I attended a talk on Wednesday night by Jessie Taylor. Jessie is a barrister, refugee advocate, documentary maker and foster mother… At 27 Jessie travelled to Indonesia in 2009 for a documentary about the countless stories of refugees. There she had a chance encounter with a 14-year-old Hazara youth in an Indonesian jail. Jessie recalls how he looked straight at her and begged, “Can you help me?” but she knew there was nothing she could do. In a moment of compassion, however, she scribbled down her phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If you make it to Australia, call me and I’ll look after you.” She is now his foster mum. She has been featured on Australian Story and is now using her documentary,“Between the Devil & The Deep Blue Sea,” to tell the story of refugees and asylum-seekers forced to flee their homeland in search of a better life.
Jessie began her talk giving us a bit of her background being brought up in a pro-Liberal party family. She had never questioned her parents’ stance against asylum seekers until three events: Tampa; SIEVX and the Children Overboard, forced her to take notice and begin to look into the truth of asylum seekers. The facts she began to become aware of changed her thinking completely, especially when she started to visit detention centres. She discovered, for example, the high infant mortality rate in Nauru and how this year there were 6 pregnant asylum seeker women sent there, the result of which is that 4 have lost their babies due to lack of medical facilities. The facilities in the Nauru detention centre, or lack there of, mean that there are 6 port-a-loos for 600 people. She also discovered that, while in the past asylum seekers on first landing on Australian soil were given a standard health check for HIV, Typhoid, Hepatitis B and Syphilis, this is now no longer the case. Because it takes a bit of time to get the results of such tests, and the government wants them dispatched within 48 hours, they now export them without any health check, increasing the dangers of disease in the PNG detention centres.
In terms of the legality of the treatment of asylum seekers by our government, Jessie pointed out that the right to seek asylum is not a crime and is enshrined in our domestic law as well as international law. So, when politicians use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ to describe asylum seekers, this is pure vilification and is legally incorrect. She explained that the legal origins of mandatory detention comes from the wording of the Australian immigration act that states that any person entering the country without a visa must be put in detention until they have either received a visa or are removed from the country and sent back to their own. A problem has thus developed legally for asylum seekers of Palestinian or Tamil origin, because they have no actual recognised country. The tragic legal ramification for such people is that, according to the current law, they can be kept in detention for the rest of their lives.
Jessie spoke to us of the plight of the Hazara people who seek asylum in Australia. The Hazara are a Shiite minority in Afghanistan, and the genetic descendants of the Mongols. As such, they are the targets of persecution by the Taliban who are Sunni. She told us the tragic story of 2 Hazara children who were returning home from school, in Afghanistan, when they were stopped by a Taliban checkpoint. The Taliban asked them how they held their hands when they prayed to Allah. The children demonstrated the gesture used which gave away their Shiite identity. The Taliban asked the children to take them to their home, and then slaughtered them in front of their parents. Jessie explained that these were the reasons the Hazara leave Afghanistan. They usually go first to Pakistan where there is a Hazara community where they hope to find refuge. Unfortunately they are also a minority here and can continue to experience persecution from the Sunni majority and the Taliban. Such pressures lead them to leave and seek asylum elsewhere.
Indonesia is a cross roads for these refugees. When those seeking asylum end up in Indonesia they have 3 options:
- Go to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to officially register as a refugee. They are then processed and wait for a country to accept them.
- Go into hiding in Indonesia
- Get on a boat to Australia.
For the Hazara asylum seekers, Indonesia is a very strange country indeed. Afghanistan is a land-locked country and very barren. Indonesia is tropical and for many of them it is the first time they’ve seen the ocean. Going on a boat is a last resort. Seeking to go through proper channels means that most choose the first option of registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as refugees. The reason they become desperate enough to get on a boat is that those who register with the UNHCR are resettled in Australia at the rate of 35-50 a year. There are currently 6000 refugees registered in Indonesia and waiting acceptance by Australia. This means, given the rate of acceptance and the numbers of refugees waiting acceptance, that a person could wait 40-60 years before being accepted.
Jessie visited the detention centres in Indonesia that they lived in while waiting to be accepted by Australia and was appalled. Many were housed in a converted grain storage warehouse that was infested with mice, insects and snakes. The water supply was contaminated resulting in dysentery. While Jessie was there, they pulled out a dead cat from the water supply tank. The residents were subject to disease, had no rights to medicine, to find work or go to school, and if they went out on to the street they risked being picked up and detained by the police and beaten. (Indonesia is not a signatory to the convention on refugees). Jessie’s interviews with asylum seekers in Indonesia reveal that no one goes to Indonesia to get on a boat to Australia. They are fully aware of their vulnerability to being exploited. Indonesia is the threshold to Australia. They go there to register and wait to be processed and accepted by Australia.
The most misleading aspect of our politician’s rhetoric, in Jessie’s opinion, is the claim that our government’s policy not to accept asylum seekers, thus creating a deterrent to their coming to Australia by boat, might save lives. The truth, she said, is that until people fear the violent treatment by Australia as much as they fear the Taliban, the boats will continue to come. When politicians or the media argue that we might be overwhelmed by the boats, the fact is that Australia accepts 210,000 new migrants a year, only 13,000 of which are refugees.
A further concern for Jessie was that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is removing all agencies that deal with asylum seeker claims meaning that these claims all have to now go to the high court, which was so overwhelmed by the claims that these other government bodies were set up to deal with the backlog.
Interestingly, she pointed out, people in Nauru and PNG have asked why the asylum seekers sent there can’t have access to their schools and towns, but the Australian government doesn’t want this. These people from PNG, whom Australia looks upon as human rights abusers, have a more welcoming and compassionate attitude to asylum seekers than we do.
To put things in perspective, the UNHCR currently looks after 25 million refugees worldwide. Their annual budget to do this is $3.5 Billion dollars. Australia spends $2.5 billion dollars to lock up a few thousand-asylum seekers.
I asked about Asylum Seekers going directly to the Australian embassy in Indonesia, but the response was that the embassy would not see any refugees who try to directly approach them. I also asked why New Zealand could process refugees in 4-6 days while it takes us so long. The answer was that in reality, at worst, it would take a few weeks. The length of time taken to process asylum seekers by Australia is purely a form of deterrent.
When Jessie was asked what we could do as concerned citizens about this issue, she responded that advocacy needed to be done by a 3-pronged approach:
- Walk alongside refugees – either visit them in detention centers or walk alongside refugees who are here under various categories of visas for moral or physical support (this can be done through groups such as St. Vincent de Paul Society or others). They need us to fight back against the voices of exclusion that they hear all around them.
- Try to change public opinion (which Jessie acknowledges is hard to do). We need to get informed about the facts, like the fact that there is no cue in Afghanistan to get to Australia. Such infrastructure does not exist and asylum seeking is the only way. A resource that could be used to help with what to say to people in public settings is Amnesty International that offers great programs and workshops to help develop skills in how to respond or talk to people when you find yourself in a setting where asylum seekers are being put down or vilified.
- Write letters to Canberra – the message from Canberra is that their constituents have stopped writing to them about this issue. Public opinion matters, and with a new Labor leadership this might be a golden opportunity to bring about change in the policies of that party.
When asked what Jessie felt needed to be done to alleviate the situation, she responded that what is needed is for people to be processed at a reasonable rate in Indonesia. Apparently the UNHCR deliberately slows down the process to stop people falling into despair. If you tell an asylum seeker that it will take 6 months to a year to process their claim for refugee status, that is 6 months to a year of waiting in hope. If you process them in a few weeks, they have a piece of paper to say they are now refugees and on a waiting list to be accepted in Australia. When the months go on and on without acceptance, that is when despair becomes a problem.
One of the most poignant moments in her presentation was when Jessie told us that she approached Malcolm Fraser about the issue and asked him why are politicians on both sides of politics so horrible to refugees. She was hoping he would give some studied historical reasoning. Tragically his answer was, “Politicians on both sides are willing to play on racial fear to win votes.”