Speaking up for asylum seekers on Nauru — but only when spoken to

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(Image via waca.net.au)

Have pro-refugee protestors in Parliament House inspired action for Australia's stranded asylum seekers? Deputy editor Michelle Pini reports.

AUSTRALIA’S official position on asylum seekers is now their indefinite and inhumane imprisonment.

Should any imprisoned refugees ever manage to be relocated to a land more sympathetic to their plight, they have also been sentenced to a lifetime ban preventing them from ever returning here — even as tourists.

Too bad if said asylum seekers happen to have relatives – or children – in Australia. This is apparently done as a deterrent to people smugglers.

In case we don’t accept these increasingly bizarre policies perpetrated in our name, we have daily reminders to complete our re-education. These come from mainstream media reports featuring refugees on Nauru enjoying the comforts of air-conditioning (clearly proving they are safe) and nonsensical statements from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his accomplice, PM Malcolm Turnbull, condemning any reports to the contrary.

The fact that people have a fundamental right under international law to seek asylum, or that the United Nations has condemned Australia’s treatment of refugees, is of no consequence for our lock-and-key enthusiast government.

We, the people, are also made acutely aware of Australia's immigration policy whenever anyone speaks on behalf of asylum seekers — since they are either systematically ignored, or slowly vilified.

In the case of the pro-refugee protesters who managed to shut down Question Time in Parliament House last week, their efforts to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers incurred the wrath of both Coalition and Labor Party parliamentarians.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce labeled the protesters "outrageous" and "selfish”.

Leader of the House Christopher Pyne called them “miscreants” and expressed his hopes that a “thorough investigation” would be conducted.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred to the protest as:

"A denial of democracy and an affront to the Australians who elected the 226 senators and members ..."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten described the protest as “the exact opposite of democracy” and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek concurred.

According to Liberal Senator James McGrath the protesters are:

'A bunch of bong-sniffing, dole-bludging, moss-munching, glue-guzzling, K-Mart Castros [who] are again vandalising Parliament ... grubs [that] should be made to pay for their damage and have the book thrown at them.'

The lone party speaking in favour of the demonstrators and on behalf of pro-refugee sentiment was the Greens.

Senator Nick McKim told IA:

What we saw last week was the people enter the people's house to make an important point. They did so peacefully and in a non-violent way. They spoke for the millions of Australians who are sick of the awful treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum and tired of the political impasse. Sometimes you have to shout to be heard.

Some time back, senior child support and protection worker with Save the Children, Leah Gough, spoke with IA on behalf of 103 professional Nauru and Manus staff. These people have advocated for asylum seekers despite the possibility of being prosecuted and gaoled for speaking out under the Border Force Act.

Yesterday, Leah again spoke with IA:

“In spite of everything, I can still be shocked by the extent of this government’s cruelty. They are playing God and saying, ‘we’ll decide if you can get off here or not’.“

Leah, who has worked on both Manus Island and Nauru, said she sympathised completely with the pro-refugee demonstrators:

They are people like myself who recognise the urgency of the situation. I have only respect and admiration for their efforts in trying to find a more impactful way to keep this issue alive in the media. And if a hand rail gets damaged or there is dye in the water feature of the people’s house, it is just not comparable to the damage being done to these children and families on Manus and Nauru.

Leah despaired that the Government has chosen to deny the facts instead of acting to close the camps:

All the evidence, backed up by multiple sources in two separate Senate Inquiries and an independent review, as well as the release of leaked Nauru files, detail the inhuman conditions endured by asylum seekers. It is of great concern that the government is ignoring these facts. There is not one single scrap of evidence that the kids are safe on Nauru.

Speaking again on behalf of her fellow workers Leah said:

It is definitely frustrating to see things go backwards with the lifetime refugee ban.

[But we] continue to advocate for the kids and families who have waited for so long. We are still willing to be prosecuted if it will end their torture and prevent further trauma. It helps those still on Nauru to know that people care and are fighting for them, but it also creates interest in people who can maybe make a difference ... and seek the truth.

As for the protesters being arrested for attempting to draw attention to the refugees' plight in the people's house, Leah said:

"Does the government even know the meaning of democracy?"

Nick McKim echoed this sentiment:

The response from the conservatives [in Parliament] was as predictable as it was disgraceful. Some suggested a violent response, while others hid in their offices to make "smart-arsey" social media posts. Not a single one of them had the courage to meet the protesters and listen to their concerns, which shows that they would rather that the humanitarian crisis they have created on Manus Island and Nauru, remains silent.

Leah remains optimistic for the stranded families:

Speaking for myself and my colleagues, we don't support anything less than a permanent and equitable resettlement solution for the asylum seekers ... One that doesn't further play God with their lives, through a selection process, or limited time frame. We truly hope that all the refugee and asylum seeker children on Nauru and Manus Island know freedom before another new year begins.

You can follow deputy editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9 or check out her blog here.

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