Comment: Compassion adrift - undoing Australia's asylum seeker apathy

Renee Marner (left) and her sister Jodi. Source: SBS

Why are we so indifferent about the plight of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia?

Australia is suffering from a terrible case of apathy.

More precisely, refugees are suffering because of Australia’s apathy. Most Australians don’t sit down and consider human rights abuse or the plight of refugees. Unless you know a refugee or asylum seeker, there is nothing to personalise the issue for you. How are people to hear about it if there’s silence from the government, no external oversight, and no media access to the evermore remote detention centres?

The government’s goal is to perpetuate this state of collective indifference by pushing detention centres away from the scrutiny of the public eye and shrouding its dealings with asylum seekers in secrecy. How do we get the public to be active?

The message needs to be personalised and targeted.

Through my work, I support asylum seekers and refugees. Those with whom I have built a strong rapport have shared their stories of why they fled, their fears for family left behind, and hopes for the future.

My experience with Go Back To Where You Came From enabled me to trace the journey of a Rohingya refugee, from his current home in Sydney, through South East Asia, to Bangladesh and his homeland of Burma. I saw the terrible conditions families in transit countries were living in; I visited the slums they are forced to live in.

One boy was walking to school and a military van stopped him. The soldiers could see that he was from the ethnic minority and beat him until he agreed to work for them. He did hard labour for one week; he was treated like an animal, with no pay and no thanks. Meanwhile, his family didn’t know where he was. He didn’t want to be forced into slavery or beaten again, so he fled – by boat.

A man escaped persecution in his homeland, but has yet to find a permanent safe place to live, in spite of being registered with UNHCR. The transit country doesn’t accept refugees, so his family is living there illegally, waiting for resettlement. The school doesn’t accept his children. He tried to find a better life for his family – and boarded a boat which failed to reach Australia. He now owes people smugglers a great deal of money, and they threaten to kidnap his children.

Getting on an unseaworthy and overcrowded boat to leave your home forever is not a decision that anyone takes lightly.

You have to reach a high level of desperation. People can die on the open sea. These people know that. But they are forced to choose between no hope and a glimmer of hope – which would you chose?

We need a regional solution, and as one of the most developed nations in the region, Australia should take the lead. People in ‘transit countries’, like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, need assurance that their claims for protection are being processed, so they don’t get desperate.

People also need to be afforded safety and a level of protection while awaiting resettlement. Through working with our regional neighbours diplomatically, we can coordinate a more humanitarian response as well as fighting people smuggling. By providing an official path to safety to people in need, it removes the need for people smugglers to profit from others’ misery. Turning boats around at sea is not only cruel to the individuals seeking our protection but places strains on Australia’s relationship with our neighbours, who also claim no responsibility for potential refugees.

The government’s tough stance on border protection does not mention the people - the individuals involved. They want us to see ‘boat people’ as not like us. They want Australians not to feel that it is our responsibility to help.

I believe Australians are better than this. We just need to open our eyes and have a look at what is actually happening in our name. Just a little bit of knowledge can go a long way to counter this general sense of apathy towards asylum seekers.

Or, as I call them, ‘people’.

Renee appears on Go Back To Where You Came From which airs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 8.30pm on SBS.  

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