Comment: A lot of Australians do care a hell of a lot about asylum seekers

Protestors outside the Immigration Department building in Brisbane, Wednesday, February 19, 2014. (AAP)

As the plight of asylum seekers continues to dominate the headlines, there's a lot of talk that we are "quietly accepting" of their treatment. That's not true and that's not fair.

I find this whole issue of asylum seekers and offshore mandatory detention facilities enormously upsetting. More so in light of the ongoing violent protests on Manus Island. So too, I am dismayed by the lack of press access, the sacking of the independent health advisors, the troubled reports from detention staff, and the government’s strange and disturbing graphic advertising campaign.

It all makes me angry and frustrated. I don’t know how to express my feelings of sadness at the plight of people denied refuge in our country, and fury with the government (successive governments, in fact) in establishing and maintaining these barbaric detention facilities.

Offshore immigration detention centres (IDCs) are tightly controlled, supervised facilities. Kids on Christmas Island have no toys, playground or access to education. Adults have nowhere to go, nothing to do and no future to look forward to. They are political pawns for an Australian government that couldn’t care two pennies about them.

There have been several tirades recently about how ‘we’, the collective Australia evidently don’t care enough about asylum seekers and that we are “quietly accepting” of their treatment.

That’s not true and that’s not fair. Such rhetoric, though well meant and obviously reflecting the views of some people, undermines and undervalues the tens of thousands of Australians who do care passionately about the fate of people seeking our help. It grates against our Australian spirit of a ‘fair go’, our empathy and our generous spirit.

Because these are Australian who also privately donated more than $9 million to the victims of typhoon Haiyan, or who contributed hundreds of toys to Greens Senator Sarah Hansen-Young’s toy drive for children in detention in Nauru.   

So too there is unprecedented interest in and support for asylum seekers on social media networks. For example, the analytic search website, Topsy, shows that the last 24 hours has seen 3,400 tweets about ‘manus’ and over 19,000 tweets on ‘asylum’ in the last month. Trendsmap shows it to be the biggest trending issue in Australia.

Opinion polls consistently report that most Australians support harsh penalties against asylum seekers arriving by boat. It is tragic that so many Australians can be supportive of the suffering of hundreds of men, women and children in these camps.

And it is starkly in contrast to our ideals of multiculturalism and mateship, and to the way other countries see us. Australia has a history of welcoming refugees, from Europe, Vietnam and Cambodia in particular, who arrived fleeing conflicts in their own countries.

It is also unrealistic to expect that Australia can deter asylum seekers while the rest of world takes them on. It is actually developing countries, far poorer than us, that take on the majority of asylum seekers. Why does the government think Australia should be exempted from doing our civil, humane duty?

There are more than 45 million refugees worldwide, including one million asylum seekers. The 1,340 asylum seekers on Manus Island and 944 on Christmas Island are a drop in the ocean. With so much conflict and inequality in the world, these figures will only increase in the years to come.

Offshore IDCs are hugely costly to run at an estimated half a million dollars per asylum seeker per year. The violence on Manus island show that Australia’s policy is unpopular with PNG locals. Holding people indefinitely, without even processing their claims, as is the case in Manus Island, violates Australia’s international human rights obligations. And subjecting children, and especially unaccompanied minors, to long-term detention is vastly detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

Australia has one of the strictest detention policies in the world. In the US, the UK, Canada and Denmark, asylum seekers are housed in the community while their claims are being processed. They cannot work but they do live in a town or city. In Sweden, they are given financial and accommodation assistance, and are allowed to work if their claims take longer than four months to process.

They are not banished to a remote island to live in makeshift camps surrounded by barbwire and monitored by private security firms. They are not detained indefinitely with no hope of settlement in Australia, even if their refugee claims come through.

For god sake, give the asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore IDCs a clean shower and a football to kick around the place. It’s no skin off anyone’s nose and it might just avoid a riot.

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance writer based in Canberra.

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