20 November 2004
The electrified fences, razor-wire, electronically sealed doors, x-ray machines and elaborate security procedures to gain entry were initially intimidating and daunting, but seemed incongruous when we met the gracious men, women and children they were established to contain.
As we talked with these people we heard of the situations from which they had escaped, we listened to the pain of separation from their wives, children and families, to their sense of boredom and despair after being imprisoned for four, five, or in one case seven years, and to their sense of incomprehension as to how a country they had believed offered a hope of a new life had treated them in this way. Above all I heard the desperate yearning for freedom for which they had risked so much.
I was inspired by the generosity and commitment of the ordinary men and women who had come to visit those in the centre. Some of them regularly travelling long distances to support and encourage those they had befriended. Most of all however, I was inspired by the spirit of the detainees themselves, their courtesy, gentleness, appreciation for our efforts on their behalf, their concern for each other, their faith and their courage. Nevertheless as one man said to me “people are surprised I can still talk and smile – but inside I am destroyed.”
We visited twice, once in the morning and once at night. The final visit was especially poignant and memorable., The group of twenty or so visitors and detainees sat around several tables that we had pushed together and shared conversation, laughter and the food the visitors had brought with them, for almost two hours. For a short time I was able to forget where we were but the end of the visit was the most harrowing experience of the whole time we were in Port Augusta. Prior to our departure the visitors were gathered in a sealed outside room behind a glass partition waiting to be checked and counted. No longer able to hear each other, visitors and detainees, could only look through the glass that separated us. As we prepared to return to our cars, and a freedom and lifestyle that our new found friends could only dream about, I was acutely aware of the immensity of that separation. The sadness of the faces and the anguished plea of the young man with whom I had just been speaking continue to haunt me. “I only want to be free”.
I left deeply saddened, ashamed, angry and struggling to understand. Why? What is the point of all this? Could this really be happening in Australia? How can anyone, let alone someone who claims to follow the gospel, condone such a situation?
One of the people we met in Baxter was Peter Qasim. Peter sought refuge in Australia in 1998. He says he is from Kashmir on the India/Pakistan border and that his parents are now dead. He claims to have been detained and tortured in Kashmir as a result of his father’s involvement in political activity in Kashmir. He has committed no crime. His problem is that he cannot prove his story to the satisfaction of Australian authorities. He now wants to return to Kashmir or be sent anywhere to escape the existence he currently endures, but he cannot prove who he is to the satisfaction of the Indian government who therefore refuse to accept him back. The result is that he continues to be imprisoned at Baxter and has now entered his seventh year of detention with no end in sight. His story can be found in more detail here
The Australian High Court has recently ruled that he can be held in detention indefinitely – an absurd situation if it wasn’t so tragic in its consequences - especially for Peter. Why? What is the point of keeping Peter and others like him locked up indefinitely? What can possibly justify innocent children and teenagers spending four or more of their formative years in such a place? There has to be a better way. Surely Baxter demonstrates the utter failure of the current policy of the Australian Government in regard to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
Peter's case is well publicised as he is the longest serving detainee and because it highlights the absurdity of the situation that has been created, but everyone's story is different and deserves a compassionate response.
While ever we remain silent about the treatment of Peter and others like him we are complicit in their treatment.
Perhaps you might like to support the campaign of Polmin for a complete overhaul of Australia's Migration Act.
Perhaps you might like to urge your parliamentary representative to support the alternative model of dealing with asylum seekers and refugees proposed by a range of church and welfare groups - "A Better Way" which can be found at the website of the Archdiocese of Melbourne Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace
At the very least you might care to send an email to the minister for Immigration Senator Vanstone urging the immediate release of all long term detainees as an act of simple humanity and compassion.
Imagine if everyone associated with the Edmund Rice Network did that.
In Australia, the Jubilee campaign continues with the aim to build a world in which the people of countries trapped in a cycle of poverty are released from the crushing burden of debt. Jubilee contends that rather than repaying loans to countries that have a long history of exploitation, countries be given a fresh start. Jubilee is looking for support to help 'drop the debt'.
The Jubilee Australia website contains the latest news about progress in the campaign to cancel the debt of poor countries and some suggestions for action, including a sample letter which can be adapted and sent to your local member of Parliament.
Kevin, a former member of the SAS Regiment, spoke of how his interest in East Timor was first awakened after learning of the heroism and sacrifice of the East Timorese in supporting Australian soldiers in Timor during WWII. He went on to provide a background to the current dispute and drew attention to Australia’s withdrawal from the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the world bodies that now arbitrate on border disputes, and the reluctance of the Australian government to negotiate with East Timor whilst at the same time continuing to pocket the revenue currently generated from the oilfields in dispute.
Further information about the issue can be found at the Save East Timor website.
About fifty people, mainly students from Christian Brothers Schools in Victoria, were in attendance and earlier in the day listened to the story of Fivo Freitas a young East Timorese now residing in Australia.
Students were also given the opportunity to meet in their school groups where they pledged to continue to raise awareness of social justice issues in their school communities, and to campaign for justice for East Timor in particular.
4 November 2004
Outworkers are mostly women who make clothes at home in Australia for as little as $2 to $3 an hour. They often work up to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outworkers make clothes for our major retailers, designers and even suppliers of school uniforms. It is estimated that there are 300,000 outworkers in Australia today.
The Fair School Wear campaign has been running since 1999 with action initiated by students often leading to direct improvement in wages and conditions for clothing workers.
Information about the campaign can be found at the Fairwear website. The involvement of Waverley College, a Christian Brothers College in Sydney with 1200 students, is featured in an article on the website. The website also contains suggestions and resources for students and schools who wish to participate in the campaign as well as a list of companies who have signed the Homeworker's Code of Practice.
Responding to the Treasurer's statement the CEO of Catholic Health Australia Francis Sullivan commented "On a daily basis Australians see the victims of this policy failure: homeless people isolated from services, exhausted families and carers, frustrated health professionals and young people facing the future with despair," he said. "For too long complacency and inertia have held back real investment in mental health services and in turn have denied people in dire need of assistance."
For more information about an issue that directly affects an estimated one in five Australians visit the website of the Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria
"Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries, asylum from persecution"
Article 14 (1), Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) a refugee not only has the right to safe asylum, but is also entitled to at least the same rights and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident, including freedom of thought, of movement and freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Economic and social rights are equally applicable as is access to medical care, schooling and the right to work.
Australia's generous treatment of refugees it has selected for settlement in this country contrasts markedly with the treatment afforded to those who arrive unannounced and whose basic rights described above, continue to be ignored and violated.
Severe weather such as the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean or flooding in Bangladesh is likely to become more frequent as a result of global warming, the coalition said in a report released in London. Climate change also causes damage in more gradual ways, for example by creating longer droughts that harm subsistence farmers.
The call comes at the same time as scientists have expressed concern about the dramatic and unexpected rise in carbon dioxide levels reported last month.
The report urged industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions beyond the levels recommended in the Kyoto protocol (which Australia has still refused to sign) and to invest further in renewable energy sources. The report can be viewed at the Worldnews website.