This week is World Refugee Week, with the United Nations World Refugee Day observed on 20 June each year. This is a day on which we can all stand with refugees and show our support for the millions of people who are forced to flee their homes and homelands because of violence and persecution. Today we also salute their strength, courage and determination. It is a time to reflect on the plight of a record 68.5 million people displaced from their homes.Time magazine reported that this means a person has been displaced from their home every two seconds. It is well beyond time to show solidarity and compassion, and—much more importantly—to take meaningful action to provide protection and safety and a place refugees can call home. It is on our shoulders to do so, to open our hearts and minds and to share Australia’s boundless plains when refugees and asylum seekers come to our shores seeking safety. In his message on World Refugee Day the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said:
No one becomes a refugee by choice; but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help.
Sadly, we all know that Australia is far from that place at the moment. Governments, whether Liberal-National or Labor, have flaunted and violated international laws through their treatment of asylum seekers for years. The two major parties may disagree on other matters but they have formed a tight and unbelievably inhumane partnership in their support for offshore imprisonment of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. As I speak in this Chamber there are 142 children still being held on Nauru. As I speak, Ali, a 63-year-old Hazara man detained on Nauru, is dying from advanced lung cancer. Hundreds of doctors have signed a petition calling on the Government to bring him here for comfort and palliative care, but our heartless Government refuses to listen, even though he has been accepted as a legitimate refugee.
Refugees who are still in offshore detention in Manus live in deplorable conditions affecting their physical and mental health. Twelve refugees and asylum seekers have died while in Australian immigration detention on Manus Island and Nauru, some of them through self-immolation. Two people have committed suicide in just the past two months. Their names are Salim Kyawning and Fariborz Karami. Salim was a 26-year-old stateless man from the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar. He had been in detention for five long years. On 22 May it all just became too much to bear. Salim died from severe head injuries after jumping from a moving vehicle on Manus Island.
We lost Fariborz Karami to suicide just last week. Like Salim he was also 26 years old and had been in detention for five years. On 15 June his body was found by family and friends inside his mouldy tent in camp No. RPC3. Just two days before his suicide, his mother had written a letter pleading for help for her son, one of the many letters she had been sending to Canstruct International, the Brisbane company that runs the processing centre under contract from the Australian Government. I thank theGuardian Australia for embarking on a project to record these lives lost in offshore detention and for the work of journalists who have defied this Government’s censorship and blackout on Manus and Nauru and continued to report on the horrific reality of our offshore detention camps. Just yesterday in theGuardian Saba Vasefi and Ben Doherty told Karami’s story in detail. In her letter before his death, this is some of what his mother wrote:
Due to repetitive darkness of this life, my kids are depressed. I also am emotionally and physically in a fatal stage of my life. Many times, I have asked for your help, but, instead of assisting me, each time you have wounded me more. Again, you have not answered me. You have not taken my request seriously. If my kids and myself get worse, you will be responsible.
There is no denying that Australia is responsible for this trauma and for these deaths. A significant number of women have been raped, sexually abused and bashed and have had to suffer through other degrading acts perpetrated against them after they were sent to offshore detention by successive Australian governments. This was brought to our attention by Wendy Bacon, Pamela Curr, Carmen Lawrence, Julie Macken and Claire O’Connor in a report published in 2016. Who can forget the treatment of a pregnant woman in 2017 who was exposed to significant harm and even death when Peter Dutton refused to have her flown to Australia for much-needed medical treatment? It was only after intense pressure that the woman was allowed to come here to deliver her baby when she was 37 weeks pregnant.
It was not long ago—only in 2014—when a refugee died of sepsis because his transfer to Australia was delayed after resistance from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. What had started with an improperly treated minor infection on Manus eventually led to his death because Australia would not let him in to be treated. It is not possible to know all of this and not think it is inhumane. How can we know the harm our refugee policies are perpetuating and still persist with policies that continue to inflict these atrocities in some misguided notion of “stopping the boats” or supposedly “protecting our borders” or by stopping certain “types” of people coming to Australia. This is nothing but shameful.
It is shameful that a rich nation like ours, the lucky country, is not willing to share and help only a few thousand vulnerable people who come to our shores seeking safety. Instead politicians of all stripes are busy making “examples” out of people in offshore prisons, using them as human deterrents for others who may seek shelter and safety in Australia. What a sadistic display of our so-called immigration policy. Unfortunately some of these politicians, for political advantage, have been dehumanising and demonising people fleeing from persecution by using language such as “illegals”, “queue-jumpers” and “boat people” and painting them as a threat to national security.
The use of such language is not only completely misleading but also inflammatory and feeds unnecessary fear. This sort of misinformation has been around since the Howard era, when he refused to allow asylum seekers into Australia and declared:
… we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.
This is nothing short of utterly disgraceful. Let us get a few facts straight on this issue: Fact 1: Seeking asylum in Australia, including coming by boat, is legitimate and legal. It is a human right to claim asylum. Fact 2: Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, which means we have sworn a commitment to offer protection to those who have fled their home countries due to a threat to their lives and basic freedoms. Fact 3: Australia has one of the most restrictive immigration detention systems in the world. It is mandatory, indefinite and provides no opportunity for people to challenge the need for their detention in a court of law.
Fact 4: There is no orderly resettlement queue for asylum seekers to join. Only a very small proportion of asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], and even then just 1 per cent out of those recognised as refugees are ever resettled in Australia. Fact 6: More than 90 per cent of asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat are found to be genuine refugees. Fact 7: Australia’s asylum seeker policies of offshore detention, enacted by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2013 and continued by Liberal Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, have cost taxpayers more than $5 billion. Fact 8: Refugees who have come to our shores have made huge contributions to Australia, both economically and culturally—though the worth of human life can never be measured by these yardsticks alone.
And what of the human cost of Australia’s cruel policies towards refugees? It is violence, depression, isolation, uncertainty and in some cases death. It is only through whistle-blowers like journalist and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani, who has been held on Manus Island, that we even know of this plight. As human rights lawyer Daniel Webb says:
Our government chose to build these camps on remote corners of remote islands in order to hide from view what they don’t want the public to see—deliberate cruelty to innocent human beings.
As the old adage goes: Out of sight, out of mind. People from all corners of Australia have continued to expose this policy. They continue to speak about the stark reality of offshore detention and the fact that people fleeing from war-torn nations are running for their lives and will do all they can to get out of there. There are many reasons why people seek asylum: wars, civil unrest, religious vilification, lack of democratic rights, foreign intervention. The so-called deterrent policies used by both Labor and Liberal Governments have only served to further punish, victimise and target these people.
Policy approaches over the last two decades such as temporary protection visas, offshore processing, mandatory detention, turning back the boats through military-led operations, keeping children in detention, and not allowing anyone who comes by boat into Australia clearly abrogate our responsibility. These policies show real contempt for our legal and moral obligations. Refugee policies should not be about border protection, national security or political point scoring. We are, after all, talking about real people who are fleeing horrendous circumstances. Surely the test for any response to people seeking asylum has to be based on respect, human rights, compassion, safety and dignity for all. In 1954, Australia was one of the first countries to accede to the Refugee Convention. Six decades on, we have abandoned our humanitarian obligations and have become one of the worst countries in our cruel treatment of asylum seekers.
Labor and Coalition members of Parliament seem to be competing with each other to come up with ways to deny people asylum. Our treatment of refugees has become another indelible stain on the human rights record of this country. One of the reasons I joined The Greens in 2004 was our strong record in supporting compassionate and humane treatment of refugees. I was appalled by the Howard Government’s response to the Tampa incident and the decision not to allow 438 stranded asylum seekers to enter Australia. On the other hand, I was truly inspired by The Greens leader Bob Brown’s courage in insisting that we let those asylum seekers in. I am proud of this stance. We will continue to challenge the unjust and unfair demonisation of persecuted people who have been scapegoated by successive Governments and are blamed for supposedly taking Australian jobs or eating up our welfare system. This reeks of bigotry and lack of respect for all human life. We will continue to call out xenophobia and fearmongering through the border security state. We will continue to defy this bipartisan inhumanity.
Shamefully, Australia’s offshore detention system is now a model of cruelty internationally, with many commenting that the recent policy in United States to imprison children has been inspired—for lack of a better word—by the Australian Government’s policies of detention. These policies and the resultant structures will only be dismantled by bold, sustained activism and overwhelming pressure. Australians are a welcoming, compassionate people.
The PRESIDENT: Order! The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps will cease interjecting.
Dr MEHREEN FARUQI: I am reminded of this compassion every time I go to a rally for refugees. The old parties do not speak for us. The Turnbull Government does not speak for us. Bill Shorten does not speak for us. Over the years, thousands upon thousands of people have come out to rallies to show their disgust at the harm being done to refugees under our watch, attended vigils to mourn the deaths of asylum seekers in our care, and condemned this treatment of people who are already fleeing violence. Doctors are standing up for refugees, grandmothers are standing up for refugees, rural Australians are standing up for refugees, lawyers are standing up for refugees, and ordinary people are standing up for refugees. I have been privileged to stand with all these Australians. The groundswell is only getting bigger.
No-one can look at the horrifying and deeply troubling deaths of refugees in our offshore prisons and say truthfully that all is well. We will not stop until the Australian Government ends its cruel treatment of refugees, shuts down offshore detention centres and relocates all detained refugees to Australia. We will not stop until the plight of refugees is recognised and they are welcomed, supported and resettled here. We cannot rest, for there is blood on the hands of this Government and the ones before it. We will not rest until we bring them here, until we let them stay. I commend the motion to the House.