Crafting a more humane and effective approach


“Forces driving people from their homes are stronger than any measures that we can put in place to deter them. In fact, these methods of deterrence only lead to greater human rights violations and despair.”

Hindsight can be bitter-sweet. History has shown us that during the unfolding of events that would later stain our past – the white Australia policy, the stolen generation – the majority of people have stood by, only to ask years later: how did we allow this to happen?

Years after unconscionable policies are implemented in our name, we’ll ask ourselves, ‘Who gave the politicians at the time permission to treat people in that way? Why didn’t someone stand up and say this was wrong? Why didn’t someone fight for justice and speak up for what was right?’

We tell ourselves there was a lack of knowledge or understanding. We say, ‘If only we were better informed, perhaps we would have got involved, perhaps we would have behaved differently.’

But hindsight cannot right wrongs, and ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse for our neglect: in a world now awash with information, we’ve been equipped with a level of foresight that was simply not available to previous generations of Australians.

We cannot wait for hindsight to alert us of the injustices that are being perpetrated against asylum seekers in 2014; now is the time to ask, ‘What must be done today so that we won’t lament our lack of action tomorrow?’

At JRS, we often encounter the extensive misconceptions that exist in the community around asylum seekers and refugees; because, unfortunately, the abundance of information which washes over us every day includes not only the facts about asylum seekers and refugees, but also the fictions that have been created to suit people’s prejudices or political agendas.

Just as we’ve seen in the story of Mary meets Mohammed, there is a great deal of fear and misunderstanding about who asylum seekers are, why they have left their countries and why they have come to Australia.

So here are some facts: today, there are 45.5 million displaced people in the world, 15.5 million of whom are refugees – people who have been forced to flee their country because of conflict or persecution. 80 percent of these refugees are stranded in developing countries.

These are people who have had no choice but to leave their friends, families and homes and embark on a long and sometimes dangerous journey in search of safety. They are searching for a life free from fear, a life with security, a life with a future.

Sister Dorothy Bayliss, formerly a pastoral worker on Christmas Island and currently working on Nauru, recently shared with us the story of one asylum seeker and her reason for fleeing to Australia. It’s a story I would like to share with you tonight:

We are from Burma. We are the Rohingya people. They come in the night. They beat us and burn our homes and whole villages. We are so poor and we ask, ‘Why?’ As we run out of our burning homes they shoot our husbands. They took my baby from my arms as I ran out of my burning house and they threw her into the fire. We are subjected to daily killings and torture. That is why we come to Australia. Why we took the dangerous journey, it is better for us to die with hope in the sea than to die without hope in our own country.”

Whilst people continue to be persecuted for their religious or political views and whilst wars rage in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Syria, people will continue to flee their homes and seek safety in countries like Australia.

With only a few countries between their homeland and Australia that offer protection, many make their way to our shores, thinking that as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, as a country that respects the rights of its citizens and the rule of law, they will be welcomed and given sanctuary.

How shocked they must be on arrival when they are told, ‘You will not make Australia home!!’

Countries throughout the region, including Australia, have increasingly sought to seal their borders by resorting to punitive measures such as offshore processing, detention, and bureaucracy that makes it increasingly difficult to file asylum claims.

But the problem lies not with the insecurity of Australian borders, but in the lack of durable solutions for refugees elsewhere in the region.

Forces driving people from their homes are stronger than any measures that we can put in place to deter them. In fact, these methods of deterrence only lead to greater human rights violations and despair.

Knowing that refugees will always exist in a conflict-ridden world, and fully aware of its own obligations to these people, Australia has developed one of the harshest border protection regimes in the world.

In 2012 the country received 29, 610 applications for asylum, a mere 14.7% of the global share of new asylum seekers and recognised only 8, 367 as refugees a tiny 0.61% of the global total.

By contrast, the UN has estimated that over 2.8 million Syrian refugees have fled into neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Lebanon is hosting the over 1 million Syrians, making up almost a quarter of the country’s resident population.

When we take a moment to consider this objectively, it becomes clear that the problem is not that we are being swamped by asylum seekers intent on upsetting the balance of our perfect lives, but that we are responding to our own baseless fear by consciously inflicting further harm on a small group of people who have shown up at our door, asking for help.

When our future selves consider the following facts, we will hang our heads in shame: in 2013, the government of Australia announced arrangements with Papua New Guinea and Nauru – where all asylum seekers arriving by boat and without visas would be transferred to those countries for processing and would never be permitted to settle in Australia.

Rather than greeting the world’s most vulnerable people with hospitality and compassion, we fly them to offshore processing centres on ill-equipped Pacific Islands accurately described as factories of mental illness: places where men, women and children are broken as they are robbed of any hope that they will find safety. Additionally, asylum seekers now arriving by boat are intercepted and turned back to Indonesia where they are considered illegal, cannot work or support themselves and are at constant risk of arrest and detention.

For asylum seekers in Australia, the refugee-determination process can be long and traumatic. It places a great deal of stress on them to meet very strict time limits and operate in a bureaucratic and legal culture often unfamiliar to them.

Mental health workers note that applicants can be traumatised by the process and may even end up worse off than when they started. If they are held in detention, the effects are often far worse, with detainees experiencing a range of physical, emotional and psychosocial conditions.

The impact of such a punitive system was manifested just last week in the tragic story of Leo Seemanpillai, a Sri Lankan asylum seeker who, in an act of desperation, set fire to himself and died as a result of his injuries.

And while the government insists that its policies will stop the boats and thereby prevent deaths at sea, in truth they have merely shifted the problem elsewhere, because whilst the boats may have slowed, the movement of people has not.

But while asylum seekers arriving by boat may have been temporarily deflected, Australia cannot be allowed to shirk its moral obligation to these people and its legal obligation to the Refugee Convention.

How, then, can the government craft refugee policy that is both effective and humane?

JRS believes the objective should be the establishment of a regional approach that manages the movements of people and places the protection of asylum seekers ahead of national politics and border protection.

We should be guided by principles of compassion and justice. We should never forget that these people are human beings, entitled to the same human rights as we are. If we ignore and trample on the rights of the world’s displaced and marginalised, we risk, in future, trampling on our own rights and the protections we too often take for granted.

We, as a nation, need to look for principled alternatives. We need to engage with other countries in the region, employ diplomacy and negotiate a system that prevents people smuggling but ensures asylum seekers are protected and offered alternative pathways to safety.

Steps such as these would not necessarily solve the problem, but would be steps in the right direction.

But before we can develop an effective regional approach, we must first get our own house in order: we must de-politicise the issue, overcome misconceptions and nurture Australians’ goodwill and their ability to harness foresight when considering the issue of asylum seekers. In so doing, we will cultivate a society that demands nothing less than decent, morally upright leaders.

The most important voices in this discussion are those of asylum seekers, and I’d like to conclude by sharing some of those voices with you:

While on Christmas Island, Sr Dorothy was able to take asylum seekers out of the centre for a few hours. On one occasion, they were driving along the road at the time of the red crab migration. The local law prohibits cars from running over the crabs. In fact, you have to stop your car and, using a broom, sweep the crabs off the road before proceeding.

As Sr Dorothy was the driver, it was the asylum seekers’ job to clear the road. When her companions returned to the car after brushing away the crabs, there was some laughter, followed by a deep silence. Sr Dorothy asked the men, ‘What’s wrong? Are you ok?

They said, ‘Sister, you care for the crabs on the road so you don’t kill one. On our roads there are so many dead bodies, no one cares, no one even sees them.’

Sadly, these two men are still in detention today.

Worse still, politicians seem proud that our country’s cruelty is deterring people like them.

Now is the time to ask ourselves as a nation, is this the Australia we want? Will we one day rely on hindsight to bring about an understanding of our shameful present, or will we take action to help the world’s most vulnerable people right now, while we still have the chance?


This speech was given at the Xavier Social Justice annual dinner in Melbourne, June 11, 2014by Oliver White, Head of Policy and Advocacy at the Jesuit Refugee Service Australia. 

Oliver White has over ten years of experience working in the youth, mental health, community development and refugee sectors, both in Australia and overseas. Most recently, Oliver returned from three years living in Thailand where he held a regional advocacy and communications position for JRS Asia Pacific, working with displaced people in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Timor Leste, Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Oliver holds a Masters in International Social Development, specialising in Forced Migration.

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