Words by: Emily Schofield-Cox
The activist group Students for Refugees held a panel on October 6th on the issue of Australian and international refugee detainment and treatment titled ‘Where to from Here?’ It featured a relatively ‘leftie’ group of speakers: Greens Deputy Leader and WA Senator (and all around legend) Scott Ludlam, Jarrod McKenna of the First Home Project (see our interview here), UWA Associate Professor Rob Cover, and community activist and former refugee Muhammad Dawood.
As the old rhetoric of ‘Stop the Boats’ has (let’s hope) disappeared with Abbott, the paradoxical decision to accept 12,000 Syrians (which is awesome, and the least that we can do to help) while leaving many in the horrible purgatory of Nauru and Manus Island detention centres amid rape and abuse claims warrants question.
Seemingly in response to this, and in close advance of the investigation into the lawfulness of these detention centres, Nauru has promised to process all current asylum seekers held there within a week. This is big news in terms of pressuring the government into better treatment and understanding of refugees, but poses problems in the way that those asylum seekers will now be possibly in more direct danger of rape and abuse.
Although ostensibly of the same opinion that refugees should be helped, not treated with ignorance and cruelty, the Students for Refugees panellists had different methods of achieving their goals. Ludlam uses political channels to force the issue into social consciousness while McKenna takes a very practical and hands-on approach that shows anyone can help at any time if they just reach out. Dawood uses his own experiences and quiet compassion to allow people to see refugees as they really are: people in vulnerable situations, who need help, not people to be turned into a political tug-of-war.
Panellist Rob Cover’s clear point of deference on the refugee issue is attitude: there is a vast proportion of people with very negative attitudes toward refugees for unfounded reasons of potential terrorism, losing jobs to new people, and a general ignorance that has been stoked by the recent fear campaign against them staged in the political world. He felt that the “disturbance of self” was “necessary for undoing” a negative frame of mind; vulnerability leads to an ability to relate. He cited shows like SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From, which puts people who otherwise wouldn’t sympathise with the plight of refugees into the same dangerous and precarious situations that they are in, so that they better understand why they look for safety in places like Australia. He posed the question of how to have this same effect on a greater amount of people: the Australian public.
Senator Ludlam delved deeper into the issue, starting by calling Australia’s refugee policy a “degrading horror show”. In a room of Leftie activists and like-minded panellists, laughter and a soft smattering of applause greeted this brutal honesty. Ludlam’s position of being in a party that actively encourages its representatives to speak their mind is a pleasant change from the constant skirting of questions by most politicians.
His power to sway and to speak on these issues comes from being in a party like the Greens, who are not likely to be elected into the top job of government any time soon, and thus have the ability to be idealistic and truthful. They are also important in building up political pressure for human rights issues for the Labor Party to move with, as “it makes it safe for them to show courage because they sure as hell aren’t going to on their own”. Ludlam acknowledged how the Lib spill that left Abbott, or the “onion guy” as Ludlam calls him, out in the cold has allowed for a changed discourse; it’s “fucking great” not to have heard the term ‘death cult’ in a few weeks. He acknowledged that it “tilts the tables” — this “slippage” has allowed the Greens, and politically unaffiliated activists, to make their position known and fight harder for refugee rights.
It’s not just the politicians who are being held to account now with this issue; Transfield is also “terrified” because it has an “image to protect” that the current delving into isn’t helping.
Ludlam didn’t beat around the bush: he acknowledged that Nauru was “tremendously unsafe” for refugees and needed to be fixed. He stressed that now is the time to work towards this by convincing those who are on the fence and continuing the pressure that has the Turnbull government “looking for opportunities to de-escalate the horrors of Nauru”. He pointed out that “nobody in government wanted to be a chronic human rights abuser — not even Abbott”, so there is room to force the necessary human rights changes in the treatment of those who seek refuge in Australia.
Ludlam spoke about how the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly the heartbreaking photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach, has broken into public consciousness. He said that the government’s capitulation to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees was really fantastic, but in the grand scheme of things a “fuck all amount” when there are so many more who need our help.
The Senator talked about how he too wanted to ‘stop the boats and drowning’, of course, but that he wanted it achieved differently to those opposed to him. He doesn’t want to just ignore their plight, or stick them in indefinite detention, but rather allow for them to be resettled in places like Australia in safety. He stressed the need for a clear time frame for resettlement to deflect the perceived need for people smugglers.
On a practical rather than political note, The First Home Project’s Jarrod McKenna emphasised the need to have the conversation of refugees’ rights not with those who are already on your side, but with those who do not see it from a sympathetic point of view in order to undermine the “hatred of the proletariat”. He urged people to love those who hate others and to help them on their journey of understanding the plight of asylum seekers. McKenna’s project aims to help refugees enter the rental market and integrate into society safely and comfortably: “the future is here… it’s just not well distributed yet”.
It is in places like universities that these talks can thrive, facilitated by activist groups like Students for Refugees. A spokesperson for the organisation said that they aim to “empower students to feel as though they have the ability to contribute to positive social change”. By connecting students to “people in the asylum seeker/refuge community”, they hope to “inspire them to take action” and seek “an end to mandatory detention, an end to offshore processing and the provision of permanent protection and resettlement in Australia”. In short, their goal is to build their movement “until it becomes politically untenable for any government to maintain these policies”.
The detention and abuse of refugees is an ongoing issue in different forms across the world, and it is now more than ever that activists in the political, social or practical world fight hard to put the pressure on those who continue to deny these vulnerable people their basic human rights.