For Assadulah’s Sake…

Image credit: The Australian

Assadulah is a 15 year old boy who lives imprisoned in a detention centre on Christmas Island after escaping from the Taliban in Afghanistan. He lived in a Pakistani camp for 10 years.

We seem to have forgotten why people flee the land of their birth. As Pope Francis says, “we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live”. The Refugee Convention defines a refugee as an individual who is fleeing persecution due to race, religion, nationality or political opinion. The simple promise at the core of the Refugee Convention is to “protect not punish refugees”. But punishing refugees is what is happening in Australia today.

When desperate people arrive in Australian waters they are faced with the possibility of their boat being turned back, being indefinitely imprisoned in detention centres or sent to Papua New Guinea, Nauru or Manus Island. Australia signed the Refugee Convention in 1954 and 60 years later our government is ignoring it.

There is a tragic belief in the majority of the community that asylum seekers arriving by boat are illegal. These people are being cast as criminals for doing nothing worse than asking for protection. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.” Under international and Australian law, boat people are not illegal. So why does Tony Abbott parade around calling these refugees “illegal maritime arrivals”? The only illegals in this country are the thousands of Westerners who overstay their visas each year.

Conditions in detention centres in Australia and offshore are inhumane and torturous. Thousands of women and children are being held in detention centres. Has the Australian government has forgotten that human rights are not optional? The UN reports that camps fail to meet international standards of treatment and offshore processing centres are more focussed on sending asylum seekers home than promoting “safe, fair and humane conditions.”

Asylum seekers as young as 12 in detention are referred to by the boat number they arrived on rather than their names, reminiscent of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in World War Two. Dehumanisation at the extreme.

7,362 asylum seekers have been reported to self harm and even go to such lengths as to sew their lips together in protest – making the clear statement that their voice and freedom has been suppressed. Action must be taken to improve the appalling conditions in detention centres and to treat these suffering people as human beings.

Compared to other nations, Australia’s policy is shameful and embarrassing. The processing of asylum seekers in detention takes significantly longer than in other countries; taking 5 days in Europe to process each new arrival compared to months, even years in Australia.

And we don’t process even half the number of these other countries, with Britain taking around one asylum seeker for every 600 people and Tanzania taking one for every 75. Australia takes only one refugee for every 1600 people each year.

Between August of 2012 and July of 2013, no asylum seeker claims were processed in Australia. Developing countries are bearing the brunt of the problem, hosting as many as four-fifths of the worlds refugees.

Australia comes 47th on the list of host countries and ranks 91st relative to national wealth according to the UNHCR report. It is shameful to continue offloading this crucial responsibility to developing and third world countries.

The treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government has become a deplorable and humiliating political game. The last election saw major political parties engaged in a competition to outdo each other in who had the harshest policy towards asylum seekers. But since when, politicians, has it been right, just and humane to juggle with peoples lives and rights for political advantage?

The harsh language used by the Australian government such as “border protection”, “Operation Sovereign Borders”, “queue jumping” and “illegal maritime arrivals” is calculated to force the public to believe that boat people are undesirables, people to be feared and people we need to be protected from. Eradicating the use of this erroneous and deceiving language is the first step that needs to be taken towards creating a positive attitude within society and developing effective solutions.

It is pivotal that off shore processing is discontinued and time spent in mandatory detention upon arrival is capped at one month for health and security measures.

And asylum seekers who are already in Australian communities on Temporary Protection Visas must be allowed to work for better integration and contribution to the community.

It is crucial that the Australian government releases more information about the current asylum seeker policy and the plan to “turn back the boats”, as today I could find more information in the Jakarta Post than any Australian newspaper.

The current asylum seeker policy has huge diplomatic and ethical costs and is about protecting our comforts, not their safety. The Australian government must establish an effective policy in which refugees and asylum seekers are treated as human beings.

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