Delving beyond the politicised asylum seeker debate

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More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees
Rosemary Sayer
Margaret River Press

As the major political parties in Australia shifted into election mode earlier this year, the topic of refugees was almost always one that elicited an emotional response, with questions like ‘who are these people?’, ‘why did they come here?’ and ‘why should we care about them?’ becoming the norm. The recent release of over 2,000 confidential files on the Nauru detention centre that exposes sexual assault, child abuse and inhuman detention practices has seen a surge of interest in the public wanting more information and transparency around asylum seekers held in detention.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees by Rosemary Sayer is an important collection of stories told by individuals who came to Australia seeking refuge, and provides personal insight into the questions so often raised within political forums, which arguablydrowns out the voices that matter most in the mainstream debates about refugees.

The 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Australia is a signatory, states that a person is a refugee if they are outside of their country due to fear and likelihood of prosecution due to their religion, race, nationality, political opinion or member of a social group (often a minority group).

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees is a vital contribution to understanding the complex tapestry of the human experience that refugees bring with them when they embark on their journeys and settle in their new countries.

As an expat living overseas, Sayer notes that she was regularly asked why Australians were racist towards refugees, with Chinese friends concerned with the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and the anti-immigrant sentiment playing out in the media. Sayer writes that the reason she became interested in presenting the unique stories of refugees was because she “felt compelled to embrace the opposite approach” of how refugees’ stories are commonly represented and politicised, in order to provide a voice to those who are regularly silenced by states, governments and the media.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees is a vital contribution to understanding the complex tapestry of the human experience that refugees bring with them when they embark on their journeys and settle in their new countries. The stories feature diverse characters from disparate countries, from Naw Pi, a Karen from Myanmar who fled from persecution by the Burmese military who raided her village to Abdul Farid Sufizada, one of the 428 people on board the Tampa, the ship that became a turning point in Australian politics around the management of refugees and asylum seekers.

Sayers reflects that “spending time among refugee families that had often been dislocated by war and were now living such challenging lives had constantly made [her] reflect on [her] family’s good fortune of being born in Australia”.

Interestingly, Sayer includes a chapter on those who have been left behind – illustrating that the journey to becoming a refugee is often not taken in isolation and that there are far-reaching consequences that are often unseen. Sayers explores how familial ties are often strengthened when a husband, brother, mother or sister flees in the hope of a better life.

The author also visits Mae La, the biggest refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, and attempts to document the entire experience of the refugees there with sensitivity. At Mae La, Sayers notes that “the significant effort made by all the refugees to maintain their dignity and hope in the camp community” contributed to their ability to maintain a positive outlook, despite some of them being there for numerous years while their claims were being assessed.

In the process of writing More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees, Sayers often had her own cultural constructs and ideas about refugees and the circumstances leading to them seeking asylum challenged. In her introduction, Sayers notes that she rarely harboured a thought as to what it meant to live in a free society until she spoke intimately with the refugees who had themselves become displaced because of socio-political interference.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees expertly weaves together not only conversations with refugees but the historical and socio-political backdrops that have forced them to flee their countries for shelter in Australia. As Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers increasingly becomes a political and moral issue, it is well worth reading this book to hear authentic voices.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees is now available from Margaret River Press.

Article originally posted here: RightNow: Human Rights in Australia

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What it means to be a refugee in Australia

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Younis Yousefi, My House, 2004, unfired clay handpainted

Pictures in my Heart: Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia
Fiona Hamilton
Wakefield Press

Noted French novelist Marcel Proust once claimed that “only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees”. In Fiona Hamilton’s book Pictures in my Heart, Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia, the reader is treated to artworks created by refugees from Afghanistan living in Murray Bridge, a small town outside of Adelaide, South Australia. The pieces explore what it means to be refugees in Australia. Linocuts – prints cut into a sheet of linoleum – are used as the medium through which the artists’ depict their separation from their families and their harrowing experiences as asylum seekers.

Between 1999 and 2001, many Hazara male refugees came to Australia by boat and were placed on Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) while the Australian government assessed their asylum claims. Living on a TPV meant that this particular group of men was able to live in the Murray Bridge community, rather than in detention as is the case now for those seeking asylum on Australian shores. However, the TPV also meant that the Australian government would reconsider their petition for asylum after 30 months. If circumstances changed, there could be every chance that their review would be unfavourable and that they would be sent back to Afghanistan – a potential death sentence for those fleeing the Taliban.

Familial themes pervade the artwork, while the stories further reinforce how dangerous Afghanistan has been for those caught in the Taliban’s warfare.

Alongside longtime friend and artist Miranda Harris, Hamilton saw the opportunity to run a series of art workshops as a way of mitigating the intense periods of loneliness and separation that accompany the refugee experience. The book is a collection of stories, linocuts, photos and clay art made by the men who attended the workshops. Their contributions featured in a 2003 exhibition at the local town hall.

Whilst significant as artworks in their own right, the series of works highlights the collective plight of many refugees; caught between wanting to honour their own socio-cultural backgrounds while trying to become valued members of Australian society. Familial themes pervade the artwork, while the stories further reinforce how dangerous Afghanistan has been for those caught in the Taliban’s warfare.

Broken up into chapters such as “Home”, “War”, “Journey” and “Boat”, Pictures in my Heart, Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia is a collection of memories and hopes representative of the initial shared refugee experience – from the decision to embark on a dangerous journey to freedom to the challenges faced as a result of governmental intervention.

Unfortunately, the ability of refugees to access artistic programs such as the Murray Bridge program is not a shared experience, and we are poorer because of it.

Originally published at Rightnow: http://rightnow.org.au/review-3/importance-art-understanding/

Human rights off the table?

Street scene in Beijing

Street scene in Beijing

This article was originally published at G20 Watch

Given that the G20 is being billed as the most significant leadership meeting that Australia has ever hosted and will ‘address the global growth challenge in an ambitious and meaningful way” we need to ask where the discussion on human rights is taking place.

Should we be worried that there appears to be a distinct lack of reference to human rights at the biggest meeting of world leaders? Does it really matter if human rights are not discussed openly, if at all, in reference to global economic growth?

In a word, yes, because the absence of discussion that takes into account human rights obligations and responsibilities means that the Summit may make recommendations that are counter-intuitive to current human rights instruments.

Take for example The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)which focuses on socio-economic rights and responsibilities such as labour rights, access to education, standards of living and the right to health.  All G20 members have ratified the Covenant except for the US, Saudi Arabia and the EU (France and Germany have ratified the Covenant).

Under Article 6 of the Covenant, State Parties recognise the right to work in an occupation of choice and must take appropriate steps to safeguard this right. This can include ensuring that there are technical or educational frameworks in place as well as ensuring that the State creates specific policies or legislation to realise such a right.

It is encouraging that one of the main focus’ of the Summit will be expanding the paid workforce, especially to boost the participation of women and young people. However, this aim needs to be backed up with concrete plans on how to make it happen, especially in contexts where young people are not able to access proper education and women still face discrimination in the workforce and spend a lot of time caring for children and elderly relatives.

In line with creating new growth in the workforce, the G20 needs to reform current tax and business practices. Under the ‘growth and development stream’, G20 participants will examine tax and banking reform and has, as one of its aims, already suggested a digital approach to the tax and banking environment by digitising payments.

How would a move towards a digital tax and banking system impact upon the ability of a citizen to participate in business when the barrier to access such infrastructure is high?

Arguably, the Summit needs to consider how a global move to digital services will impact upon the day-to-day business of micro-economies in areas such as Africa or Asia where small and medium enterprises (SMEs) deal in small cash transactions and where access to digital infrastructure is minimal and/or prohibitively expensive.

There should be frank and open discussion about the importance of human rights because global growth does not occur in a vacuum. Yet the G20 will not explicitly address human rights. A desktop review of the G20 website, as well as policy papers and working group outputs arguably illustrates a distinct lack of independent research or discussion around human rights and the effect the role that the G20 can or could play in safeguarding or expanding such rights.

How can human rights be heard and seen at the G20?

One obvious suggestion is that the Summit should consider human rights not as a separate issue to be discussed outside of the Summit, but rather something that should be embedded into each and every discussion concerning future and current policies. This means human rights issues will be reflected within the agendas and working groups co-chaired by States.

Surely greater discussion concerning human rights is expected at such an important global platform.

We Steal Secrets Film Review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia,

We Steal Secrets

Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks promised an in-depth look into the creation and inner workings of one of the most famous media organisations in the world. Gibney, of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) fame, marketed the documentary as providing insight into an organisation that is arguably one of the most (in)famous both in terms of publication output and the almost rockstar like following of it’s Editor-in-Chief, Julian Assange.

Disappointingly, it didn’t.

We Steal Secrets chooses instead to focus increasingly on the cult of personality surrounding Assange and seemingly glosses over the importance of the collateral damage video first released by Wikileaks and the cables published after.

The aim, presumably, of the documentary was to shed light on the creation, maintenance and ongoing struggles of an organisation publishing material that placed states and governments in a precarious position publically – the publishing of the secrets that existed behind the closed doors of decision makers, military and intelligence services. Secrets that we now know included details of corruption in Kenya, paramilitary training by the US to assist the overthrow of South American governments, Guantanamo Bay standard operating procedures and video and transcripts of US forces killing unarmed civilians and journalists in Iraq.

There is an uncomfortable feeling that no one actually wants to talk about the atrocities that Wikileaks was able to catapult into the public domain…

Instead, Gibney seemingly becomes transfixed by character references of Assange. The opportunity to analyse Wikileaks’ usefulness as an organisation – one that was able to catapult serious violations of international humanitarian law into the public sphere – is lost amongst the endless parades of cameos offering insight into Assange’s personality. Yes, there is discussion of the killing of unarmed journalists in Iraq, and excerpts are shown in the film, but this is countenanced and almost trivialised by Gibney’s infatuation with the cult of Assange. The majority of the documentary appears to be about the relationship between Gibney and Assange, and Assange and every other media organisation in the world.

Little discussion is given as to the worth, in terms of human rights and international humanitarian law, of the footage and documents released by Wikileaks as evidence of war crimes and Gibney in this sense, appears to follow the majority of mainstream media outlets in ignoring the obvious and wanting to shift attention to the personality behind Wikileaks. There is an uncomfortable feeling that no one actually wants to talk about the atrocities that Wikileaks was able to catapult into the public domain and the usefulness of such an organisation in the face of increased governmental and state secrecy.

The treatment of Bradley Manning in the film is also curious, in that it bizarrely shifts its focus on him from whistleblower to a person troubled by gender issues, spending a substantial amount of time building him up as an unstable, isolated individual whose conflicting traits are somehow responsible for his actions against the state. Again, the audience needs to keep in mind that these ‘actions’ are in reality proof of conduct by a state that is against international law, but appear lost amongst the chatter of Manning’s personality.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is no in-depth expose on the Wikileaks organisation; it focuses too heavily on the cult of the personalities of both Assange and Manning to the detriment of actually providing insight into the usefulness and actions of the organisation. Gibney would have done well to focus less on personality and more on substance – the publication of footage that explicitly illustrates war crimes by a state is a topic that deserves more analysis than it received in the documentary.