Australia’s regression on refugee rights

BUENOS AIRES — Nine Iranian refugees sewed their mouths shut in protest of conditions inside the Christmas Island detention centre in Australia this ...

Mar 15, 2014

BUENOS AIRES — Nine Iranian refugees sewed their mouths shut in protest of conditions inside the Christmas Island detention centre in Australia this January. This news follows a UN investigative report last year that exposed the deplorable conditions in Australia's offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The question must be asked again because not enough people are listening: What are acceptable conditions for asylum seekers?
The mental health epidemic spreading in detention centres may condemn refugees to social paralysis. Refugees require more than food and hygienic living conditions. Without programs for children, access to legal advice or information about the asylum process, thousands of detainees are falling to despair and mental illnesses that will make reintegration into society much more difficult. But asking for sanity and dignity seems hopeful, when even basic standards are not met.
Coming from a family of refugees, I am disgusted by how far behind Australia has fallen in terms of human rights and refugees. Here I include an excerpt written by my uncle, who was a refugee from the Vietnam War:
The Australian treat me such that way, understanding with their brain, caring with their arms and loving with their heart. I did not see any discrimination sign at all.
Do you understand what I mean my little niece? This is my real country now, and in this land, this society my next generation can search and found their brighter future if they do it with all of their strength.
Thirty years later, his grateful words taste bitter in light of the asylum seekers now suffering in Christmas Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea. What went wrong in thirty years? The Australian primary school curriculum has aimed to promote multiculturalism as migrant populations from Asia and Africa continue to increase. The murals that I painted with my classmates included the figures of Vietnamese, Indian and Sudanese children. But it is difficult to believe in the multicultural message when you also see such slogans as “Turn back the boats” and articles titled
“Why Australians Hate Asylum Seekers.”
The question of whether Australia should accept more immigrants must be distinguished from the question of whether asylum seekers deserve dignity and basic human rights. Nobody should turn a blind eye to the debilitating conditions in detention centres. Most frighteningly, however, is that many Australians want harsher policies on asylum seekers.
In a poll conducted earlier this year, 60 percent of Australians want the government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers." The antagonism against asylum seekers largely comes from rhetoric about the illegality of boat people — Australia is the only country in the world that strictly enforces the detention of asylum seekers arriving without visas. Amnesty International has accused the debate of distorting the truth: It is not illegal, but a human right, to seek asylum by boat in Australia. Another common argument is that travelling by boat is highly dangerous and leads to deaths on the sea, an argument that allows politicians to brazenly demand “Stop the boats.”
Even with harsh policies, the number of refugees arriving by boat in Australia continues to rise — but of course it is, for there have never been more refugees in the world than in our time. Instead of shouldering the burden, Australia is shutting its doors. As the Abbott government promises to crack down on asylum seekers because it is a “matter of sovereignty,” it is difficult to believe that racism is not involved.
As to the question of whether Australians can stand to accept more immigrants, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection recognized that immigrants are a vital part of the labor workforce.
In July 2013, it reported: “Immigration currently provides 60 per cent of Australia's population growth, but within the next few years it will be the only source of net labour force growth in Australia. Without immigration, labour force growth will almost cease within the next decade.” Speaking from my family's experience — with both parents in the labor workforce — we are extremely grateful for these jobs. Even so, the transition to labor is difficult, especially for refugees who previously had white-collar professions. Here is another excerpt from correspondence with my uncle:
There was once, when I do the cleaning around, I thought about my own fate. I used to have a bachelor degree and working in the university level, and now I was given a simple cleaning job that every one can do, needn’t a bachelor degree. I suddenly stopped working, stood there with a broom in hand, with extremely self-pity and with my eyes flowing with tears without control
I was then trained as a malster and worked in that factory for five years before I went back to university. To do that, I have approached my goal with the thinking of building the first step for my next generation to step up. I am happy with what I have now.
Due to the importance of integration into society, attention to the mental health care of asylum seekers is critically important. Last year's UN report observed that male asylum seekers felt despair and helplessness, sometimes resulting in attempted suicide. The Australian Human Rights Commision recognizes that the approximately 1,000 children in detention are at high risk of mental illness. I fear that without support or access to basic human rights, the future generation of immigrants will have none of the gratitude and respect for Australia that my family does, nor the ability to develop in society.
As the number of refugees from the Syrian crisis rises to about two and a half million, Australia is challenged with the urgent task of accepting refugees and processing asylum seekers in a humane manner. For the Australia that my uncle writes so passionately about and the Australia that raised me, I truly hope that Australians can be more considerate of asylum seekers.
 Joey Bui is an editor-at-large. Email her at
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