Sr Brigid addresses “Walk for Justice & fair go for Refugees” rally on Palm Sunday, 28 March 2021 outside the State Library Victoria:

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand – the peoples of the Kulin nation and I pay my respects to their leaders, past and present. 

We probably come here with mixed emotions. I suggest we feel outrage, sadness, and hope.

In our hearts many of us feel outrage.  Another Palm Sunday and we have very little positive change in the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.  And because when we complain to those who are responsible, we get scant response.  It feels like a wall of silence.  It is outrageous that our country punishes people who have done nothing except come to us in trust that we will listen to their story and give them protection.  They believed we are a decent nation, and we would like to be that nation.  So the outrage is for justice for asylum seekers and for us as we mourn our country’s loss of shame and loss of decency.

As well as outrage there is a certain weight of sadness.  A weight that falls so much more heavily on those stuck in ‘the system’.  We must feel sadness because thousands of our fellow human beings are suffering at the hands of our Government and the Home Affairs Department.  The whole system is draconian.  It’s actually a euphemism to call it a system because there is a lot about it that is unpredictable, chaotic, illogical and basically stupid.  We have been sold the lie that our policies are in our national interest – it could never be in our national interest to harm other human beings the way we are doing.

But mixed in we still feel hope – that if we keep going things will get better.  Without some hope we would not be here. A value that rarely gets mentioned is stickatedness!  Hope comes because we know there are so many good people everywhere – in the halls of Parliament, in the groups like Grandmother and RAR and hundreds of small justice groups (so many looking after a particular refugee or asylum seeker or family) and here today all with one intent – stop being cruel to people asking for help.  We certainly hope that by next Palm Sunday we are celebrating substantial improvements.

Why are we in this situation – where we continue to treat people so unfairly?  It is so easy to become part of a pervasive culture.  Culture is a shorthand word for the way things are done around here – So what sort of culture is letting the Australian Government do such dreadful things to vulnerable people who simply asked for protection?  The problem with any culture that if it is firmly established people within it don’t question – in fact it spawns a sort of logic of its own.

So, some questions! 

It might be cynical to quote follow the money but there’s certainly questions to be asked.

$7 billion spent on Manus and Nauru detention centres since 2012.  For critically inadequate care.

And right now the government is spending what amounts to $10,000 per person per day in Nauru.

And there is a small family from Biloela locked up on Christmas Island and altogether the government has spent over $6 million attempting to deport this family.

1.  At the same time most of those on Bridging visas in Australia have had the small (less than Newstart) money spent on them taken away so they have no money at all to live on. These face destitution and homelessness – their only fall back are NGO’s and charities who are stretched to the limit.  Some have no work rights; many are too sick –the system has broken them.  There is no fall-back income.  And there seems no end in sight. 

2.  And there is no money allocated to legal centres to fund the processing of protection claims.

3.  And tribunals and courts that are part of the process have extraordinary backlogs of cases – presumably because they are not sufficiently funded.

This is not all by chance, even Governments make a deliberate choice where they use taxpayers money: there are thousands of public servants and experts analysing where money is spent – this is a deliberate choice of allocating resources to make people who dared ask for protection in our country suffer. 

With the current emphasis on gender equity could I put a case that it is the women and children who are tending to be invisible and particularly vulnerable at this stage.

Children often have to act as interpreters as their parents are reduced to begging for help.  They are often put in situations no children or young people should be. 

Mothers in particular do without all sorts of things to get school lunches, schoolbooks and uniforms for their kids.

Mothers mainly make meals out of the least expensive food they can find.

The stress of living in insecurity and difficulty has caused a lot of family breakdown and single parents are usually single mothers – often single mothers with no extended family support.

Some things we know will come back to haunt our country – one is: For years, there have been tragic accounts of rape and sexual abuse of females in Nauru, including by those paid to protect them. The accounts have come from people who lived through these experiences or who witnessed them, and have been reported in multiple official reports.  At least 24 women have been flown to Australia to terminate pregnancies, many of these pregnancies a result of rape. 

There are quite elderly women with no support – and sick, one virtually blind. 

There are young women with babies and no support. 

So a plea for more action focused on women and children.

We can’t just ring our hands in despair.  So, what can we do?  What should we be asking for? 3 things would cover a lot of the heartache built into our current practices:

  1. Income support for everyone – while they are in Australia.

2. Family reunion – one bar for this is not giving people permanent visas.   

3. Fair processing of applications for protection (includes a reception centre or whatever and not detention). 

Go back briefly through each.

1. No one should be destitute in Australia, everyone should have shelter, food and clothing. Back in history part of the narrative from the Government was we are saving lives by not letting people drown – well maybe now we need to save lives by not letting people starve!

2. People separated year after year is so draconian eg Ali left his family in Pakistan – he was originally from Afghanistan.  His wife died of cancer, his oldest daughter was abducted and killed in horrifying circumstances; his 4 sons are eking out an existence and Ali is here working 7 days a week, often 10 hours a day trying to get his children here.  He is buying a house so they will have a place to live.  This has been going on for year. 

3. Fair processing means a reception centre, not detention, work rights while they are in Australia; some we can’t send back – their countries won’t take them, so they need a way of living reasonably here.  Permanent visas not temporary ones that still leave them in limbo.

Legal help that is resourced by the Government, a straightforward process where critical points are decided by courts and judges and not the Minister for Immigration or Home Affairs or whatever the equivalent is.

To conclude:  We need to feel outrage that galvanizes us into action to demand change.  And to collectively give voice to that outrage.  We can use our voice and our computers or pens or any means of making our points.  Let’s all go with a will to talk to our local member of Parliament.  That noise will get to Canberra.

What we are doing is unsustainable and unethical.  We hope next Palm Sunday will be one where we celebrate justice and a fair go for refugees!  We need solidarity as human beings as we welcome strangers who present to us for care and safety.  Until we do this, we place in jeopardy the kind of society we claim to be.