About Nauru your petitioner humbly prays

Nauru-refugee-children
Refugee child ‘Roze’ on Nauru, provided by World Vision Australia

I could count on the toes of my feet the number of petitions I have signed in this life, but I could not refuse the Kids off Nauru campaign. More than 100 human rights groups, churches, charities and organisations, including World Vision, Amnesty International and the Australian Lawyers Alliance are behind Kids off Nauru.

The e-petition to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten leaves no room for negotiation. Children in detention on Nauru, about 40 of who were born on the island, have witnessed lip stitching, self-immolation and other suicide attempts. Many have developed traumatic withdrawal syndrome, characterised by resigning from all activities that support a normal life. The Australian Medical Association has called for immediate action to assure the health and wellbeing of those on Nauru.

As one of the NGOs involved in the campaign, Plan International says, “This can’t continue, not on our watch”.

“We’ve seen report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said. “In August a 12-year-old girl tried to set herself on fire.”

The petitioners want all 120* children and their families off Nauru by November 20, 2018. The date is not random – it is Universal Children’s Day.

You all know this shameful story, where the Australian Government re-invented an offshore processing solution for people who’d mostly arrived without permission by boat, seeking refuge in the big open country they had heard was egalitarian and tolerant.

Nauru, a small island north-east of PNG and the Solomon Islands, was once known for extracting and selling phosphate for fertiliser. The resource is exhausted, so the Nauruan government could hardly refuse the lucrative offer from the Australian Government.

It’s difficult to get an accurate count* of children on Nauru, quoted variously as between 106 and 126. Meanwhile the official number from the Australian Government is 22. But wait, the fine print refers only to children in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre (Australia’s responsibility). Other refugee children are accommodated in centres run by the Nauruan Government. The latter is not at all transparent about the welfare of refugee children and their parents. A New Zealand TV reporter was detained briefly when reporting from the Pacific Forum because she went ‘off reservation’ to talk to refugees “without going through proper channels”.

I’d go and see for myself but they want $8,000 for a journalist visa.

Anglican Bishop Phillip Huggins wrote to then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton seeking clarification of numbers published on the department’s website.

The (eventual) reply from Mr Dutton and Huggins’s interpretation of the answers is worth reading to get a perspective.

Bishop Huggins concluded that the harsh reality is that there were (in August 2018), 120 refugee children in Nauru (some have been resettled in the last month). Some are being assessed for resettlement in America; some may eventually be resettled in New Zealand.

Let’s ask the obvious question: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partner Winston Peters have offered to take up to 150 refugees from Nauru. Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the offer to resettle the Nauru refugees, making the woolly argument that this would only make New Zealand attractive to people smugglers. It may surprise readers to know that the New Zealand offer to resettle refugees goes back to the administration of former PM John Key (2008-2016).

The transfer of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in the Pacific was first introduced by the Howard (Coalition) Government in 2001.Here’s an edited summary of what followed.

Seven months after Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2008, the last remaining asylum seekers on Nauru were transferred to Australia, ending the Howard Government’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’.

In July 2010, then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard revealed that the Government had begun having discussions about establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region. Importantly, only 25 asylum seekers had travelled by boat to Australia to seek asylum in the 2007–08 financial year. By the time Gillard made her announcement in July 2010, more than 5,000 people had come by boat to Australia to seek asylum.

Gillard acknowledged that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia was ‘very, very minor’ but she identified a number of reasons why the processing of asylum seekers in other countries was considered necessary, including:

  • to remove the financial incentive for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia;
  • to ensure that those arriving by boat do not get an unfair advantage over others;
  • to prevent people embarking on a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death;
  • to prevent overcrowding in detention facilities in Australia.

Though it took another two years to secure arrangements, people began to be transferred to Nauru and PNG in the last quarter of 2012.

Two months before the 2013 federal election amidst growing support for the Opposition’s tougher border protection policies, newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG. Under the arrangement, all (not just some) asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be transferred to PNG for processing and settlement in PNG and in any other participating regional State. Mr Rudd subsequently made a similar arrangement with Nauru.

Mr Rudd now says this was meant to be a temporary arrangement.

So he we are with a humanitarian crisis on our back door and as per usual, those clinging to slender majorities do not want to make brave, decent decisions which might cost them their seat at the next election.

Petitions are a form of protest known to exert moral authority; that is, they have no legal force. But the sheer weight of numbers can force social change. One example was the millions of signatures on a petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Before e-petitions and ‘clicktivism’ became the norm, government clerks charged with the receipt and storage of paper petitions had a job for life.

The Australian government receives on average 120 petitions a year, a large proportion of which are e-petitions. Activist group, change.org, (https://www.change.org), the biggest generator of e-petitions, has 50 million subscribers world-wide.

Nigel Gladstone, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, says 32,728 Australian petitions were started on the change.org website since 2014. More than 3.5 million people signed their name to support campaigns such as reduced parking fees at NSW hospitals and marriage equality.

Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney, Ariadne Vromen and Professor Darren Halpin of ANU collected data from change.org to study online petitions over a four-year period.

“This form of political engagement is both mainstream and important,” Professor Vromen told the SMH. “In Australia Get-up were really the pioneers of using online petitions and that was a bit of a shock to the system, but politicians quickly became cynical.

“Change.org is different because citizens can start their own thing, so it is different to an advocacy group starting something.”

So will the advocacy groups behind Kids off Nauru succeed in their mission to force the government to act by November 20? Let’s revisit this in a couple of months’ time.

#kidsoffnauru

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Blogging and human rights

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Protest in Iran photo by Christopher Rose https://flic.kr/p/7CJsu7

In case you were curious, the word blog in Farsi looks like this – وبلاگ. Iranians who didn’t like the way things were going in their country started وبلاگ’ing (blogging) like crazy after the 2000 crackdown on Iranian media. Iranians who interact with the internet are by definition risk-takers.

As recently as late 2016, five Iranians were sentenced to prison terms for writing and posting images on fashion blogs. The content was decreed to ‘encourage prostitution’.

The Independent quoted lawyer Mahmoud Taravat via state news agency Ilna that the eight women and four men he represented received jail time of between five months to six years. He was planning to appeal the sentences handed down by a Shiraz court on charges including ‘encouraging prostitution’ and ‘promoting corruption’.

The immediacy of blogging appeals to those who live under oppressive regimes. They use the online diary to inform the world of the injustices in their country as and when they happen. I cited Iran (Persia) as just one example of a country where expressing strong opinions contrary to the agenda of the ruling government is extremely risky business.

The founder of Iran’s blogging movement, Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-Canadian blogger, spent six years in prison (the original sentence was 19 and a half years), before being pardoned by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Derakhshan also helped promote podcasting in Iran and appears to have been the catalyst that spawned some 64,000 Persian language blogs (2004 survey). Clearly there is/was a level of dissent among people who think the right to free speech is worth the risk of incarceration or worse.

Blogging can be a lot of things in Australia, but risky it rarely is, so long as you are mindful of the laws regarding defamation and contempt of court. Not so for bloggers or citizen journalists of oppressed countries who try to get the facts out.

It is no coincidence that most of the countries guilty of supressing free speech are among the 22 countries named by Amnesty International as having committed war crimes. They include Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan and, closer to home, Myanmar, where persecution and discrimination persists against the Rohingya. Amnesty’s national director Claire Mallinson told ABC’s The World Today that not only are people being persecuted where they live, 36 countries (including Australia) sent people back into danger after attempts to find refuge.

Amnesty’s Human Rights report for 2015-2016 does not spare Australia from criticism, particularly our treatment of children in custody, with Aboriginal children 24 times more likely to be separated from their families and communities. We are also complacent when it comes to tackling world leaders and politicians accused of creating division and fear.

Still, at least if you live in Australia you can openly criticise something the government is doing (or not doing), apropos this week’s Q&A and the Centrelink debt debate.

According to literary types who seem to have warmed to my turn of phrase, FOMM is not a blog as such, but an example of ‘creative nonfiction’ which I am told is not only a genre, but also something taught at universities.

I never knew that.

Bloggers in comfortable democracies like ours use blogs to write about cats, dogs, goldfish, cake recipes, fashion, yoga, raising babies, travel adventures and produce how-to manuals about anything you care to name.

The definition of a blog is ‘a regularly updated public website or web page, typically run by an individual or small group, written in an informal or conversational style.’

Scottish comedian and slam poem Elvis McGonagall, who you met last week, satirises the blog format with this entry.

Monday:

Woke up. Had a thought. Dismissed it. Had another. Dismissed that. Stared at the cows. The cows stared back. Scratched arse. Shouted at telly. Threw heavy object at telly. Had a wee drink. Had another. Went to bed.

Tuesday to Sunday – repeat as above

The definitive blog is an online daily diary, kept by people while travelling, carrying out some stated mission like preparing for an art exhibition, producing an independent album, dieting or training for a triathlon. Most of these literary exercises are abandoned at journey’s end, or on completion of the mission. A fine example of this is folksinger John Thompson’s marathon effort to post an Australian folk song each day for a year. He did this from Australia Day 2011 to January 26, 2012.

Some of the tunes have ended up on albums by Cloudstreet, Thompson’s musical collaboration with Nicole Murray and Emma Nixon.

The social worth of a blog, though, is when an oppressed human being writes a real time account of what atrocity or infringement of human rights is happening in their third-world village, right now.

There are millions of blogs circulating on the worldwide web, many of which are concerned with marketing, selling, promoting and luring readers into subscribing to the bloggers’ products and/or clicking on sponsors’ links. It is nigh-on impossible to find a list of blogs independently assessed on quality, although some have tried.

The Australian Writers Centre held a competition in 2014 to find Australia’s best blogs, dividing entries into genres like Personal & Parenting, Lifestyle/Hobby, Food, Travel, Business, Commentary and Words/Writing. The competition attracted hundreds of entries which were whittled down to 31 finalists.

The AWC told FOMM it has since switched its focus to fiction competitions but has not dismissed the popularity of blogging. Even so, continuity is an ever-present issue.

The 2014 winner, Christina Sung, combined travel and cooking, two topics which spawn thousands of blogs worldwide, into The Hungry Australian. But as happens with blogs, the author has somewhat moved on since then. As Christina last posted in September 2016: ‘Hello, dear readers! Apologies for my lengthy absence but I’ve been working on a few writing projects lately.’

Likewise, the author of The Kooriwoman, the Commentary winner for a blog about life as an urban Aboriginal in Australia, has not posted since January 2016.

It is not uncommon for finely-written blogs like those mentioned to have a hiatus or disappear without notice, for a myriad of reasons linked to other demands and distractions in the authors’ lives.

The few lists of Australian blogs you can find tend to rank them on popularity (numbers of followers or clickers). The top 10 blogs in this list are all about food or travel.

Hands-down winner Not Quite Nigella is a daily blog curated by Lorraine Elliott who according to blogmetrics has 28,523 monthly visitors. It’s not hard to see why – the blog is constantly updated with recipes, restaurant reviews, travel adventures and the like, featuring mouth-watering photos and a chatty prose style.

So there are those like Lorraine who make a living from blogging and those who start with a skyrocket burst of enthusiasm and fall to ground like the burnt-out stick.

Whatever your absorbing passion in life happens to be – cross-dressing, wood-carving, wine-making, writing haikus, collecting Toby jugs, quilt-making, proofreading or growing (medicinal) marijuana, you can bet someone out there has created a blog.

Just yesterday for no reason other than a bit of light relief after months of heatwave conditions, I searched for ‘grumpy spouse blog’ and got 22 hits. Have a look at this one – it’s choice.