Politics Opinion

Hey, Albo, it is 'Time to Fly' beyond L-NP's immigration mistakes

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Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst wore his statement proudly as Prime Minister Albanese enjoyed the band's final show (Screenshots via YouTube)

After years of Coalition cruelty toward asylum seekers, it's time for Australia to be progressive and show overdue compassion, writes Jane Salmon.

MIDNIGHT OIL'S historic last gig was marked by the attendance of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Band member Rob Hirst chose a particular t-shirt to mark the event. This fabled band's form is to be political to the last, bless them. 

The t-shirt, easily seen on the drum dais, is illustrated with a bird and the words ‘Time to Fly’. It is a design by a refugee held by Australia on Manus Island in PNG. 

When trapped on Manus for six years, songwriter, t-shirt designer and artist Farhad Bandesh did indeed dream of flying away to a safer place such as Australia, Canada or New Zealand.

Instead, he was used as a deterrent against “irregular” (but never illegal) maritime arrivals. He was made a hostage in a tropical hell.

The children of parents held in tents on sweltering Nauru became the focus of another campaign. 

Medical chaos and human distress collided, often only alleviated by Panadol. Oddball contract staff came and went as did contractors and immigration ministers. There was the raid by hyped-up outsiders and local guards that caused the death of Reza Berati within the wire. Sometimes no one was in charge as during the November 2017 siege when generators and water, as well as food, were denied.

During the forced move from the Regional Processing Centre to new, unfinished quarters run by PNG directly after the siege, men were hit with iron bars. This was under the eye of Australian Home Affairs staff and possibly at their actual behest. Thanush Selvarasa shared this on live video with the world.

Detainees like Farhad and his friend Moz managed to turn their pain into art and music. Farhad's ‘Time to Fly’ design became a t-shirt worn around the world. Back in Australia, producers helped with fatter harmonies, while cartoonists and dancers gave form to Farhad's compositions. Flash mobs danced at railway stations.

Farhad's ‘Time to Fly’ logo was frequently seen at protests in rural towns, at churches and, of course, rallies against Immigration cruelty in capital cities. Years were ticking by. It is now even on bottles of wine he has produced. 

The shift of detainees to Port Moresby for more inadequate medical “treatment” under guard as defined by PNG immigration led to more challenges.

There was the political fight to retain mobile phones in detention. The injunctions won by solicitor George Newhouse to save phones were temporary and not binding on PNG-run hospitals or the Bomana immigration facility in Moresby.

The relentless greyness of the Preston Mantra Hotel in Melbourne under lockdown was the next of Farhad's ordeals. The windows barely opened an inch. All visits were stopped. 

Occasionally, they were taken under guard to a doctor or dentist or to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). Protests outside the hotel continued. 

Midnight Oil's Jim Moginie used the lockdown and his extensive network to produce music and videos for Moz. 

To break up the daily selfie protest, Farhad was moved to MITA, Melbourne's chilly immigration transit accommodation. Many people in varying categories of indefinite immigration detention are separated by cyclone wire. Dawn deportations by masked men in riot gear are routine.

Repeal of the Medevac legislation, thanks to a “mistake” by Senator Jacqui Lambie, meant it was illegal to keep the guys indefinitely detained as COVID-19 raged through quarantine hotels. 

Refugee advocates and organisations lobbied for the New Zealand option and for sponsored migration of refugees to Canada as well as Finland. 

And, finally, at the end of 2020, Farhad was freed. He walked straight out the gates of MITA and into the arms of supporters including Craig Foster, Arnold Zable and Jenell Quinsee who were there to mark his birthday. David Bridie dropped over. The release gave hope to many left at the Preston Mantra and next, the dank and completely airless Park Hotel.

However, it was over another agonising year before all were freed in the run-up to an election. 

Since his release, Farhad's friends have supported him with music, visits to concerts and even a donkey sanctuary. The family of Jimmy Barnes generously provided tickets and selfies to Farhad and Moz. A Midnight Oil concert soon followed. 

His health is still not fully addressed. There is no compensation for the years lost. Court costs must still be met from wages or donations by an exhausted band of pensioner advocates. Worry about family left behind never ceases.

Moz has gone on to produce more music, friendships and art. He even works for a charity.

Having been uprooted from an area of Iran famous for its viticulture, Farhad began to harvest shiraz grapes to bottle his own wine vintage. A gin was next. 

Iranian 501s continue to be detained indefinitely, having no refoulement agreement. A slowly declining number of detainees still struggle in PNG and on Nauru. Medical need still brings many here. 

With the election of a Labor government, the rise of the Teals and part of an expanding clutch of pro-refugee and pro-integrity Independents, along with the granting of permanent residency to the Murugappan family in Biloela, there has been hope of a less reflexive immigration regime. 

However, concerning signs remain that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese still has not got the moral courage to face down redneck racists, to run a robust review of Australia's role in the global refugee situation or resist the illogical Morrison/Dutton/Abbott/Downer stances based on xenophobia and an obsession with maritime security. 

Labor has announced increased skilled workforce migration but not completely come to grips with the visa processing backlog. The head of a corrupt Home Affairs Department, Michael Pezzullo, remains in place.

The new Labor Government has not renounced offshore detention, indefinite detention, the doctrine of Sovereign Borders or the policy of turnbacks.

The crowds of 13,000 refugees stranded in Indonesia have not been processed.

More than 100 days since the appointment of the new Labor Government, the offshore cohort is still in limbo. Their short-run visas are still being renewed piecemeal. Those working on Safe Haven Enterprise visas (SHEVs) and transit visas are still affected by bans on study and by continuous uncertainty. Those on Community Detention visas are refused the right to work. 

Worse, those on Bridging visas include men like Farhad from the Medevac cohort. 

In the past month, many have been given letters signed by Alana Sullivan (First Assistant Secretary of the People Smuggling Taskforce). These letters tell Farhad's cohort that they will not be settled here, that it is in fact “time to fly” to New Zealand or the U.S. or wherever.

The New Zealand offer is generous and it may be a workable destination, as Behrouz Boochani's career shows. However, the offer comes after almost a decade of being made an example and being dragged in handcuffs from pillar to post. It is a policy based on a previous situation and one of our own making. 

Had we established regional processing in 2007, there would have been no boats. Labor simply had to stare down the Islamophobic fear of inundation and they didn't. 

That is, after nine bitter years, Farhad and friends are still being treated as unprocessed hostages and Senator Pauline Hanson is still permitted to indulge in racial slurs against brown colleagues in the Senate. Enough is enough. 

Senator Jim Molan, Abbott, Downer, Dutton and Morrison's outdated and still apparently Islamophobic doctrine of Sovereign Borders still holds at a time of workforce shortages arising from the hiatus in migration during COVID.

Many of the Manus and Nauru workforce have settled into life here, held down frontline jobs during COVID, pay taxes, have leases and are looking forward to acquiring mortgages. 

It is not time to flee or fly. It is time to stay.

It is to be hoped that when Albo was grooving to Midnight Oil's last Sydney concert, he caught a glimpse of Hirst's t-shirt and the story it tells. It bears witness to one man's ordeal and the struggle of a brave group of refugees who beg to be simply left to rebuild their lives in peace. They have been the playthings of politicians for too long. 

One thing is for sure, Farhad will not be abandoning his partner, musical collaborators, colleagues or friends to rush back to Iran. Guns are not his thing and their prevalence in America makes the U.S. a less-than-appealing destination, too.

He is part of a cohort of men who have been internationalised by their time together in detention. Their cultural wisdom, patience, resilience and tolerance have become an asset Australia should embrace. 

This week has been significant for Iranian Kurds like Farhad. It was a Kurdish woman's relaxed use of the headscarf that led to her death. The national uprising against the repression of women by the patriarchal regime has drawn global support. Worry for family is exacerbated.

If Ukranian and Afghan refugees can be flown straight here to be settled, if the housing market is easing enough to reduce rents and sales, it is time to put aside the legacy of racist police, military, immigration and political institutions that are holding the 2013 boat cohort back.

We need these workers. We need their culture. We need their contribution and we need their warmth in an increasingly troubled international context. 

And thank you so much Midnight Oil. You have always pointed the way to a more compassionate Australia. And on so many levels.

We can do better. I sincerely hope Albo's government can grasp the nettle and try. 

Jane Salmon is a refugee advocate. You can follow her on Twitter @jsalmonupstream.

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