Category Archives: Refugees

My Women of the World Festival Melbourne Opening Talk: ‘3 Priorities’

I had a ball tonight delivering this little speech at Women of the World Festival Melbourne Opening (invite only). Was honoured to present alongside MzRizk, Katrina Sedgwick, Aseel Tayah, Inez Martorell, and Heather Horrocks. We were each asked to respond to this in 5 minutes: “As a woman of the world what are your top 3 priorities?” And end with “as a woman of the world, my dream for our future is…”. I love how different our responses were from each other! And that in delivering my own, I actually found a whole new group of comrades who vibed with what I said 🙂

Much thanks to Tammy Anderson for being our charismatic MC for the evening, Karen Jackson for a beautiful Acknowledgement of Country, the West Papuan Black Sistaz for bringing the music, and to Producer Alia Gabres for inviting me to share my thoughts!

 

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SO. When I received the brief for this talk today, it sounded pretty simple … until I remembered how HUGE and complex the world is, how MANY women there are in it, and how diverse our world views and lived experiences are.

Because of this, I feel the need to preface my 3 priorities by stating clearly that I am a Black Pacific Islander, immigrant citizen of a white settler colony. THAT IS THE LENS through which I see the world.

When I think of diversity feminism, because of the hugeness of the world, I tend to focus on what I know and what I can shape – and that is the societies of white settler colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States.

These nation-states have similar histories in terms of genocidal settler violence against indigenous peoples, slavery or coerced labour, waves of white migration, waves of persistent opposition to NON-white migration, and internal histories of struggle to extend civil and human rights to various groups within them – struggles that continue today.

Bearing this in mind, here are my 3 priorities as a woman of the world.

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Priority Number One. Think Globally.

I had the good fortune this year of meeting my hero, scholar, activist and feminist Angela Davis. One of many things I admire about Angela, is her ability to see the connections between social justice and environmental struggles in different parts of the globe; and how they ALL connect to the global economic system, and the decadence of the industrialised world. Corporatism. The profit motive.

Fundamentally, I know that this is CRUCIAL to understand. So my NUMBER ONE lifelong priority is to educate myself, and then others, on these global interconnections. That understanding enables cross border solidarity, strategizing, and collective action, for the liberation of humankind including womankind.

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Priority Number Two. Act intersectionally, locally.

This one is actually a little bit easier for me to get than most; mainly because my own lived experience is extremely intersectional. I’m Black. I’m a Black Woman. I’m a Black disabled woman who lives with a mental illness. And I am on a very low income.

On a weekly basis, I come up against the intersections of various types of marginalization I experience because of structural discrimination against me.

There are a range of structural -isms and phobias built into our colonies’ foundations that INTERSECT to make some people’s lives much harder than they should be. Whilst most women will face sexism and misogyny, focusing only on those issues fails to take into account those other systemic barriers that people who are not part of the power structure, also face: racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, classism, ageism, to name a few.

Then there is the fact that indigenous Australians – like indigenous peoples in other white settler colonies whose sovereignty has never been ceded – contend with pervasive and deep rooted racism, the intergenerational effects of genocidal actions taken by colonisers over centuries, and present day settler violence against indigenous communities and bodies.

Add to that the plight of the truly vulnerable stateless people, asylum seekers and refugees, who are dealt appalling carceral punishments for committing the supposed crime of seeking asylum and a future on our imperfect but safer shores.

For any woman of the world truly concerned with social justice and liberation, prioritizing the ability to think INTERSECTIONALLY and align our social justice organizing with that vision, is essential.

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Priority Number Three. Make ethical consumer and political choices.

We live in a country that is one of the beneficiaries of the global capitalist system, which relies on the exploitation of whole countries and regions, people, natural resources and animals to create products that all of us who have forgotten how to live in harmony with nature, choose to consume. Those choices maintain demand for products. None of us, therefore, are untainted by the injustice built into the system that we are born into. My phone, for example, was created in part with elements exploitatively mined from the Congo and made by workers under indefensible conditions in China.

I am a writer and also a person with a disability; I need technology to work and live, so giving up the phone is not a choice I can make anytime soon. But there are myriad choices we as consumers living in the West make all the time, particularly if you have disposable income.

So my priority going forward is to make sure that my choices, as much as possible, are made consciously. By that I mean, I want to know where my stuff was made, who made it and under what conditions, and what it was made out of. As much as possible, I want to make ethical and educated choices.

And speaking of that, I haven’t yet mentioned the democratic system. Here again, choices must be made, not only at elections, but at all times between them. I want to choose to stay engaged with what is happening in politics on all levels, to remain ACTIVE and support the people and political collectives who champion the values I hold dear, and policies I know to be best for the implementation of those values. If Trump’s ascension to the presidency has taught us anything, it is to stay awake, engaged, and ACTIVE — over 90 million people eligible to vote did not do so, in the recent U.S election.

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To conclude, as a woman of the world, my dream for our future is that we start recognising that DIVERSITY IS REALITY, globally and locally. And that we work hard together to create a world where diverse peoples, diverse women, can live free of structural exploitation, oppression and marginalization.

Thank you.

Exploring Truth through Theatre and Film.

“Bindjareb Pinjarra is devised theatre at its finest. It’s well-paced, with relaxed delivery, attractive larrikin clowning, and confessional intrusions where actors drop character to address the audience from their own experience. This last is effective in illuminating deficiencies in the way we educate young people about Australian history and culture.”

Cameron Woodhead, The Age, June 15

‘Falling for Sahara’ aims to raise awareness about the refugee experience to the wider Australian community, and highlights the important role sport – in particular AFL – plays in creating social cohesion for newly arrived communities in Australia.

Staff writers for essendonfc.com.au

This has been a great week for professional and personal growth, under the tutelage of professionals (I am now being schooled in Playwriting as well as Screenwriting). Seeing these two productions over the past week made it that much better! If you get the chance to see the following play or film at some point, I would encourage you to do so 🙂

Bindjareb Pinjarra, & the Playwriting Weekend

On Saturday I saw Bindjareb Pinjarra, a BRILLIANTLY constructed, entertaining, deeply moving and thought provoking improvised comedy about a massacre (that sounds wrong, but somehow, it totally works). THIS review in The Age (do read it) sums up pretty much everything I enjoyed about the storytelling elements of this production, so I won’t duplicate that discussion here. Instead I want to share the two big questions that emerged from it, for me.

Bindjareb Pinjarra is about the mass killing of the Nyoongar people at Pinjarra on October 28, 1834. This event was recorded by White authorities as the Battle of Pinjarra but mourned by local Nyoongar as a massacre. What is known is that Governor James Stirling led a force to punish the Bindjareb tribe. They took the Aborigines by surprise, and shot indiscriminately for over an hour (shot at people who certainly did not have the weaponry that they did). The death toll, though the subject of much debate and denial, included women and children. These deaths were recorded and passed down in Oral histories on the Nyoongar side, whilst news reports and “official” counts by Whites maintained the numbers were significantly (and conveniently) lower.

Towards the end of the play, one of the actors breaks character to address the audience (this happens at various points in the telling) and poses this question to us: did the Blacks exaggerate the numbers to make the killing seem worse than it was (although any deaths make this event heinous, in my mind), or did the Whites downplay the numbers to make the Nyoongar people look dishonest, stifle their claims that it was a massacre, and thus, legitimize their actions (at least, in their own minds)?

In essence: where lies the truth?

A challenging question, one that I feel completely compelled now to explore in my own writing – not specifically in relation to this event, but in general.

There is another question that is raised in the play that needs to be addressed, for it is one that comes up a lot whenever the topic of historical injustices (particularly as they pertain to Indigenous peoples) comes up.

And that is: why does it matter today?

An infuriatingly ignorant question. People do ask it, though. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed people question why we should “dwell” on these issues. Insisting that we should focus on the “positives” and not judge the motivations and actions of previous generations. And I personally don’t. I don’t judge the actions of previous generations. I judge the actions, and attitudes, of current generations. An understanding that current conditions, prejudices, disparities in health and life outcomes, rates of incarceration, and a myriad of other issues are directly related to the histories that preceded today, is possessed by anyone who has a functioning brain and a basic grasp on the concept of ‘cause-and-effect’. Acknowledging past injustices does not solve the problems, but it is most certainly the first step to healing what is a deep psychic wound that most non-Indigenous Australians (myself included) have the luxury of ignoring.

Similar to the cynicism expressed in regard to the Apology to the Stolen Generations, people who question the use of acknowledging today that this event – and others like it – were indeed massacres, despicable acts of unjustifiable violence, are completely, and embarrassingly, missing the point.

Falling for Sahara & Refugee Week Film Festival

On Monday night I attended the Refugee Week Film Festival at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, a charming old little cinema. The program featured a few short films made by young former refugees/participants in the 2011 Young Media Makers Project (mentored by my Pacific Stories producer Amie Batalibasi) and the screening of the 2011 Melbourne feature film, Falling for Sahara (supported by the Essendon Football Club and directed by Khoa Do). The evident somberness of the audience kind of bummed me out – especially since the theme of Refugee Week this year is ‘Restoring Hope’ (I guess they didn’t get the memo, or possibly read this piece in The Age). I did, however, accidentally end up sitting next to Inderdeep, who wrote the Big Issue article that inspired my Big Issue article, on the ‘About The Messenger’ page of this blog! (yet another coincidence. They’ve been happening with increased regularity of late).

It is important to remind people that ‘refugee’ is NOT a derogatory term, an “identity”, or some kind of subset of humanity. It is a political term used to denote people who are stateless, primarily due to war and persecution, who are in need of a homeland and the protections that come with having citizenship within a nation state. They have the same basic human needs as you and me, the same desires for safety, and are entitled to the same basic human rights. Relocating to a new country from a camp or some other place is, of course, hugely challenging, in many ways. The four short films screened addressed some of these challenges. The first made the point that perspective – celebrating the light side of life – is important, especially if you have been through disturbing circumstances. The second was a documentary, interviewing two young refugees in good ‘ol Footscray (one Asian, one African). Another dramatized the culture shock of a newly arrived refugee, unfamiliar with life in a modern city.  And the last was a well-constructed satirical piece on Australian government policies towards refugees from particular ethnic backgrounds.

The feature film we watched, Falling for Sahara, also showed some of the challenges of being in a stigmatized minority and crossing cultures through the characters of three young men/teenagers of African descent, living in housing commission high-rise flats in Melbourne (that look grand with good cinematography!!!). Directed by former Australian of the Year Khoa Do, it features a script developed in conjunction with the cast of African-Australian actors, and (then) recently arrived refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. The three young men come from different circumstances. MJ is a refugee who experienced camp life in various countries in Africa before coming to Australia. Beniam is a lothario type, and the film opens with him seducing the beautiful Achol. And Ramsy is an aspiring Australian Rules football player.  All three are affected by, in varying ways, a stunning Ethopian girl named Sahara.

I love seeing a group of people in Australia represented on film who pretty much never appear in media (unless presented in a sad/troubling news story or as ‘The Other’). In Falling for Sahara, the three young men are just a few dudes getting on with their day-to-day lives. Beyond the idiosyncracies of specific accents and peer group dynamics, their preoccupations are pretty UNIVERSAL: love and sex (at least for Beniam), belonging, appeasing their parents whilst having some sort of agency over their own lives, and a sense of identity. The way these characters pursue these wants is (obviously) influenced by their background culture (and its expectations of how they should behave), attitudes that they have been brought up with, and the complications that come with having to engage with (and try to integrate into) a dominant culture that contains elements simultaneously trying to reject them. A culture that has its own ingrained attitudes or misconceptions about who these young men are to begin with.

Another thing I appreciate about this film is that it does touch on some pretty sophisticated and complex issues: internalized and external racism, class, collective tradition versus individual choice. They emerge through snippets of dialogue, but are not explored fully.  This didn’t really bother me too much, as by the 15-minute mark it felt to me like a “slice of life” kind of film, a snapshot of the lives of these young people. Once I had decided as an audience member this was what the film would be, I surrendered, and enjoyed the experience of seeing a part of Melbourne we don’t often get to see.

But, if I could change anything about this movie, it would be to give the script a stronger focus on the issues that the film lightly touches on, by making the protagonist of the film Sahara. I found myself wanting to know who she was. Why she just watched as the completely innocent MJ is dragged away by police, who have jumped to the conclusion he is hassling her based entirely on his appearance, not behaviour. How she felt about being married off to a man in Ethiopia. Why a private school educated, modern young woman could not assert her own wishes in the face of thousands of years of cultural tradition.

Obviously, that was not going to happen given football was supposed to be prominent in the film – The Essendon Football Club were supporters of the production, and have been working with the Flemington Housing Estate for a number of years.  But perhaps even that focus – the role of sport in integration – would have been better served by making Ramsay a stronger central protagonist. We don’t find out much about him other than he plays footy, has mixed feelings about Australia, and fancies Sahara. The dominant sport cultures reveal a lot about a nation. I wanted to see how he got along with his teammates – in the film, Ramsy complains his teammates don’t pass to him, but it isn’t clear whether this is true or not. His character is seemingly eager to belong but also uncomfortable with Australia; trying to be in it and pursue a sporting career yet simultaneously dealing with the tension of elements within that culture rejecting him.

I wanted to meet his family. I wanted to see him making escalating and tough decisions to get what he wanted.  Essentially, I wanted more drama.

So many meaty themes touched upon and hinted at, as well as characters we haven’t yet seen on screens. I would LOVE to see them explored more fully in future productions. Given that I am a writer, maybe these are topics I should tackle myself. And I have a suspicion this was the message for me this week.

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Special shout out to Amie Batalibasi and Lia Pa’apa’a who opened their new studio/art space ‘Sunshine Art Spaces’ yesterday!  http://prettywak.com/

Also check out this great t-shirt I scored on the weekend, from FCAC – really fits with the theme of this post:

Available from Footscray Community Arts Centre

Pacific Stories – DVD release

“Eight Australian Pacific Islanders share their stories about the challenges of negotiating Islander culture, language and identity in an Australian context.

With cultural backgrounds from across the Pacific, these filmmakers explore the struggle to keep family connections strong; investigate stories from the spiritual world; celebrate Oceanic art; and contemplate the meaning of age old traditional practices in our contemporary world.”

Pacific Stories, the DVD.

Hello!

Pardon my absence from my home on the internet. I have a number of fun projects on the go at the moment. A number of pots on the stove. A number of juggling balls in the air. I’ll stop now. You get the picture.

I will return with a post when I feel I have some semblance of control over these personal and creative affairs. In the meantime, I would like to promote something that is worthy of your attention. In late 2010-2011 I had the privilege of participating in a project called Pacific Stories (see blurb above).

Produced and facilitated by filmmaker Amie Batalibasi and cultural educator Lia Pa’apa’a as part of the Emerge Festival, and supported by Australia Council for the Arts, Multicultural Arts Victoria and Footscray Community Arts Centre, Pacific Stories was a film project for Pacific Islanders, mainly from the Melanesian region. Basically, we all made a short, factual film.

The films we made were compiled onto a DVD. The DVD recently received a G classification, and the project is keen to sell the remaining DVDs. You can purchase a copy here:

http://www.multiculturalarts.com.au/events2011/pacificdvd.shtml

Pacific Stories was first and foremost a great learning experience, and one that I am sincerely grateful for. Filmmaking can be tricky – the film I ended up with was completely different to the film I actually wanted to make. I had hoped to make a straight documentary without my voice anywhere, but time constraints and, ahem, shy participants forced me to reconstruct my idea into a 5-minute V.O’d narrative.

Such is life. The really great part was getting to see the other participants films, and to see them shown to a packed audience 🙂 That was fun! I wrote about that experience HERE.

Amie and Lia have rather brilliantly kept the Pacific Stories project rolling with Harmony on the Murray, a two-week intensive film project with a group of students at Robinvale P-12 College. Showcasing not only the talent and creative ideas of the young people involved, but the remarkable tutelage of these wonderful women.

Read about it here:

http://pacificstories.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/its-a-wrap/

Some of Amie’s Young Media Makers Project crew will now assist in post-production. The Young Media Makers Project (YMMP) aims to use film as a means of creative expression for young people to tell their stories in a new and innovative way and to provoke thought about young people’s issues amongst the wider community. Attending the first screening of the first crop of films from this project, a number of the young filmmakers had come to Australia as refugees. It was awesome to see their stories on screen, told from their point of view. Thought provoking, and, also, thoroughly entertaining.

You can follow that project here:

http://www.youngmediamakersproject.com

So, that’s that. Back soon – once I learn how to juggle.

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Had a seriously delicious, gloriously cheesy spinach gnocchi for lunch today at The Quarter, 27 Degraves Street Melbourne. Great service, waiters were excellent with my wheelchair needs. Good, good karma to them.

And as stated in last post, I did try Shira’s (In Pursuit of More) recipes! More on food and health and pigging out in a future post. As the owner of one of the most sensitive and irritable stomachs downunder, It appears I am finally – truly – making peace with food. How nice it is to just cook and eat, curl up with book and cup of chai, then sleep 🙂 Simple pleasures.

Mental Health and Mandatory Detention: bad on both sides of the wire

Since my last post, the Gillard Government has been forced to drop its attempts to pass amendments that would have enabled the ‘Malaysia Solution’ to go ahead, and concede that onshore processing in the community needs to be expanded, to alleviate crowding concerns in detention centres. Bridging visas will be issued but details of this new policy direction are yet to be finalised. Furthermore, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher, resigned after it was revealed that he had written questions for the Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to ask him at the Senate estimates committee in May. The resignation is unfortunate, given Mr Asher’s earnestness in getting to the truth about mental health problems in mandatory detention, including calls for an evidence-based assessment of the extent and causes of self-harm and suicides in detention facilities relative to the general population, and guidelines and protocols for preventing and managing them.

In the meantime, detention centres – and the mental health related incidents occurring within them – continue to make the headlines. Last week, a 27-year old Sri Lankan refugee, still in detention awaiting security checks by ASIO, is believed to have taken his own, young life. ASIO has reiterated that it is not its policy, but the policy of the Government, that kept the man in detention.

My heartfelt concern is that we are creating mental illness and suffering COMPLETELY UNNECESSARILY, with a ridiculously expensive, pointlessly cruel and punitive policy. And I’d like to think Australia is better than that.

SELF-HARM: RECURRING THEME, “MORAL CRISIS”

Not every mental health practitioner agreed with Psychiatry Professor Louise Newman when she argued back in March that Australia faced a “significant moral crisis” over our treatment of asylum seekers. Yet the fact is that the number of suicide attempts and self-harm in immigration detention centres is significant, and many experts agree that the conditions which successive Governments have chosen to create – conditions that many Australians support – are exacerbating, if not creating, these problems. If true, a moral conscience would pause to consider whether or not it wanted to be supporting the destruction of people in the name of border security (let’s not pretend it’s about stopping people smuggling – it’s about stopping people from coming here). Particularly when a feasible, safe, cheaper and humane alternative exists for processing the petitions of asylum seekers (see ‘Myth 15’, pg 21 in this document). A moral country would do just the same. I’m glad at least some people are. One doesn’t need to be in favour of open borders (I am not) or people smuggling (a despicable trade in human misery and desperation) to not want to support an ineffective, redneck appeasing policy.

When the (former) Commonwealth Ombudsman launched his inquiry into detention centre suicides and self-harm in July, an average of three threatened or actual attempts occurred across the detention centre network per day. The Ombudsman obtained figures from the Immigration Department showing there were 1,132 instances of actual or threatened self-harm across the immigration detention network in the 12 months leading up to July. In the same period, there was one confirmed suicide; coronial inquests into another five suspected suicides were underway.

Louise Newman, who is also an independent advisor to the Government on mental health in Immigration detention centres, said on ABC Radio: “There are serious suicide attempts usually every night. So it’s a mass culture built around fear and despair. And in fact talking to detainees, they describe that: their preoccupation with death.”

“We have people who’ve experienced torture and trauma, and Government policy states that those people should not be detained. And yet they are.”

Despite former Immigration Minister Chris Evans statement that “Labor rejects the notion though that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response.”

So they are still, by their own definition, continuing an ineffective and uncivilised response. I loved the rhetoric. All I want is Labor to embrace their own sense of decency.

FOUR CORNERS STORY ON MENTAL HEALTH IN “ASYLUM”.

Last Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners program ran this story exposing conditions inside Australian immigration detention centres. The focus: the mental health crisis occurring within it. Reporter Sarah Ferguson spoke to current detainees, former detainees, a former Curtin Detention Centre counsellor (whose identity was concealed, as former employees are not allowed to talk to the media), a former Northern Detention Centre nurse, and Dr Suresh Sunduram of the Mental Health Research Institute, who is one of the few psychiatrists to have visited Curtin recently to report for the human rights commission.

The picture painted by all testimonies is a grim one.

Dr Suresh saw people who were depressed (including some suffering psychotic depression), people with significant post-traumatic stress disorder, and people with psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia). What is alarming, though, is the possible link between some cases of mental illness, and the conditions the people are subjected to, as a result of government policy, Serco internal operations, and inadequate mental health treatment:

“We get people who are, generally speaking, reasonably resilient, reasonably healthy and then subject them to extraordinary conditions where we appear to subvert their resilience and subvert their mental health.” Dr Suresh dispassionately described Curtin as “very akin to a prison.” He raised concerns that inappropriate medicating was occurring, with anti-depressants being doled out incorrectly and on an ad hoc basis.

The refugees interviewed on the program found it difficult to discuss their detention experiences, and pre-detention trauma (understandably).

And in regards to children, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has moved more than 800 children into the community since taking up the portfolio. But at the beginning of October there were still 369 children in alternative places of detention. Dr Peter Morris, of the Australian Medical Association, said studies involving many countries and involving many thousands of children have found that overall between 10 and 30 per cent of children in detention are suffering from depression and between 20 and 50 per cent have post traumatic stress disorder.

BAD FOR “THE GUARDS” & BAD FOR US, TOO.

Back in 2008, it was Four Corners once again that exposed the terrible impact conditions in detention centres were having on Detention Centre guards, and by extension, the Australian community, too. Quentin McDermott told of inadequate training, of people with severe mental illnesses and significantly troubled backgrounds being recruited to guard equally troubled, and sometimes violent, asylum seekers. The mandatory detention policy we have now is softer, but the story is still relevant, as it highlights how detention centre conditions can actually breed mental illness and violent behaviour in both detainees and guards. This is a very human problem.

In July this year, Kieran Webb, a young guard at Curtin Detention Centre, took his own life after being among those who cut down a 19-year-old Afghan detainee who had hung himself in his room. He had worked as a security officer for six months. Fellow guards said he was deeply affected by the death and by the unrest that followed. Though counseling and other support was available to Mr Webb and others, his death highlighted concerns among guards and their union, United Voice, about the role of sub-contracted guards who are not required to undergo the same training as their Serco colleagues.

Paige Taylor reports in this article that the conditions within detention are harmful for asylum seekers and staff too. She also reported in July that Serco had circulated a memo warning it’s guards on Christmas Island that detainees were creating a “self-harm culture” as a bargaining tool, which is certainly telling in regards to the way that Serco views – and hence, deals – with self-harming in detention. Louise Newman said Serco’s memo indicated a lack of understanding about the nature and levels of mental distress in detention centres.

Then there is the issue of incidents of abuse of detainees at the hands of centre staff, which the 2008 Four Corners story also highlighted. That story told how some guards went from mildly resentful to angry racists against Muslims or Arabs – even from afar – under those working conditions. “I yell and scream and swear (seeing them) on TV,” said one young former guard. “I hated them and I wanted to run them over,” recalled a female guard. “I wanted to strangle them. I thought, ‘This is me, a compassionate person turning into an absolute animal’.” And in February, allegations of abuse and intimidation emerged at the Serco-run detention facility at Leonora in remote Western Australia. Out of sight, out of mind…

MENTAL ILLNESS FACTORIES.

I don’t know what it’s like to flee violence and persecution – to have loved ones killed or dispersed, to be stateless, or to be incarcerated for indefinite periods. But I do know what it is to be in psychological and physical limbo, to live with a mental illness, and to live with others with mental illnesses. It is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for most people who have never been seriously depressed, suicidal or wanting to self-harm to fully comprehend what it is like to be imprisoned in that mental state. Speaking to a friend after the suicide of another, my friend was at a complete loss as to what compelled our other friend to take his own life, asking whether if he knew what effect it would have on others, would he have still done it. Yet I, having reached that point myself before, more than once, understood – at that threshold, there is nothing else but the deep, endless despair. Nothing. Thoughts of death dominate, and all you want is for the pain to end. The illness separates you from life and even from those who love you. Its final victory is in claiming your body too.

I drew charcoal sketches during a time of such despair – the psychological equivalent of blood letting. I was not yet diagnosed nor in any kind of treatment. On my own, I drew the pain, hoping that by giving it form externally, I could somehow exorcise it and function like everyone else. A recurring image is that of an emaciated, deformed girl in solitary confinement. This was what my depression looked like, or rather, how it made me feel, and experience life. When I look at it, I remember what it was like to be in my head: behind me, a past filled with pain; ahead, eternal desolation, with no promise and no hope of ever being free before succumbing to natural causes. I desperately wanted out. I was twenty years old.

“I have seen only darkness in life and a dark future ahead.” That was what Jaffer, an Iraqi detainee, said on the Four Corners program last Monday, while recovering in hospital after trying to hang himself. He was not considered a genuine refugee, and had had his third application rejection. Nonetheless, I understood his mental state, and there are many others – who are and will be deemed genuine refugees – who suffer the same. I suppose my ongoing battles with the black dog cause me to identify with them, despite the fact I am an Australian and free.

With this in mind, consider, again, the plight of the detainee: if someone who is not in detention, not stateless, not under threat of persecution can suffer this mindset, how much more would a person suffer in indefinite detention, surrounded by others also afflicted with mental illness? In a veritable petri dish of psychosis?

2010 Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry, one of the nations leading mental health experts, has been recognised for his work in the mental health field and, in particular, his achievements in improving the mental health of young people. During his acceptance speech in 2010, he described detention centres as factories for producing mental illness. Professor McGorry called for an end to immigration detention centres, saying he had seen some lives shattered by the policy.

A common “angry online reader” type retort to claims that detainees are suffering psychological damage under the conditions of mandatory detention is that these “queue jumpers” should be grateful we are sheltering them at all, in “luxurious” accommodation, no less (food and shelter is a luxury, apparently). Such retorts merely reflect the profound ignorance of the people who spit such vitriol, particularly in regards to what mental illness is. For sure, we do need to distinguish between individuals trying to coerce the process of their applications with threats, and mental illness manifesting as self-harm, because mental illness is just that – an illness. People don’t get depressed, disfigures themselves, try to terminate their lives because they aren’t grateful, or want pity, or some such nonsense. When mental illness occurs, it means something has gone very wrong in a person’s head, and they need care. Sometimes, it is the conditions that the person is living under that cause this dysfunction, and the care required involves removing them from those conditions.

The possibility that we are creating such conditions – these “mental illness factories” – in ANY context – be it with our immigration policy, in our military, or any other institution, is a concern to anyone with a brain and a heart.

Everyone else should be on the transplant list.

GILLARD’S PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO LEGITIMISE THE ‘MALAYSIA SOLUTION’: A TIMELINE TO THE PRESENT

In my last post on September 1, I discussed the Australian High Court’s ruling that the Gillard Government’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ was illegal, and speculated as to what might happen next – the Opposition would make political hay out of the failure of the Malaysian deal, the Greens would continue to oppose offshore processing, and block attempts to amend Australian law to make it (and, in particular, Malaysian offshore processing) legal, in the Senate. And this is essentially what is set to happen – when they eventually get the chance to vote down the proposed amendments with the Coalition (unless the Coalition decide to back the amendments after all).

This is roughly what went down over the last month (as I perceived it):

3 September: Abbott revels in Government’s post High Court Decision embarrassment; pushes for Pacific Solution (Nauru, TPVs, “Stop the boats”)… again.

5 September: Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announces 335 asylum seekers left in limbo after High Court decision to be processed on Australian soil. Duh.

7 September: Gillard says “Up the High Court!”, calls for amendments to Migration Act; writes a letter to Abbott to seek Coalition support in both Houses in order to avoid getting cock-blocked by the Greens in the Senate. Abbott says “We may cooperate… but our policy is still better than yours.”

12 September: a small win for Gillard & Bowen – they get the backing of Cabinet and the majority of ALP Caucus (including a couple of Left Faction members) for their (not yet released) amendments. However, Scott Morrison’s mouth an indication Coalition support pretty darn unlikely.

13 September: Abbott withholds previously offered cooperation on legislation amendments to no-ones surprise; says he needs to see the legislation first. Cynics (i.e. one of the voices in my head) suggest he’s stalling for more boats to arrive and Gillard’s approval ratings to drop into the negatives. The Green’s indeed vow to cock-block the legislation as expected in the Senate. Voice in head loves how consistent they are/ still thinks they pray to aliens.

18 September: Labor attacks Abbott, arguing his non-support of amendments is reckless and endangers the lives of boat people. Abbott retorts that amendments are anti-human rights (Abbott did. Many times. Seriously.) Interesting to note that both the big party’s are now attempting to use human rights to argue the relative superiority of their policy positions. Back in Howard’s day no one but Beazley gave a bugger’s toss. Am mildly comforted by this, but know they are still really full of… it.

19 September: Greens Leader Bob Brown says Gillard no longer his BFF with all these crazy amendment proposals she’s coming out with. Gillard and Abbott still in stalemate over the amendments – Abbott wants changes that will rule out Malaysia but give the green light to Nauru. Gillard doesn’t like those changes, for some reason…

Outside the political idiocy sphere, a couple of advocate group CEOs – Asylum Seeker Resource Centre CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis and Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power (KK and PP as I like to call them, as I can never remember their actual names) point out on ABC Radio that there are no legal barriers to processing people in Australia – in the COMMUNITY (oh yeah, they went there). KK does the hard sell, (again):

“One, it’s cheaper. Two, it doesn’t damage people. Three, it actually builds on the potential of asylum seekers to contribute back to the community and four, it ends the politicisation of the issue and allows us to see it for what it is which is a humanitarian issue.”

He says his own organisation can provide a range of services for less than $5 a day for each asylum seeker. Interesting.

PP has a similar message, saying for those in community detention the arrangements have worked well and there’s no reason it shouldn’t extend to everyone (currently, community detention is reserved for child asylum seekers and their parents).

“If people are given the opportunity to work then quite a number of people are able to support themselves and of those who aren’t able to work or aren’t allowed to work, the level of subsistence allowance that’s given by government to people in that situation is lower than any Centrelink or social security benefit and far, far, far cheaper than keeping people in 24 hour secure detention.”

Likelihood that such a policy would ever be adopted? Low.

20 September: My fantastic teenage niece’s birthday! Oh, and Abbott says NO DEAL to Gillard’s governments… yada yada yada… Chris Bowen rejects the Coalition’s alternative proposal to allow third country processing only in states that are signatories to the UN Refugee Convention  (because that would rule out Malaysia, see). Gillard had tried to appease Abbott by proposing new amendments that strengthened human rights protections for asylum seekers but would still allow the Malaysia deal to be revived. Abbott said they were even worse than the original amendments. Bowen called Abbott a hypocrite as Nauru had not signed the Refugee Convention when it was used for offshore processing by the former Howard government. I reflect on the fact these clowns are far more educated, articulate, and highly paid than I’ll ever be, down my Coopers Red, then write an angry haiku about it all.

21 September: Gillard says “Up EVERYBODY!” and sticks to Malaysia Solution/Amendments course like a kamikaze pilot. Amendments introduced in parliament. Opposition plans to blame Abbott for any boat arrivals. Abbott unconcerned, will blame them back. AND THE BLAME GAME BEGINS.

22 September: Debate on amendments, but vote date for bill not set. So the legal vacuum continues, and probably will for a few more weeks as parliament rises for a fortnight break. Opposition says the Government is just delaying an embarrassing political defeat. Scott Morrison says something but I have anti-depressants to take and things to write and can’t be bothered listening anymore.

24 September: Labor warns there’ll probably be a surge in the number of boat arrivals during the two-week sitting hiatus; tries to convince Independent Tony Crook (actually West Australian Nationals MP who sits as an Independent) to side with the Gillard Government. Crook would have voted against the bill if the vote had gone ahead before the hiatus.

7 October: Hear Amnesty’s Secretary-General Salil Shetty remind us all on ABC Radio that Australia’s action on asylum seekers (i.e. mandatory detention) contravenes international refugee law. Yes, heard it all before.

8 October: VICTORIA ALP REJECTS GILLARDS OFFSHORE POLICY AT STATE LABOR CONFERENCE. Garden State, yo. That’s how we do.

They also oppose Gillard’s position on same-sex marriage! Dude!!

Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia national secretary Michele O’Neil described the Malaysia Solution and amendment attempt as a “shameful moment” for the party and was backed by other speakers. Garth Head, a leading member of the Victorian right, spoke against the Caucus resolution but still said the shame was that Australia had failed to take enough refugees (I repeat, Victorian RIGHT).

Next week PM Gillard will seek parliamentary support to revive the Malaysia Solution in order to send 800 asylum seekers to the country for processing in exchange for 4000 refugees. Under Labor’s rules, however, the Government is not supposed to contradict its platform. Something Labor Left has repeatedly pointed out.

This is the reason behind the recent warning from ALP/government senior John Faulkner that the legislation should not be brought forward.

So that’s the gist of what’s been happening with the ‘Malaysia Solution’. For Gillard and her government, opposition outside and opposition within her party. I’m rather nervous about the next federal election. But keep your eye on K-Rudd in the midst of all of this.

In a few days I’ll post about the real stuff – the psychological health implications of mandatory detention for both detention centre inmates and staff, as promised in my last post.

I probably should change the name of this blog from ‘Just the Messenger’ to ‘Just the Malingerer’ – it’s been over a month since that post! I started 2011 with a personal target of 52 posts (one per week). My last post was actually the 52nd post for this year. So, whilst I battled my ISP over account mix-ups and an assortment of telecommunication issues, I thought I’d have a break and attend to the overgrown jungle that is my life. Realised I quite like my jungle, after all 🙂 Must be my tropical blood…

6-1 SMACKDOWN of “Malaysian Solution”. What next?

“The decision also sends a clear message to government that the courts are the protectors of incursions on the rights of individuals by the executive, particularly when that incursion would result in the individual’s safety and security being threatened”

Australian Lawyers Alliance President Greg Barns

If you watched the news yesterday and have been following the asylum seeker issue in the media, you will know that the High Court of Australia yesterday ruled 6-1 that the Federal Government’s planned ‘Malaysian Solution’ – which would have entailed sending 800 asylum seekers back to Malaysia, in exchange for 4000 processed refugees over a four year period – is, in fact, UNLAWFUL. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, and The UN has documented how refugees, migrants and Malaysian nationals are subjected to judicial caning for criminal offences, including immigration violations. In addition, The High Court found that Malaysia was not legally bound to protect the asylum seekers under its own laws, nor under our Migration Act, which makes Minister Chris Bowen’s declaration of the Malaysian deal (issued under his ministerial powers) invalid. The court’s ruling has made current injunctions preventing the removal of asylum seekers to Malaysia permanent.

Unaccompanied minors that come to Australia by boat come under the legal guardianship of the Minister for Immigration. The High Court ruled that written consent from the Minister, in conjunction with international and domestic legal protections, is necessary before such a minor can be sent overseas.

Moreover, the 4000 processed refugees in Malaysia that were to be ‘swapped’ in this arrangement must still be resettled here, as per the agreement. The Labor Government is now feeling the pain of the defeat of their shambolic policy, much to the delight of the Liberal Opposition, who will make political hay out of the Government’s foolishness. And, all the while, the Greens will continue to fight against offshore processing.

Sucks to be you, Mr Bowen. And, as always, sucks to be an asylum seeker.

So is this the death of the Malaysian Solution?

Probably. The Government cannot appeal this decision. But it can try to amend the legislation in the parliament in order to get the Malaysian plan through, or by issuing a valid declaration in accordance with the terms the High Court identified (i.e. setting up a legally binding agreement with Malaysia regarding the treatment of asylum seekers).

However, a new declaration would only work if Malaysia became a signatory to the UN refugee convention and its protocols. And any attempts to amend the Migration Act (so this shit is legal) will likely be blocked by the Greens in the Senate.

What about Papua New Guinea & Nauru?

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru were both utilised in the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution– Nauru more prominently. The PNG government has agreed to reopen our processing centre on Manus Island. Some locals see this reopening as a potential boon to the local economy, and welcome it.  But detractors of a PNG detention centre (like Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young) argue the facility is inadequate due to water supply and health issues, and, more saliently, that off-shore processing primarily serves the purpose of providing an “out of sight, out of mind” political advantage for the Australian Government. Albeit a financially expensive once.

While the Gillard Government focused on Malaysia and PNG as potential processing locations for asylum seekers, the Opposition argued for the reopening of the Nauru facility, closed in 2008 by then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Tony Abbott and Opposition Immigration Minister Scott Morrison visited Nauru in June to inspect the facilities and meet with politicians – a trip derided as a political stunt by the Government.

BUT the High Court’s ruling applies to both Nauru and PNG, too.

In fact The High Court statement said that any third-country we use for processing must be legally bound by international law OR its own domestic law to do the following:

  • provide access for asylum seekers to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection;
  • provide protection for asylum seekers pending determination of their refugee status; and
  • provide protection for persons given refugee status pending their voluntary return to their country of origin or their resettlement in another country;
  • the country [must] meet certain human rights standards in providing that protection.

Any country we use in future needs to meet these requirements. Because of this, PNG may be problematic. For example, the country of my parents, though a party to the refugee convention, has significant reservations around the right to liberty.

So… back to onshore processing/detention?

Perhaps.  After all, onshore processing is still legal under the Migration Act 1958.

We detain people because of this law, because strong border protection is a concept that enjoys widespread support from the Australian public (as the hysteria and anger surrounding the numbers of boats arriving on our shores points to).

Our law requires that unlawful non-citizens who are in Australia’s migration zone be detained. If they are not granted permission to remain in Australia, they must be removed as soon as possible. Those who are found to be genuine refugees are supposed to be released from immigration detention immediately, subject to health and character requirements.

Both the Government and the Opposition see mandatory detention as an essential component of strong border control. But, officially, the Government’s policy is to avoid the detention of children in immigration detention centres (particularly important, after the 2002 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, which you can read HERE).

Thus, there are humane variations of detention. These include:

  • Community detention (facilitated by NGOs). Enables people in detention to reside and move about freely in the community without needing to be accompanied or restrained by an officer under the Migration Act 1958.
  • Immigration transit accommodation (Brisbane, Melbourne, and soon Adelaide). Hostel-style accommodation, with central dining areas and semi-independent living, for short-term, low flight risk people.
  • Immigration residential housing (Perth and Sydney).  For low flight and security risk people in detention, particularly families with children. These are less institutional, more domestic and independent environments. Residents are there voluntarily, subject to meeting eligibility criteria.
  • Alternative Places of Detention. For people who have been assessed as posing a minimal risk to the community.

Immigration Detention Centres are primarily for people who have:

  • overstayed their visa;
  • breached their visa conditions and had their visa cancelled; or
  • been refused entry at Australia’s entry ports.

There are 7 Immigration Detention Centres in Australia (including Christmas Island facility).

The detention of a physically and mentally healthy human being can still have detrimental impacts on that individual. Many of those detained in immigration detention centres may not be healthy – having physical or psychological injuries, after passing through troubled countries and disturbing conditions. The cultures that develop within these kinds of institutions and confined spaces can be equally unhealthy, which in turn can have a detrimental effect on detainees as well as on any staff working in such an environment. Furthermore, the cultures that develop amongst guards & staff in these kinds of facilities can be harmful too – to themselves, to detainees, and to the broader community.

I’ll explore these concerns in my next post.

What of Australia’s relationship with Malaysia?

Seemingly it’s still solid.  Malaysia says it will continue to work with the federal government in tackling the issue of people smuggling despite the High Court ruling.

Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Dato Seri Hishammuddin said:

“We continue to believe that the agreement between our government is the way to tackle the menace of people traffickers in a way that protects the interests of Australia, Malaysia, and above all, the immigrants involved.”

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the Government won’t be asking Malaysia to change its domestic laws. So lord knows what they will try to do next.

Whoever can devise a way by which people smuggling can be tackled without asylum seekers being “made example of”, or adversely affected by the “deterrents”, should be given a billion dollars, knighted, made a saint, and put on our currency.

Go Back to Where You Came From: Post Mortem

Sorry for the delay in posting this, have been preoccupied with other projects and writing assignments for the last two weeks. 

SBS screened the follow up Special Live Event to the 3-episode Go Back to Where You Came From mini-series on Tuesday 28/6.  The participants were assembled in front of a live audience of family members, the resettled refugees who appeared in the program, other cast and crew, and selected viewers. Each was asked to give their thoughts on the series itself and how their participation in it had affected them.

THE JOURNEYS.

This is basically the journey of each participant in Go Back to Where You Came From:

Raye (lives opposite Inverbrackie detention centre, South Australia).

Raye started her journey with bitter hatred towards asylum seekers: “They get given everything; all they do is complain; we’re rolling out the red carpet with a glass of champagne at the end of it.”

By the end, she had bonded so deeply with the family of African refugees who had taken her in at the beginning of the series that one of their sons stayed as a guest in her home. Her entire journey, in fact, was punctuated with tears of sympathy, empathy and compassion for refugees.

Raye’s husband encouraged her to participate in the series, after becoming concerned about Raye’s level of anger and it’s effects on her health. A recent retiree, she had spent 22 years working with intellectually disabled children – work she believed in: “People don’t understand people with a disability. They fear them. Bringing them into a community and trying to get the community to accept them is rewarding”.  Part of her bitter resentment of asylum seekers was her perception that the plight of these people was being neglected, whilst the refugees were being cared for.

She now extends her compassion to refugees, and feels strongly that we should be helping refugees still languishing in other countries and camps. The inherent unfairness of the life most refugees face disturbed her enormously.

Racquel (Anglo Westie from Western Sydney).

At first glance, a living stereotype: 21 year-old Racquel is a high school drop out, uneducated, unemployed, breeding dogs in the backyard.  Living in a “working class” suburb (many newly arrived migrants are settled in former “working class” suburbs) and concerned at all the foreigners populating Western Sydney.

Racquel was aware she was kind of racist, expressed support for Pauline Hanson, and admitted to not liking Africans. In Malaysia, she was alarmed when she saw women with “tea-towels” on their heads.

Her journey was thus the most remarkable: despite dragging her feet most of the way, by the end of the series, she had learned to see the humanity in Africans, and in refugees. In the special live event, she distanced herself from the xenophobic statements she had made, regarding them with embarrassment. Her boyfriend, who encouraged her to go on the program, was pleased that she now appreciates how lucky she is, and has overcome some of her phobias about people and travelling. And a Muslim woman in the audience extended a hand of friendship to Racquel personally, so she could get to know “a woman in a tea-towel”.

Occasionally, reality TV gets it right.

Gleny (happy leftie, part-time teacher and singer).

Gleny’s “character arc” was expected to be the smallest, given she went into it with the view that Australia should be accepting more asylum seekers, and was even willing to take some people into her own home. Her experiences did affect her deeply, though, and deepened her appreciation of what she has here in Australia. Notably, Gleny also felt disgusted at the vitriol that was spewed about Racquel by supposedly enlightened “progressives”.

Adam (lifeguard from Sutherland Shire and participant in Cronulla protests/Riots).

Prior to this, Adam, 26, had lived in Cronulla his whole life and travelled through Asia and Europe, working in Greece as a lifeguard last winter. He was a zero tolerance kind of bloke: “Instead of harboring them, we should just put them straight on a plane and send them back. Don’t worry about giving them a feed or shower.”

By the end of the series, his views had changed significantly – he openly admitted that he would “get on a boat” without much hesitation if it offered him a glimmer of hope for a better life. His trip to a detention centre in episode 1 offered him the first real insight into the psychology of being the Other, the asylum seeker – he got to see up close the psychological desperation that sometimes follows indefinite detention.

Interesting to note, too, that his own brother, a firefighter, was on call the night of the Villawood Detention Centre fire in April this year, and that Adam had predicted the tumult beforehand, after his experience.

Darren (Adelaide man with military background, member of the Liberal Party, practicing Christian).

42 year-old Darren’s surname, Hassan, can be attributed to the fact that his ancestors were in the first group of Muslim families to arrive in Australia in the late 1800s. He is married to and raising a family with a Taiwanese woman, with whom he is also running an import/export business. Darren also believes multiculturalism is generally not working.

At the beginning of his journey, Darren was staunchly against “boat people”, arguing that they are not refugees, but economic migrants.

He is still against “boat people”, but has more compassion now for “genuine” refugees stuck in countries like Malaysia – like those he met during the series. Darren believed that getting on a boat was an incredibly irresponsible thing to do, and that in order to get on that boat, the “boat people” would first have to travel through other countries – any of which they might be “safe” in. He still holds this view.

Roderick (Vice President of the Australian Young Liberals and a former president of the Young Liberal Nationals in Queensland).

Roderick, 29, had never been overseas before this series. His biggest fear was being perceived as a giant lefty, which I guess is why he wore those “Keep Right” and creepy Tony Abbott fanboy t-shirts. His concern about asylum seekers arriving by boat and the ensuing debate was that the focus should be on the issues that drive them here in the first place.

His views had not significantly altered by the end of the series, although he did insist the experiences of the journey had affected him. I got the sense that as he sat in front of that live audience, he was still concerned about being perceived as a giant lefty, whilst simultaneously being concerned about being perceived as an insensitive right wing asshole. Probably why he wore the “Keep Right” t-shirt with the pants that were given to him as a gift in Africa.

I don’t think he is a lefty or an asshole. Just a centre-right financial planner.

TRANSFORMATIONS.

Over the 3-night screening of the series, and afterwards, I did read/hear many viewers in forums and my own conversations express the opinion that “the people” who really needed to watch this series would not be watching it. Raquel’s transformation, however, indicates to me that we need to expand our understanding of who “the people” are. So many people rushed to judge Raquel from the get-go, understandably – she expressed vile, offensive opinions. But I always kind of viewed her as a product of her environment (given her level of education, her 21 years, her narrow life experience, her upbringing) rather than a hardcore, incurable racist ideologue, and was thus not surprised at her turnaround once given exposure to other places, other people, other eye-opening experiences.

If given an education, more life experience and human interaction with those they would otherwise have no contact with, some people who would otherwise wallow in the mental swamp of ignorance, smug judgement and fear could conceivably transcend their beginnings.

An enlightened society would try to facilitate this transcendence…. for ALL its members.

And if you’ve had the good fortune to have been born into a fairly comfortable family with enlightened parents who could afford to give you a broad education, be thankful (for your accident of birth), but also, ask yourself: if you had been born into Raquel’s situation, had the same family, level of life experience, education, socialisation… would you really be drastically different to her? I doubt it. People can change, but they need to be supported and educated to be better. Inside and outside the classroom.

With that in mind, it’s worth remembering who else changed their attitudes towards asylum seekers during this journey: Adam, who was at least self-aware enough to admit to being “sheltered” in the first episode, and Raye, who in the final episode admitted that she had previously had “tunnel vision”.

BOO EMPATHY.

Participant Darren complained at one point during the series that he did not appreciate being forced to feel empathy for boat people. I found it odd that he said this, given the premise of the entire program was to retrace the steps of a former boat person or refugee all the way back to their country of origin. To walk in their shoes…. i.e. to EMPATHISE.

Something that Paul Sheehan objected to strongly in this article  (friend shared this on FB with preamble too rude to reprint here). But Sheehan should note that Darren, having apparently been forced to empathise through participation in a television program he willingly signed up for, still holds the view that boat people are not legitimate refugees (despite the fact that the majority are found to be legitimate refugees).

How could this be? How could someone take an empathic journey and not be brainwashed, as Sheehan might say, with a bleeding heart progressive “let them all in” mindset?

Because what all the moronic knee-jerk empathy haters fail to understand is that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy (although the two are not mutually exclusive).

Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean you eschew your own thinking or analysis. Empathy is about seeing the humanity in others. It’s about seeing yourself in others – including in others who, on the surface, are not like you. Empathy is about understanding where other people are coming from. It doesn’t necessarily mean you condone what they do or agree with the decisions they make. It means you understand the reasons behind those decisions, and, hopefully, it means that you stop branding those people with unnecessary and de-humanising labels.

A reasonable person, having seen the kind of things a refugee has to go through in order to find a life in another country, would probably think twice before assigning a group of people they really know nothing about a crude, derogatory name. And they might think twice before making a statement like this:

“Instead of harboring them, we should just put them straight on a plane and send them back. Don’t worry about giving them a feed or shower.”

IT’S COMPLICATED.

The level of debate about asylum seekers and “boat people” would be greatly improved upon the exclusion of this kind of rhetoric. Empathy and sound policy analysis… and an appreciation for the fact that the refugee and asylum seeker issue is immensely complicated, affecting real, desperate people, is what’s needed in this debate.

And that is essentially what host Dr David Corlett said in his final words to the participants in episode 3 – that this issue is extremely complicated and multifaceted. Each of the participants, some of whom had very black & white views prior to the journey, have a greater appreciation for this fact now.

Hopefully the audience does too.

More on Australia’s Humanitarian program, Mandatory Detention and the Malaysian Solution soon.  

REFUGEE WEEK | Events

This week (19th June – 25th June) is Refugee Week.

The aim of Refugee Week is to inform the public about refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to our society.

In the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 Protocol), a refugee is defined as:

Any person who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

Appropriately, 2011’s theme for Refugee Week is FREEDOM FROM FEAR.

The 2011 Refugee Week events calendar is now online here under ‘Events’. You can use it to find Refugee Week events anywhere in Australia.

My kick-ass and all-around awesome Pacific Stories documentary project teacher Amie Batalibasi is a documentary maker and the Yarraville Community Centre(YCC) Artist in Residence (Melbourne). YCC is having a Refugee Day this Thursday to celebrate the week through art, stories, games, language, film, fun and food. Amie and her Young Media Makers Project(YMMP) youths (some of whom are refugees themselves) will be participating, as well as Adult Learners of YCC from CALD backgrounds, grade 5/6 students from Yarraville West Primary School, and local artist Stefan Gever. The idea is for the CALD learners to share stories orally and visually through creating art with the primary school students, which will be documented on film by the YMMP. VIVA COMMUNITY & COMMUNITY ARTS!

I’ve got stuff on tomorrow but I was going to attend the Refugee Week 2011 Public Forum tonight. Unfortunately it is being held in the fortyfive downstairs GALLERY, not the theatre, which is accessible (mofos). The Forum takes place at 6.30pm. You can RSVP here. Or check out one of the other events by organizations and community groups who do the actual work of supporting refugees trying to build new lives in Australia.  

I’ll be at home under a blanket waiting for 8.30pm…

 ~~~

P.S. Still reflecting on the views of the participants. It’s funny – I can really understand how each of them formed the opinions they have, and yet they are so drastically different from my own. The key question is WHY.

I think there are sociological, psychological and personal reasons why people hold certain political opinions, and have certain visceral responses.  Raye, for example, initially displays very extreme emotional responses that seemingly contradict each other: describing her putrid hatred of detention centre asylum seekers in her introduction (with visible contempt), then later crying genuine tears of sympathy and empathy for her African refugee hostess (with visible pain). Which, by the way, didn’t change her view on “boat people”, but, rather, strengthened her belief that these refugee camp asylum seekers are the people worthy of compassion and help. Anger seems to be an emotion she is very much in touch with at the beginning of her journey, but her desire to challenge herself is admirably sincere.

Contrast that to the personality of the country singer with the universal, “we are all brothers and sisters” mindset. No anger, no desire to punish or blame. Just a desire to assist someone in need of help, an open door, and a complete presumption of innocence. Also, in my opinion, admirable, though many might call her willingness to open her arms and home to strangers naïve or even irresponsible.

To what extent are their different points of view influenced by their upbringing? How much is influence by their life experiences? Their parents/background? Socioeconomic level? Their location/community? Gender/age? Their level of contact with other cultures? Their knowledge of the facts about Australia’s Humanitarian program or refugees worldwide? The media they consume? How much is influenced by their own, individual personalities? And to what extent are they wrong or right?

What I love about shows like this is that they show things aren’t black and white. Facts are facts, stats are stats, but the way people actually form their opinions is never completely objective. Which is why walking in someone else shoes is so effective – it can help us, if we are open to it, recognise the ways in which our own thinking might be prejudiced…. Our own blind spots. And that is an immensely valuable thing.

But you needn’t travel overseas to be challenged, or to learn or grow. Check out a Refugee Week event and you will see… the world is here

Learn about it.

REFUGEE WEEK | SBS’ Go Back To Where You Came From Episode 1

I believed people who arrived on Australian shores and were living in the centre were being given things that disadvantaged Australians deserved more. I hated them with such intensity – it was eating into me like a disease.”

Raye Colbey, participant on SBS program Go Back To Where You Came From, in this article.

 

After getting email reminders to watch this for about 2 months, I made sure I didn’t miss the first episode of the 3-part television series Go Back To Where You Came From, which screened last night on SBS1. The show takes six white Australians of different backgrounds and ages and sends them on the journey of a refugee… backwards. Most of the participants (with the exception of one out and proud pro-refugee, pro-love muso) began the journey being against “boat people” – people who arrive in Australia without visas by boat seeking asylum. Their reasons for being against them seem to vary – I’m sure those reasons will be clarified in the next two episodes. A couple of participants, it would seem, are against refugees and migrants in general. One participant is a self-confessed racist who doesn’t like Africans (she’s the female equivalent of my childhood bully…ah, memories) and another, quoted above, is very honest about her hatred for asylum seekers, and her feeling that they are “taking” something from Australians who deserve it more.

For the first leg of the journey, the participants were split into two groups. One group began their journey with three former Iraqi “boat people” in a small flat in Western Sydney. Naturally, this group included two middle-class men passionately against “boat people”, who shared the view that people who enter the country in this manner are not fit to be here (there is an illuminating visit to a detention centre where the participants see first hand the detrimental mental health effects of detention…I’ll expand on that in an upcoming post). The other group (which included the racist) spent a few days living with a family of refugees from Burundi and the Congo, who have now settled in one crowded, lively household in Albury.

A brief introduction to each participant was given in the first half of the program. Although I am interested in all the participants, particularly in seeing how their prejudices or perceptions are challenged, shot down or reinforced, there was something about Raye’s introduction that really struck me.  Raye, who works in the intellectual disability sector, describes how “idyllic”, tranquil and scenic her home was in the Adelaide Hill’s, before the Inverbrackie immigration detention centre and its detainees became her neighbours. She describes her furious hatred towards them – a hatred provoked, she says, by her perception that those in detention were living it up in government-funded brand new accommodation – with flat screen TVs, she notes – while dinkum Aussie battlers do without. She’s not alone in her views, of course. Which is why I think it’s important to really examine where these sentiments are originating from, call them out, and the falsehoods that feed them. Sure, the program is doing this in an anecdotal way, but in what is often a very de-humanising debate, a little interpersonal learning is needed, IMHO.

Later In the program, after taking a relatively short voyage on what appeared to be vessel similar to that asylum seekers have arrived on in the past, one participant expressed resentment about having “boat people” stories put “in my face” and being “forced”, apparently, to feel empathy for asylum seekers arriving by boat (he was referring to news reports of this issue in the media). Granted, the man was cranky after a few sleepless nights on what all the participants thought was an unseaworthy vessel. Nonetheless, I find his comments, combined with Raye’s, very telling. That sentiment of “these people are disrupting our lives” seems to be a softer version of the racist woman’s rather blunt assertions about Africans “taking over”: “You go to Blacktown now and it really is black town… I’m probably the only white person here.”

It seems like people who hold this sentiment don’t want to know about refugees, don’t want to think about refugees, don’t want this “problem” to exist in their world or to see or hear about these people in their lives. They just want them to go away… with their complications, and real world problems, and differences. They want the country to be a comfortable gated community reserved and protected for people like themselves.

So to then watch some people who likely hold similar sentiments, either consciously or unconsciously, be confronted with truths they’d probably rather not know about is…compelling television. You genuinely don’t know what is going to happen – these are real people, prejudices run deep, and the issues that are being confronted are so emotive for all involved. There’s no guarantee anyone will change their mind or get along. I’m at least thankful to the participants for being bold enough to put themselves out there and be honest about their views, and opening themselves up to the possibility of having their opinions exposed as just plain ignorant.

Which, I suspect, we will see more of in episode 2 – screening tonight at 8.30pm EST on SBS1. More about episode 2 (and Australia’s Humanitarian Program) soon.

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