From The Guardian, by Sunili Govinnage:
“It was the power of human connection, not rhetoric or information, that helped my parents understand the reality of the situation for asylum seekers
It is very difficult for Australians who support refugees to see polls suggesting that 60% of people believe Australia should “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.” I have had my share of conversations on the issue over recent years, none more frustrating than the heated discussion I had in 2011 with an Australian woman in her late 50s.
As the dust was finally settling after the Christmas Island riots, I had to sit through a lecture about why the detainees should put up and shut up about the relatively safe conditions of an Australian-run detention centre, rather than lashing out and causing a mess. At least, she explained, it had to be better than being back in their homeland where they were being shot at. A veritable bingo-card of the usual-suspect arguments – like queue-jumping and fake passports – were also raised.
The trickiest part of that discussion was that the woman was my mother – someone who is also a migrant and, generally, a nice person.
At the time, I had been working as a lawyer at Legal Aid WA helping clients on Christmas Island with their judicial review applications, but none of my explanations about legal obligations and the actual realities for asylum seekers based on my direct interactions with them would change my parents’ mind.
We are all awkwardly mortified by our parents from time to time, but it seems that not even eminent public intellectuals can go beyond the “stop the boats” paradigm these days, which has evolved from a slogan to a national obsession. From long reads to backyard barbecues and below-the-line discussions on the internet, the loudest voices on this issue are usually from those who believe the various myths about “boats” and why they must be “stopped”.
Even those who may be sympathetic to the people stuck in the middle of all this are trapped in a logic-bind that centres on an immovable premise: we have to stop the boats. “Once it became clear that large numbers of deaths would almost inevitably accompany the sea journey from Indonesia, the discovery of some realistic policy alternative to offshore processing became for the supporters of the asylum seekers a moral requirement”, wrote Robert Manne this week, whose opinion is that “none was discovered.”
Turns out that every human rights lawyer outlining tenable alternatives to offshore processing and mandatory detention, myself included, have been talking to brick walls. Options in the Refugee Council of Australia’s submission to the Expert Panel in 2012 were deftly ignored. While “mythbusters” information has been available from great organisations like the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre for years, it appears that facts are not going to get through to those who are already convinced that the boats must be stopped, for whatever reason.
It wasn’t until last year, after I had moved to Indonesia to volunteer providing legal aid for refugees here, that my parents started to agree with me on asylum policy. But their change of heart had nothing to do with empty-nest dilemmas, nor any accurate facts or logical arguments I could provide.
As it turned out, a chance introduction had led to my parents meeting Ali, an asylum seeker in community detention who was living in their city. My dad emailed me to ask if I knew how to find a bilingual dictionary in their new friend’s language. Back home for the holidays, I found that my previously refugee-averse parents now cook meals and donate clothes to Ali and his housemates, who are among the 27,000 asylum seekers in Australia living below the poverty line through forced unemployment, with no certainty over their futures.
It was the power of human connection, not rhetoric or information, that helped my parents understand the reality of the situation. And I believe it’s the only way to get past the stalemate in which Australia has been mired for far too long.
Hearing Carina Hoang’s story about being a “boat person” from Vietnam, in her own words, will help anyone come closer to understanding better than any list of statistics or laws.
The vigils held around Australia for Reza Barati, who was killed during the riot at the Manus Island detention centre in February, may indeed mark a turning point. I know many of my friends and colleagues in Australia are trying to figure out how to make a real difference to the discussion now.
One of those ubiquitous inspirational quotes, often misattributed to Mother Teresa, seems appropriate for those wondering how to turn the tide of public opinion on this: “do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person”.
At this point, when those who support refugees in Australia are working to promote refugee policy built on respect for human rights and freedom rather than fear, it is vital to make sure that refugees are not only a part of the conversation, but at the centre of it. Organisations like RISE are a great first contact point for this, and social media will only make it easier to make these connections.
This is far from a modest proposal. It is going to take a lot of effort; it will be slow and it will be difficult. But the real changes won’t happen in Australia’s polity until it happens in neighbourhoods and communities, at picnics in the park or holidays in the country.
Many innocent people are indeed locked away on island prisons that hark back to the dark history of Rottnest Island and elsewhere. As the department of homeland secrecy continues to keep them out of sight and out of mind, it will of course be necessary for activists and advocates to help get messages out, just as I will go out and ask refugees here in Indonesia to share their stories in spaces like this.
With many asylum seekers now living in the community and the survivors of the Howard era out there speaking for themselves, there is a real chance of making the person-to-person connections that are vital for changing the opinions it will take to make a difference.”