Australia’s refugee shame


Image courtesy of Peter Broelman

It took a little refugee girl to become gravely ill while held in an Australian detention centre to attract the attention this issue deserves.

The plight of refugees and asylum seekers has been somewhat diminished in the public eye over the past 18 months because of Covid-19. But some issues just won’t go away. As cartoonist Peter Broelman observed last week in a two-panel cartoon: an Australian going stir crazy inside four bare walls, while in the right panel are two girls, assumed to represent the Biloela Tamil children confined to the detention centre at Christmas Island.

The Sri Lankan family of four were whisked away from their home in Biloela (central Queensland) in March 2018 after overstaying their visas. After some temporary stays in detention elsewhere, they were flow to Christmas Island, where they are still the only detainees held there.

This week, Tharnicca, three, was flown to Perth for emergency medical attention, She was accompanied by her mother, Priya. News reports claim Tharnicca had been unwell for up to two weeks before being flown to Perth reportedly suffering from a blood infection.

She is now stable and with top quality medical care will hopefully recover.

But what then, given the government’s insistence that the family are not refugees and therefore not entitled to settle in Australia? It’s bad timing for the Federal Government as support groups gear up for Refugee Week (June 20-27). Ahead of the event, refugee support groups are heading to the capital for the ‘Canberra Convergence’. The June 15 event will be held on the lawns of Parliament House. Number one item on the agenda is to call for the controversial indefinite detention Bill to be repealed.

What, you didn’t know about that?

The Migration Amendment Bill 2021 will allow Australia to indefinitely hold refugees in mandatory detention centres in cases where a person’s refugee visa has been cancelled but cannot be deported because they could face persecution in their home country. A person may have their visa cancelled for a range of reasons, including security or character grounds or association with certain groups.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the new bill promotes human rights because it reinforces the nation’s commitment to non-refoulement. This clumsy term means a country is forbidden from deporting refugees or asylum seekers to their country of origin if they are at risk of persecution. So the Morrison government’s solution is to lock them up with no end date in sight.

The law currently applies to 21 refugees in Australian detention,  according to Guardian reporter Ben Doherty. The Bill was tabled on the last sitting day of the March session of parliament. It was voted into law on May 13 after the Senate debate was cut short.

Global outrage about this Bill suggests that Australia is breaching the Human Rights Charter by supporting the amendment.

The influence of refugee support groups cannot be underestimated. In 2018 a coalition of such groups lobbied for the medical evacuation of children from the detention centre on Nauru. This campaign became known as #KidsOffNauru and, as children were medically evacuated to Australia, support groups claimed victory.

Someone known to FOMM readers wrote a song about it.

As Asylum Seeker Resource Centre CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis said this week on the organisation’s 20th anniversary, “It’s a bitter-sweet moment”.

The ASRC was set up on a shoestring in Melbourne 20 years ago with the initial aim of providing free meals for poor families in inner Melbourne. It has grown into an asylum seeker support and advocacy organisation with annual revenue of $27.62 million. In 2019-2020, the ASRC provided shelter, free meals, healthcare and medication and paid work for asylum seekers.

Through lock-down in Melbourne, the ASRC has committed to keep paying ‘social enterprise’ staff in its cleaning and catering businesses, even when there is no work. The organisation is soon to broaden the opportunity to support ASRC Catering. In Melbourne, people can order a meal for pick up or delivery. Those who do not live in Melbourne will soon be able to support via a ‘pay it forward meal, providing meals to vulnerable people, such as casuals and workers in hospitality who have lost work.

The ASRC’s annual report (2019-2020) lists outcomes which include supporting 3,039 people who presented at its offices in crisis, securing 146 temporary or protection visas and distributing fresh food valued at $1.73 million to its members. It was all done through donations and the hard work of its many volunteers.

As CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis said in a live video to celebrate the ASRC’s 20th, his hope is that there no need for another 20 years of the ASRC.

My hope is that one day we don’t need to be here.

“So when people come here seeking protection they find safety, dignity, sanctuary, a safety net, no detention, and safety and freedom”.

In the meantime, the ASRC’s annual telethon fund-raiser will be more important than ever as it continues to support asylum seeker workers through Melbourne’s lock-downs.

On the local front, the Southern Downs Refugee and Migrant Network held a welcome picnic in Warwick last Sunday to celebrate the inclusion of the Southern Downs as a Refugee Welcome Zone.

The Southern Downs Regional Council approved this initiative after a presentation by SDRAMN members. It becomes the 169th Australian local government to officially welcome refugees.

This brings our region in line with Toowoomba, not only Australia’s biggest inland city (not in the desert, Scotty), but also home to a large number of refugees and migrants. The most commonly spoken language in Toowoomba other than English is Tagalog.

Five years have passed since the last Census established that just over one in four Australians were born somewhere else (26%), a 1% increase on the 2011 Census. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found, Australia is now a  diverse society.

More than 300 languages are spoken in our homes; we have over 100 religions and more than 300 different ancestries, This wide variety of backgrounds, together with the many cultures of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, has helped to create a uniquely Australian identity. No doubt the 2021 Census, which will be held in August, will reveal how many more Australians were born somewhere else. As it is, about half of us were born elsewhere or have parents who were born overseas.

Given the diversity of our background, it behoves us to open our hearts and minds to those fleeing religious or political persecution. The so-called Indefinite Detention Bill shows just how far we are from opening our doors to those in crisis. A <> petition calling for the Tamil children to be brought back to Biloela (where townsfolk support them), gathered more than 500,000 signatures this week.

Meantime, The Guardian trolled through the Budget papers to find that Australia will spend almost $3.4 million a year for each of the 239 people held in offshore detention. As one wag on Twitter commented (and it’s not a bad idea), we’d be better off giving them all $1 million each and suggesting they move to the US (or NZ) as business migrants

So yes, Kon, it would be great if we didn’t need an ASRC anymore. But I’m not holding my breath.



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June 11, 2021 2:33 pm

Thanks Bob for writing about the Tamil family from Biloela, now living in detention on Christmas Island. I have signed the petition and shared on Facebook. Unbelievable, the cost of pomposity when a government is unable to reverse a decision. We look to the government for leadership. Now here’s their chance to show compassion on humanitarian grounds and be an example for the entire country. But as you said I’m not holding my breath.

SImon Wells
SImon Wells
June 12, 2021 12:42 am

on ya Bob, for addressing this painful issue. It’s a national shame.

Btw, I keep on encountering phrases, memes which to many are givens, current, but which I have no interest in accepting into my lexicon. This leads to a feeling of estrangement. You have broached language matters before and I’d like to hear from you in FOMM further on whether you feel the same challenge about new lingo