Nobody ever thinks they will become a refugee.
For many of us, war only happens in far away regions, in wastelands already battered and torn, in places like Iraq or Afghanistan where buildings fall as casually as snow and the stench of death permeates the air.
Many of us were lucky enough to be born into good geography. We rest easy knowing our borders are protected and our leaders equipped to protect us from any real threat of danger. And yet even though so few of us have any lived experience of war, almost every one of us has an opinion on the plight of those who have.
At what point I ask myself did “Australians” start believing that it was our right to dictate how people should respond to war? At what point did we decide that we knew better than those who have survived the loss of their country, their homes, their families, their culture and their identities?
From the safety of our civilised cities and the comfort of our homes, we judge the plight of refugees who have entered our country by sea, and we do it without batting an eyelid at the countless number of white immigrants who have arrived here by plane, and overstayed their visas.
We rarely even contemplate the fact that there are more New Zealanders living and working in Australia than the combined number of refugees who have ever sought asylum by boat and if it were a boatload of Kiwis or Poms or Yanks fleeing the same dangers, it’s unlikely that the response would be anywhere near as loud or as ugly. White people arriving in Australia rarely make the news, though perhaps that is because they don’t make us quite as nervous.
In newspapers and on television, on social media and talkback radio, we talk about boatloads and masses and hoards and waves and swarms of refugees as though we are describing a plague of wildebeests rather than human beings.
So rarely are we given any access or insight to the individuals displaced by war that we are unable to make any connection with those who love and hurt and fear and dream and hope just as we do. Instead we see all refugees as a nameless, faceless annoyance; a threat to our common values and a stain on our society.
We listen as our leaders apply concepts of right and wrong, of legal versus illegal, front door versus back door and boat versus plane. They boil the debate down to a matter of ‘choice’ as though there is any choice afforded to those caught up in conflicts fought by powerful men who view them as collateral damage.
Many of you have sided with our government and backed their cruel and inhumane approach to people seeking asylum. You agree that it is right and just to lock innocent people away in barbaric concentration camps, to immerse those already traumatised into new climates of hopelessness where cruelty and corruption thrive unnoticed.
And despite the unimaginable cruelty of war, the time already spent languishing in camps, and the terrifying journey across the open seas, you still feel they deserve to be locked away and punished, indefinitely, because it sends a clearer message.
“We will decide who gets into this country and the manner in which they arrive”.
Over the years, we have been fooled into believing that there is a right way to flee the horror of war, without ever bothering to investigate what happens to people left scrambling for some semblance of hope and identity.
Many of you have swallowed the rhetoric employed by this government and factions of the media who work to enforce the false illusion of choice. Terms such as cue jumpers, boat people, illegal immigrants and illegal aliens are tossed about cavalierly to describe families fleeing the kind of horror that you and I could never imagine.
In countries already ravaged by war there is often no embassy for people to lodge their claims. And in many cases, more often than not, people don’t have time to gather their belongings, and it isn’t uncommon for identity papers, family photos and so forth to have been bombed or destroyed.
When our government speaks about refugees forming an orderly queue, it’s as if they are describing the scene outside a rock concert or a football match, rather than a scene of disorganised terror and chaos. In a war zone the only line you will find yourself in is the line of fire.
But our government has never told you the truth. Why? Because dangling a solution in our faces is an easy way to secure votes. For instance, when we believe that our way of life is being threatened we look to our government for a solution. Nobody wants this country to lose control of our borders, and nobody wants to be invaded. So by whipping up a border protection crisis, people are more likely to vote for the party who will attend to that crisis. The more fear the government can generate, the more we look to them for a solution, and the more power they yield over us in an election. In truth, there is no border protection crisis and no pending invasion. That is just a bullshit story you have been sold.
Believe it or not, Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, which means that people fleeing persecution are legally entitled to seek refuge in Australia with or without valid documentation. They also legally allowed to arrive here by boat or by plane, or by parachute if they have no other option.
And although it is true that there are hundreds of thousands of equally valid refugees languishing in camps, the process of granting visas is impossibly slow and with millions of displaced persons in the world and Australia only granting a disproportionately low number of humanitarian visas each year, (that number has just been decreased) visas can often take decades to materialise if they materialise at all. However, it is not true that one person arriving by boat will take the place of another person waiting in a camp and neither way is wrong or illegal, regardless of the lies we have been sold.
Another false myth is that asylum seekers are taking Australian jobs and living off government benefits. Despite the common misconception that all brown skinned people arrived here as refugees, Australia actually accepts a small number of refugees compared to skilled migrants each year.
Most of the people you see driving your cabs and working in your convenience stores have come here invited on skilled migrant visas and not as refugees. Also, once people arrive in Australia seeking asylum they are immediately taken to a remote location, either Manus, Naru or Christmas Island and detained in an immigration centre for offshore processing. In the past asylum seekers were not permitted to work until their refugee status had been approved and they were not entitled to receive benefits or use Medicare until they were granted Australian Citizenship, which could take between two to five years. Now of course those rules no longer apply because we are not settling anymore asylum seekers in Australia.
In the past, some refugees were granted temporary protection visas (TPV) or bridging visas upon their release detention. These visas entitled them to stay in the country for three years in the hope that their previous living situation would improve. However, many were forced to return to dangerous living conditions in their country of origin because these visas did not permit them to work or receive any government benefits. The only way they could survive and provide for their children was by relying on donations from non- government organisations, like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
And for those refugees lucky enough to be granted permanent residency in Australia, their rights as Australian citizens should not be viewed any differently to yours or mine. In other words, unless you are a descendent of the first nations people, then you are here because your ancestors came here as migrants or refugees and that makes you no more or less of an Australian than those refugees who have been granted permanent residency.
Many of you argue that you would never seek asylum by boat. You claim there is a right way to enter this country through the ‘front door’ designed for genuine refugees. And like this government and the one before it, you have effectively used the deaths at sea as a defence for your argument, basically suggesting that no responsible white skinned parent would place their child in the kind of danger we have witnessed at sea.
And yet for the government’s attempt to ‘stop the boats and stop the deaths at sea’ countless lives are being put at risk through the sanctioned mental, emotional and physical torture taking place in these offshore camps. It is an absurd idea that offshore processing is designed to stop deaths at sea, particularly in light of recent events where a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers were sent back to Sri Lanka, despite the current travel warnings for westerners to avoid the destination.
Evidently the government is indifferent to the real threat of rape, torture, mutilation and death; real dangers from which these families were desperately trying to escape. On those dangers, this government is silent.
The vast majority of asylum seekers have never seen the ocean and would not contemplate putting their precious children in small, filthy, overcrowded boats, manned entirely by criminals, on a dangerous voyage to a foreign place with foreign people all speaking a foreign language, unless they were absolutely desperate. Nobody would put their children in that situation unless their lives depended on it.
The human survival instinct is strong, and it is hard wired into every one of us regardless of race, culture, or religion. If your only option for survival came down to fleeing on a boat where you might possibly drown or do nothing knowing that you will be tortured and killed, then we would all fight to survive and to lead our children to safety.
Nobody ever thinks they will become a refugee, but try to imagine for a moment how you would respond if you were forced into that situation.