Today I need to talk about something off my usual topic. Because something so unbelievably shameful has happened in my country in the past 24 hours and I need to speak up.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, announced a new “hardline approach” to refugees arriving by boat in Australia. This new “hardline approach” means that people arriving by boat and without a visa will be sent to Australia’s Manus Island facility in Papua New Guinea for assessment and, if found to be refugees, they will be settled in Papua New Guinea.
I find it so hard to put into words the shame, disgust and despair I feel at this announcement. Today I am deeply ashamed to be an Australian. I’m ashamed that our political leaders would behave in such an inhumane manner to vulnerable people who have every right to seek asylum in Australia, vulnerable people who are fleeing for their lives. I am ashamed of the lies that have been spread by both those in politics and the media around “boat people”.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that Papua New Guinea (PNG) is not some kind of rosy haven for people. It is not a safe place for people who are already fleeing their own countries of origin for the very same reasons they are likely to be targeted in PNG. Religion, gender, sexuality, political beliefs etc. Our own government has issued a warning against travel to PNG because of the high level of crime, violence, disease and risk to women. This is not some safe little nook we are tucking these already vulnerable people – it is a poverty and crime stricken third world country. Australia even offers asylum to Papua New Guinean women because it is not safe there for many of them.
There have been so many lies spread about refugees in the media and by politicians. Many of them are debunked here. This slogan of “stop the boats” as played as a fight to end people smuggling, a dangerous and inhumane practice that preys on desperate people by charging them large amounts of money to be smuggled into Australia by boat. I agree, people smuggling is a deplorable trade and needs to be addressed, because desperate people die at the hands of these people smugglers. But don’t think for a minute that this is what “stop the boats” is really about. It is not punishing the people smugglers who profit off of the desperation of refugees at all, it’s punishing the victims. People who have nowhere else to turn and cannot remain where they are, who are forced into using people smuggling to attempt to get themselves and their families to the safety of Australia. This does not stop people smuggling at all, it simply forces it further underground, makes it more dangerous for the refugees and makes more money for the people smugglers.
I am not fooled for one moment that this “stop the boats” rhetoric is about stopping people smuggling. It’s a catchy dog whistle for the media and politicians to stir up the ignorant, the bigoted, the xenophobic of Australia. The people who respond to the “stop the boats” dog-whistle don’t care for one moment about stopping people smugglers from profiting from refugees, they only want to keep people out of their country who they deem as unworthy. They don’t care about stopping the thousands of people who simply don’t go home after having a holiday in Australia and decide to live here permanently because our quality of life is better than in their home country, because those people tend to be white people. But those who are fleeing for their lives and are the tiny number that attempt to get here via people smugglers tend to be brown people, people of religions other than Christian and/or people who do not speak English.
Australia through most of my life has been known as The Lucky Country. And yes, while we’re doing it tougher lately than we are used to, we are still extremely lucky. We have weathered the global economic crisis better than almost anywhere else in the world. We have a lot of privileges that many other places in the world doesn’t enjoy. The climate is good and we enjoy most of the produce we need grown right here in our own country.
But we also have thousands of kilometres of empty space. We are mostly affluent (though we could look after our own vulnerable people better, but that is a topic for another post) and we have political, religious and gender freedoms that many other places around the world do not have.
We also have an ageing population that cannot sustain itself. The very people most complaining about the number of “immigrants” Australia has are those who are going to complain that there are not enough people doing the work that it requires to maintain the country. We need more people with skills of every kind, and more people who will have children who can be given an education to grow into skills we need.
As I do every Saturday morning, I sat in my local park and had brunch. I looked around at the people sharing the beautiful park. I heard several languages floating across the green, coming from families feeding the ducks and turtles, showing their kids the eels swimming in the lagoon, enjoying coffee in the gazebo. I saw every shade of skin and mode of dress I can think of enjoying that lovely park. And I thought about all those people who were able to come here 10, 20, 30 years ago or beyond, who now live here and are part of our community.
I thought about my friends and colleagues who came here as refugees. From Vietnam, Poland, El Salvador, Eritrea, Iraq, Croatia and many other places. I thought about their kids, who I have watched grow up from littlies running around to be young adults today who are getting an education, or who are already in the workforce. I thought about what lovely people these kids have grown up into, how they all have such strong values of family, work ethic, appreciation for what they have. I thought about my friends and colleagues who have enriched my life with language, music, food, and other culture that they’ve introduced me to as I’ve known them over the years. I thought about the number of great artists, musicians, writers and thinkers that have come from refugee backgrounds. I thought about these people who contribute to making Australia such a strong, prosperous nation. I’ve worked along side so many hard working people who came here as refugees, or are the children of refugees, who have participated in building communities that support each other and better the world they are in.
These are the kinds of people who we have just slammed the door in their faces. Those who are fleeing their own horrors and looking for us to open our doors to them with compassion and humanity are the people who 10, 20, 30 years down the track will be contributing the way the refugees of the past are now. These are the people whose children will get a decent education and become the doctors and nurses and teachers and engineers and librarians and farmers and architects and you name it along with Aussie born kids and make Australia strong and productive. These are the people who will bring wonderful new foods, wonderful new art, music and writing, great thinking and learning with them.
Yet we as a nation have just slammed the door in their faces and told them that they are unworthy of joining us. We have sent them off to further desperation and violence, yet we tell them they are not worthy of joining us. How wrong we are. We as a nation are the ones who are unworthy.
We need to make ourselves worthy of the greatness we have achieved, and have the potential to achieve again as Australians, regardless of whether we were born Australian or became Australian. We MUST NOT be silent about this shameful declaration made by the Australian government yesterday.
I urge every one of you to speak up, no matter in what small way. Whether it is sharing this post or other articles speaking up about the inhumanity of the government’s decision on your social media, participating in this campaign to contact your local Member of Parliament, writing your own post or letter to the media, participating in any of the rallies or walks that are springing up around the country, or simply just calling out the ignorance and lies being perpetuated by the people around you in your life. If nothing else, put all of the political propaganda you receive in your junk mail in an envelope and send it to your local Member of Parliament marked STOP THE LIES. Hell, even put it back in the post box (mark it “Return to Sender” in big bold letters) and let Australia Post deal with thousands of returned junk mail. Even if they’re just recycling it, they have to report back to the political parties (who pay for them to distribute the propaganda) how much of the mailers “failed”. Can you imagine the mess they’d have if we all did that?
You may think that you can’t make a difference. But you can, and no action is too small. The more of us who work together to speak up the more our voices accumulate volume. Sign a petition. Share some articles. Tell people that you find xenophobia and ignorance unacceptable. Just don’t be silent on this. Silence tells politicians and the media that you agree with them.
Challenge “stop the boats” with STOP THE LIES.