meantime, they have found work in Australian businesses, have sent their children to Australian schools, and belong in the Australian community.

Their claims for refugee status are now being processed. The East Timorese must show that they would face persecution if they returned to the independent East Timor.

Predictably, no refugee claim has so far succeeded, although a few people have won residence on the grounds of their close ties with Australia. When rejected, they can appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal, which, however, is highly unlikely to find in their favour. In the event of a second rejection, they can then appeal to the Minister for Immigration for consideration of their cases on humanitarian grounds.

At that point the coils tighten. For when they appeal, they automatically lose their right to work. They recover it only if and when the Minister indicates he will consider their case—a process that takes some months. They will also be deprived of medical and other benefits, and any income they may have received through the Red Cross. They will have no resources for rent, to attend to their health or to buy food for themselves and their families. Those whose balance of spirit is precarious will find their sense of worth put under further pressure. Against the background of these suffocating provisions designed to drive them from Australia, they will rely heavily for support on an already poor East Timorese community.

The East Timorese asylum seekers themselves have become increasingly anxious as their cases are heard and dismissed. Other Australians are also distressed. In Darwin, representatives of business and local government have protested, claiming that the East Timorese belong to their community and must not be deported.

What can be done? Sympathetic bystanders who watch Australian immigration policy at work may feel impotent. But the East Timorese choked by the policy need two forms of support. First, as in Darwin, the Australian community must express its concern at the excision of people from its heart. Protests by activist groups have limited effectiveness, but school communities, neighbourhood groups, workplaces, employers and churches can effectively express their outrage at what is done to their communities by this treatment of their East Timorese fellows and friends. These people have had to live in constant anxiety as a result both of what they suffered in East Timor and of Australian delay in hearing their cases. They have grown into the Australian community.

They must be allowed to stay here.

Second, as their cases are heard and reviewed, a growing number of East Timorese need material support. They are unable to work and have no income to feed and house themselves. Many, too, are still so affected by torture and trauma suffered at the hands of the Indonesian administration that they cannot work. They rely entirely on the government grants administered through the Red Cross. And these grants they are now steadily losing. If voluntary organisations, including local churches, do not support and encourage them, how will they survive? And yet the groups most responsive to the needs of asylum seekers are already overwhelmed by the needs of others similarly deprived. New resources are needed.

In stories, pythons are inexorable, and bystanders impotent. Pythons crush, kill and swallow what they snare. In the case of social pythons, bystanders can impede the python only if they are organised and determined.

One way to help is through the Red Cross. The Australian Red Cross, which administers the government-funded Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS), is in touch with the more vulnerable East Timorese asylum seekers. It would like to continue to assist them personally and materially.

If you would like to help, contact the state office of the Australian Red Cross, or the National Manager of ASAS, Noel Clement, on (03) 9345 1800. 

Andrew Hamilton sj is Eureka Street’s publisher and has worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service.



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