Asylum-seeker letters campaign revived

Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside has revived a mass letter-writing campaign to asylum seekers in detention.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)


Almost 13 years ago, in August 2001, the then Howard Government denied the Norwegian freighter the Tampa entry into Australian waters with 438 asylum seekers it had rescued.


Eventually, most got to detention centres around the country, but the event marked the beginning of the present unending controversy over Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.


And it led human rights lawyer Julian Burnside to launch a mass letter-writing campaign to the asylum seekers from Australians.


Now, in 2014, trouble at the detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island have brought the issue back to the fore, and Mr Burnside is starting anew.


Ron Sutton has the history.


(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full story)


"Please write again. Please do not forget us. We are human."


It was the letter Julian Burnside has never been able to forget.


An Iranian asylum seeker in the former Port Hedland detention centre in Western Australia was writing in response to a letter from an Australian sympathiser.


It was passed on to Mr Burnside, the Melbourne human rights lawyer who had initiated a letter-writing campaign to asylum seekers after Australia first hardened its policy back in 2001.


"The impact of that has never left me, the fact that we could so mistreat someone that they have to ask, ever so politely, that we would remember that they are human."


Julian Burnside had organised that campaign as increasing numbers of asylum seekers faced increasingly long and dire waits in detention in those early years after the Tampa.


Now, almost a decade after the numbers and the campaign faded away, more than five thousand people again face ever longer waits in detention, and he has begun a new one.


"Now, because Australia is setting out to treat people harshly, especially by sending them to Nauru and Manus, it seemed to me not a bad idea that people make contact with detainees there so the detainees don't think that they've been completely abandoned by the Australian people."


The campaign is designed to work this way:


Anyone interested in writing to the asylum seekers writes the letter to an unidentified asylum seeker and sends it, with a self-addressed envelope, to Mr Burnside's offices.


Mr Burnside, who says he cannot just distribute a list of asylum seekers' names, then addresses it to a specific recipient and posts it.


The recipient can then choose to respond directly to the letter-writer, letting the Melbourne lawyer get out from "in the middle".


Julian Burnside says he has hundreds of names of those on Nauru and Manus Island, but not everyone, and is in no position to know who needs a letter most.


But he says thousands of letters have poured in, just in the opening weeks of the new campaign, with three full-time volunteers only now able to catch up with the backlog.


Various advocacy groups have backed letter-writing programs over time, but Mr Burnside, recently named winner of this year's prestigious Sydney Peace Prize, hopes to add visibility.


"The first time around, the Rural Australians for Refugees were very heavily involved in that. They were a terrific community-based, grassroots organisation that popped up all over the country. And I know that they used to have sort of letter-writing nights, where they would all sit down, write letters to people in detention and post them off."


But do the letters matter? Can they make any difference?


Mohammad Alamein is unequivocal that they do and can.


He was 14 when he and his Iraqi family arrived on the first boat after the Howard Government tried to stop the Tampa from bringing its rescued asylum seekers into Australian waters.


Over a year in multiple detention centres, a young Mohammad Alamein never saw nor heard of a letter from an Australian.


And it mattered.


"I remember, coming out of the camp, I was very angry about the whole situation. I had this impression that everyone in this country treated us exactly the same. And I wasn't aware of people like Julian Burnside who fought for us so hard to get us out of there. So, at that time, I was very angry, and I had problems fitting in, because of all those problems. But then eventually I became aware of what happened, what was going on (politically) at that time, and that sort of got me out of that mentality. I wasn't angry at a person or people. I was just angry in general that some people could just allow something like that to happen."


Letters, he says, could have changed that.


"You always felt very segregated. You felt that everyone was playing mind games with you, trying to ... trying to ... you ... you sort of feel dehumanised, being like that. Sort of, 'No-one's hearing our worries, and no-one wants to know us.' The first few days over there, we had, like, media who came and spoke to us. But then they disappeared, so we always felt forgotten. And then when we had visitors from other agencies or governments coming there, they never really listened to what we wanted to say. They just visited us, saw us, and they just left. So having someone to write you that letter, saying, 'Oh, yeah, we do hear you, you do exist,' would exactly be the sort of thing that ... you're still in that position, but at least you know that someone's listening to you, that someone cares and you're not just ... I don't know, someone who's outcasted (an outcast)."


It is a dozen years now since Mohammad Alamein and his family emerged from immigration detention to begin their new lives in the Iraqi community at Shepparton, Victoria.


Now 27 years old, he has just completed a doctorate in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine and has begun studying medicine at Flinders University in Adelaide.


Mohammad Alamein stopped long enough last month to write a letter to Julian Burnside, specifically thanking him for his part in a scholarship that had helped him get to this point.


But the letter ended with thanks for much more.


"Having witnessed the kindness and the passion of people like you has inspired me to succeed in my life. I wanted you to know how your actions have changed my life and many people like me. My brothers and I have been moved by your humanitarian endeavours and have tried to excel and achieve the best in all we do. This is so, perhaps one day, we could to return to Australia what it has given us."




Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch