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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Aboriginal Human Rights Trajectory Crucial Reading

Originally published at Right Now : Human Rights in Australia

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Book review by Maya Borom

No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia | UQP

In 1967, a successful referendum was held to determine whether the Australian constitution should be altered to remove references that discriminated against Aboriginal people. Momentum has since been gathering around a proposal that the Australian constitution be changed to positively recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A new referendum has been proposed for 2017, some 50 years after the initial 1967 referendum.

Frank Brennan’s No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia is a comprehensive look at the path to constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians. Brennan takes the reader on a journey, which includes analysis of the lead-up to the 1967 referendum; the socio-political manoeuvrings of state ministers and government officers around Aboriginal affairs; frank discussion around perceived promises springing from the change to the constitution; and the tabled concerns of Aboriginal advocates around legislative protections and the constitutional framework.

Brennan, a law professor at the Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, displays an expert understanding of the issues that indigenous Australians face in contemporary Australia. This is evidenced by him receiving an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Aboriginal Australians.

His father is esteemed High Court Justice Brennan, who famously rejected the notion of terra nullius in the Mabo case (1992), though Brennan himself notes in the preface that his own introduction to the complexity of Aboriginal issues first emerged as a junior barrister in 1981 in Queensland.

Deftly written and all-inclusive, No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia is a must read for those interested in Aboriginal issues in the Australian socio-political landscape, particularly the teasing out of Aboriginal concerns around discrimination and adverse treatment arising from the changes to the constitution in 1967.

These issues most recently played out through inconsistent laws dealing with native title, while the treatment of Adam Goodes is further proof that overt racism continues to pose a real threat to indigenous Australians’ mental and physical health.

No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia is available from UQP.

The Coal Face, book review.

Originally published at Right Now : Human Rights in Australia

2015.02.08

Book review by Samaya Borom

The Coal Face | Penguin Books Australia

On 9 February 2014, a fire started at the Hazelwood coal mine and would continue to burn almost unfettered for nearly two months. During this time, the residents of Morwell and the greater LaTrobe Valley breathed in the toxic smoke and went about their daily business, taking direction from the Department of Health who assured residents of the non-toxicity of the coal mine ash.

The Hazelwood mine fire – one of Australia’s greatest environmental and public health disasters – was completely avoidable, writes Tom Doig in his book The Coal Face. Doig interviews local residents who provide firsthand accounts of the disaster, which because of the time it was left burning, was to have catastrophic consequences on their future health and wellbeing.

Through Doig’s account, it becomes increasingly clear that the fire was able to occur due to what could be referred to as political interest in the region. Hazelwood Mine was a substantial employer in the LaTrobe Valley and in the years and months leading up to the disaster, the promise of economic stability often overruled environmental and public safety concerns.

Doig provides many examples of this, from the privatisation of the mine under the Kennett government when it was to be decommissioned, to the approval of a planning permit that allowed GDF Suez, the owner of the mine, to expand into an area close to eucalypt trees – well known for being highly combustible.

Had the book not been based on real events, it could have almost been labelled a absurd step-by-step case study of what not to do in an environmental disaster; the fact that a mine operated in such close proximity to a town without adequate fire prevention methods in place, or indeed working water pipes, is astounding.

The lack of initial media reportage, or interest in the mine fire outside of the immediate area is also curious. It spurned a grassroots political movement to ensure reporting of the disaster was not further censored by political pressure during an election year. Doig expertly captures the community voice, and in doing so, presents a very real representation of a disaster of mass proportions.

An initial inquiry into the fire was opened on 11 March 2014 by then Premier Napthine, with the final report launching at the Morwell Bowls Club. Doig points out that locals believed it was not exhaustive enough and campaigned to have the inquiry reopened on the basis of new community data that pointed to a spike in deaths around the time of the disaster.

On 25 May 2015, the Hazelwood Mine Fire Enquiry was re-opened with the board of enquiry being lead by the Honorable Bernard Teague. The terms of reference include looking into short, medium and long-term health implications of the mine fire as well as whether rehabilitation options are viable.

The Coal Face is crucial reading for those interested in an analysis of the decades of irresponsible decision-making that culminated in the disaster, as well as a complete rundown of the mismanaged fire, that has now earned the moniker of one of Australia’s greatest environmental disasters.

The Coal Face is available from Penguin Books Australia.

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.

MIFF WRAP – Point and Shoot

Point and Shoot | Marshall Curry

Point and Shoot posterFilmmaker Marshall Curry’s documentary about ex-Gaddafi prisoner and self-styled freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke is both mesmerising and disturbing. VanDkye is well known for being captured by Gaddafi forces during the Libyan civil war and for his choice to remain in Libya and re-join the National Liberation Army rather than return back to the United States.

Curry has certainly chosen an interesting character – VanDyke left the comfort of middle class America after graduating from a Masters at prestigious Georgetown University to travel across Africa and the Middle-East on a bike in a bid to find his identity. After a return stint back in the US, and with his experiences still fresh, the political situation caused by the Arab spring saw him return to take arms as a revolutionary fighter in Libya working to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

Idealistic and with a penchant for posing on camera in cameo, VanDyke films his every moment fighting to overthrow the Gaddafi government and it’s precisely this that makes for engrossing but sometimes uncomfortable viewing.

The film raises very important questions concerning the role that foreign fighters may have in conflicts around the world, particularly in light of recent allegations of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

It is legally and morally wrong for a citizen of another country to take up arms against another government? Where does one draw the line if it is viewed as acceptable to be a revolutionary fighter in a foreign war, but not acceptable if you’re wanting to fight for the state? Interspersed with interviews with VanDyke Point and Shoot is a must see for those interested in the events in Libya and for those interested in the psychology of foreign fighters.

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, an edited version is below.

HRAFF 2014 Film Picks

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, an edited version is below.

HRAFF 2014

HRAFF movie reviews by Sonia Nair, Maya Borom and Sam Ryan.

With the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival just days away, the Right Now review team pick out some of the most intriguing films from the extensive 2014 HRAFF program, which offers the usual feast of informative and inspirational stories.

The Square

During 2011, the call to revolution rang out in Egypt’s renowned Tahrir square. Thousands of people called for an end to over 30 years of emergency laws and demanded the resignation of Mubarak and his regime from power. The protests started out as a peaceful sit-in but turned into one of the bloodiest revolutions in the nation’s history.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square goes behind the scenes of the revolution, from the early stages of planning the occupation of Tahrir square to the 2012 presidential elections won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and disaffection with Morsi’s rule in 2013. It becomes clear that there are competing agendas and interests in ensuring the revolution is successful  – graphic footage captures civilians deaths at the hand of military whilst back-door deals between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military seemingly undermine the purpose of the revolution against corruption.

Featuring on-the-ground footage that has rarely been shown on mainstream media (if at all), as well as interviews with key organisers of the Tahrir demonstrations, The Square is an important document of a bloody era of modern Egyptian history. It captures the people’s struggle for democracy against an increasingly difficult political situation and provides insight into the hopes and dreams of millions of Egyptians who supported the revolution – some with their lives.

The Square screens 6.30pm, Thursday 8 May at ACMI. View the trailer:

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Brian Knappenberger’s investigative documentary The Internet’s Own Boy tells the story of Aaron Swartz, widely known as an American hacktivist and one of the founders of Reddit. Swartz was also at the centre of one of the biggest legal cases in US copyright history and found dead in his apartment after refusing to plead guilty to charges.

Swartz’s interest in systems and open data led him to advocate for open access to information and actions that eventually led to a tug-of-war involving the government and corporate copyright interests.

The documentary features interviews with family, friends and experts that provide insight into Swartz life, from an early age through to the days leading up to his death. It also illustrates the extent to which the United States government and commercial entities will go to protect commercial interests.

The Internet’s Own Boy raises important questions about the right to information – who owns information and who has the right to determine whom can have access to it and when.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz screens 6.15pm, Thursday 15 May. View the trailer:

Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror by Barnett R. Rubin

This article first appeared in the London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

Barnett R. Rubin’s Afghanistan From the Cold War through the War on Terror is an essential read for those interested not only in the socio-economic and political history of Afghanistan but also for those interested in the role that foreign powers can have on a state, writes Samaya Borom. Essays cover human rights, security, the narcotics trade, and post-conflict statebuilding.

Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror. Barnett R Rubin. Oxford University Press. April 2013.

Find this book: amazon-logo

Not long after the 24th of September 2001, a Central Intelligence Agency operative carried $3 million in cash into the Panjshir Valley to disperse money to Afghan commanders to try to overthrow the Taliban and to ensure strategic alliance with the United States. After the funds were initially dispersed, the CIA Counterterrorist Center dispatched $10 million more and as the cashed up commanders exchanged their USD funds for local currency they flooded the market, devalued the dollar and effectively crippled Afghanistan’s economy.

The insights revealed throughout Barnett Rubin’s Afghanistan, from the Cold War through the War on Terror come from essays collated over more than a decade whilst Rubin was employed by the Council of Foreign Relations and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and crucially while he was also acting as a consultant to the United Nations mission to Afghanistan. Rubin is a world renowned political science expert, if not the expert, on Afghanistan and it is his intimate understandings of the country and the international and domestic political forces that have shaped it (and continue to shape it) that make this book a must read.Rubin’s previous book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System detailed the troublesome period of Afghan political history from the 1978 coup to the fall of Najibullah and the subsequent mujahideen taking Kabul. His newest collection of essays on Afghanistan cements his standing as a pre-eminent scholar of contemporary Afghan political history. The introductory chapter provides an illustration as to how deeply involved Rubin is with the country, from speaking to refugees camped by the road after fleeing fighting in Kabul to attending a meeting of the US State Department shortly after the 9/11 attacks and listening to intense debate about the role the US could or should play in nation building.

Though the book was written over a timespan of ten years, a common thread exists between the essays in that Afghanistan and its people have been shown to have suffered tirelessly and often needlessly at the hands of people and groups funded by powers that work towards an unseen strategic roadmap. It is a subject that Rubin revisits in most essays and is backed up with comprehensive evidence or references so that the collection is not merely looked upon as a collection of memoirs but rather a solid reference material in its own right.

An elderly Afghan man at an International Red Cross Distribution camp. Credit: United Nations Photo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the chapter “Blueprint for Afghanistan” Rubin explores how the country’s lack of monetary transparency or accountability allowed for international terrorism to gain a foothold in the region. Increased global awareness of the country saw a decrease in domestic participation in governmental and non-governmental institutions. The increase in external interest in ‘assisting’ Afghans to build institutions often saw donor and non-governmental agencies establishing themselves with relatively little frameworks in place to ensure that the requisite Afghan participation in activities occurred. The appearance of external groups on local real-estate markets was often disastrous and Kabul saw rent increases from $100 to $10,000 per month to accommodate the influx – to the detriment of local establishments who were unable to compete with the inflation and had to either move elsewhere or dissolve.

This chapter segways nicely to “The Politics of Center-Periphery Relations in Afghanistan”, co-researched with Helena Malikyar, an independent researcher and writer based in Kabul with extensive experience on governance related projects with the United Nations and USAID. It argues that the current administrative approach of the government is not a new approach, and that the country often looked to foreign support in order to maintain balance and control. This background proves essential in moving forward through subsequent essays that broach topics such as the difficulty in crafting a Constitution as a roadmap to re-establishing government institutional processes, and implementing and deploying a successful strategy to deal with insurgents where the occupying foreign forces disagree with local government.

The essays covered in the book vary in length and detail, however are all clearly well-researched. It is common for Rubin to include figures and graphs where referring to economic indicators or reconstruction efforts and these help to paint an intimate image of the Afghanistan he so clearly feels deeply about. Rubin’s professional standing, both at the international and domestic level, afforded him access to people and areas outside of the normal writer/researcher gaumut and this has allowed him to present material rich in observation as well as facts. The essays themselves work seamlessly together which is fortunate for the reader as it provides an authentic aggregated view of Afghanistan.

Barnett R. Rubin’s Afghanistan From the Cold War through the War on Terror is an essential read for those interested not only in the socio-economic and political history of Afghanistan but also for those interested in the role that foreign powers can have on a state.