Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Matters of Public Interest

Asylum Seekers

1:14 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on behalf of the many Australians in this country who are very concerned by the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers under the watch of our government, our parliament and, indeed, our political leaders at large. For far too long the situation of refugees and asylum seekers has been used as a political issue. It has been used to win elections. It has been used to increase poll numbers. It has become a toxic political debate, where the only winners are fear and hate, and the losers are the moral character of our nation and, tragically, the fate of the refugees, who are people, just like Australians, who are desperate for peace and safety for their families. The treatment of refugees in Australia is not simply a political issue and it should not remain just an issue of political debate. It is a moral issue. It is about how we treat some of the most vulnerable people. Our response as a nation defines our national character. This issue reveals how we want to view ourselves as a nation within the rest of the world.

Many Australians are becoming more and more concerned about the harsh and brutal treatment of refugees. We have seen that very recently as a result of the horrific scenes at the Manus Island detention camp, where one man was tragically killed and many others injured. But we are also seeing it through the eyes of people who work in immigration detention facilities, who see the desperate reality of those who have come to Australia seeking help. We see the response from the Australian people to the issues of children who are detained indefinitely—hundreds and hundreds of them throughout Australia, Christmas Island and Nauru. Increasingly, more and more Australians are questioning the harsh and brutal policies that Australia has in place. They are asking, 'Have we gone too far? At what cost are these harsh policies?'

I want to read a little bit of an email that I received last night. It is from a refugee who is detained in one of our detention centres. His email is a plea for help. He is asking very sincerely for us to hear his cry for help because he has lost all hope. It reads: 'I came to Australia by boat as a refugee. It has now been one year and six months and I've spent all this time in detention in Australia. I was married in Afghanistan but after a year and eight months I had to run away to seek asylum from the Taliban. When I arrived in Darwin I heard that my wife back home was pregnant. I was in detention. My wife's family did not think it would be appropriate to support a family. They therefore decided to abort the pregnancy. For six months I had been looking forward to being a father, only to be told by my wife's mother that the pregnancy had been aborted three months ago. After that I felt so terrible. I thought that my infant's death was due to my inability to be a good father, that it was my fault. I fell into deep depression. I cut myself to punish myself for not meeting my responsibilities as a father. I tried to kill myself, eating 100 tablets. I did this because I could not forgive myself for my infant's death. This suicide attempt was unsuccessful. I was admitted to hospital. I was in the Perth Hospital for one month and in Toowong hospital for three. I am now back in detention. One hope for me was that at least my family back home would be safe from the Taliban. But three days ago my case manager told me that my private information, such as my name, date of birth and prior address in Afghanistan, was released onto the internet to the public. So now my mother is not safe. When the Taliban find this information they will know where I used to live and they will kill my mother as punishment. I am very afraid for my mother. I am really tired of the detention centre, and I do not know what to do. Every day I die 100 times in my head. This is the situation I find myself in. For one year Immigration told me the delay was due to a security check. I am not an animal. I am a human. I came here to seek asylum, to have a life, not to be put in jail. With so much hope I brought myself to Australia, but already I have lost everything. I have lost my child, my wife, my family and my mental health.' That is just one story I received as recently as last night.

Many Australians are wondering, 'Can't we be a better country? Can't we find a kinder way? Can't we have a policy that we as a nation can be proud of?' If somebody comes to our country begging for our help, we have a responsibility to do what we can to protect them and not hinder their journey for protection. Some of these Australians in the last week have started to put their views online and join in campaigns right across the country. I want to read some of the things that people have said. One said:

Compassion is not a sign of weakness. It takes courage to stand up for what is right and it takes courage to search for a policy that will save lives and give safety to vulnerable people. When someone begs for your help, only a coward would turn their back. We are a better country than this.

Another said:

I want to live in a better Australia, a more humane Australia and a more compassionate Australia. I want to welcome new arrivals. I don’t want them alienated and imprisoned and made to feel like criminals. I want our government to accept responsibility and find a kinder way.

If I was in another country and my homeland was riddled with war and violence and the only way to find safety for my daughter was to flee as a refugee, I would take it. I would go. Any of us would. That is precisely the point. Refugees are just people too.

Yes, we need to ensure that we assess people's claims and that we know where they have come from and how best to help them. But let us not let fear, myth and hate dictate a policy that is meant to be about helping people and not harming people. The toxic political debate relating to asylum seekers and refugees in this country has got to the point where the facts do not seem to matter anymore. Over 90 per cent of those who arrive in Australia by boat are found to be genuine refugees who need help and protection. That is a fact. Yet it is not what you hear in the political debate.

It is indeed not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. In fact, it is a right. It is a human right and it is a right because we have proudly drafted and signed the refugee convention. International law is something that we, as a fair-minded, forward-thinking nation, adhere to—or at least we should. Asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat often have to flee in the most disorderly ways. To flee for your life and run, as a refugee, away from the people who are torturing you, brutalising you and threatening your family is in its very nature disorderly. These people do not deserve to be punished for the fact that they had to flee their homelands. What we need to find is a better way to help them without harming them.

Millions of people from around the world have no other choice but to leave their homelands to escape war, genocide and brutality. Australia is a lucky country, but with that luck comes a responsibility to help those who are in need. It seems that now more than ever—as people wonder about how far our policy has gone—our policy is in such a brutal and harsh state. It was designed to break people's spirits; force them to give up hope; force them to give up on their dream of safety, freedom and peace; and force them to go home. Many of these people cannot do that, which is why they fled in the first place.

That policy that is designed to break people unfortunately is doing so. The man who wrote the email to me last night has already tried to take his life more than once and he probably will again, because he has lost all hope. Yet this is in an institution guided by a policy that has been ticked off by this chamber, implemented by the government and paid for through Australian taxpayers money. Our policies are harsh. They are brutal. But they are even more than that: they are an attack on Australia's generous heart. Many of us think we have just gone way too far.

People want a better way. There are other options and there are better ways: adhering to the rules that we have signed up to under the Refugee Convention; treating people with humanity and dignity; and treating people as people and not as animals, as my friend who emailed has described. After the Vietnam War, Australia's political leaders from both sides agreed to be a warm-hearted, generous nation. We offered our skills, our resources and our will to help process and assess people's claims as refugees, as they were coming in in their thousands. We helped those who arrived in boats on the water, we helped people to have their claims for refugee status assessed closer to home and we then brought them to Australia.

That is precisely the type of policy we should be enlisting today. It is not our borders that are broken and it is not our borders that are under threat; it is our humanity and it is the spirit of our nation. We are a country that prides itself on being fair and having a fair go. Well, it is time that we supported the call from many Australians for a fair go and say, 'This brutality is not in my name.' (Time expired)


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