I am a Year 11 high school student, and when I heard they were trying to transfer more refugees from Villawood, I couldn’t stand by.
Standing outside the detention centre in the early morning of April 5 while waiting for the buses to move, I saw a Facebook status from one of the protest's spokespeople, Clo Schofield, who had just been interviewed on right-wing radio station 2GB. Schofield encouraged us to ring to air our grievances about Australia's cruel and heartless asylum seeker policy.
Seeing it as a way to challenge the usual garbage that is given air time on the station -- I remember a few months ago listening to a bizarre conversation between a 2GB presenter and an elderly-sounding lady who remarked that “all communists have lisps” -- I decided to take it upon myself, as a high school student and refugee activist, to call and give the “shock jocks” a piece of my mind.
With the help of the other spokesperson, Kyja Noack-Lundberg, who helped me pick out quotes from various conventions and covenants, I went on air on 2GB and tried to hold my own against the loud and continuous voice of the “graveyard shift” presenter Michael McLaren.
Of course, I didn't expect that calling a right-wing radio station with a left-wing point of view would be a picnic.
The first argument McLaren made is a common argument among people who oppose refugee rights. He said refugees are “throwing their papers into the water” and coming here on boats, pretending to be refugees.
Anyone coming into Australia, McLaren said, should have the correct paperwork and arrive through the proper channels, otherwise they are “illegals”. That argument is completely incorrect, and anyone with a basic understanding of how the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees works would know this. Article 27 of the convention clearly states, “The Contracting States shall issue identity papers to any refugee in their territory who does not possess a valid travel document.”
McLaren's argument also reflects a complete misunderstanding of why refugees arrive the way they do. Many people seem to believe that refugees only arrive in Australia without paperwork because they're not really refugees and just can't be bothered applying for a visa.
In reality, there are many reasons why refugees do not have their paperwork. Most of the time they are unable to leave their country of origin with their original passports due to their oppressive governments. It's really as simple as that, but politicians from big parties and radio shock jocks are particularly fond of exaggerating these reasons, and assuming they are sinister.
The second argument was slightly more entertaining. He said “Article 51” of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees dictates that refugees can only legally travel without legal documents to the closest “safe port”, and argued that there were plenty of these “safe ports”, including Malaysia and Thailand.
He said the problem was with “country shopping”, a term I find ironic given the reality of the situation. There are two problems with this argument. First, Article 51 does not exist. The Convention on the Status of Refugees has only 46 articles.
Second, Malaysia and Thailand are not safe for refugees. They are not signatories to the convention and have no legal obligation to provide asylum to refugees. Malaysia has been known for extrajudicial caning of asylum seekers. Safe, right?
The third argument he made, in between making condescending remarks, such as, “Now, Lawson, I'm sure you're a good person and that you think you're supporting a noble cause, but...”, is that we cannot trust everyone who comes to this country, and if we host asylum seekers in the community, they'll run away.
I agree that not all people who arrive in Australia can be trusted — especially given the history of the original boat people's genocide against Aboriginal people — but having visited the Villawood detention centre in December last year, my own knowledge of the people in Villawood detention centre is that they are harmless, and they all have so much to contribute to Australian society.
The only time they should spend in Villawood is the time it takes to grant them refugee status and provide them with a Permanent Protection Visa. I can't imagine how that can take four years, but many people I met at Villawood had been there for four years, or even longer, with no knowledge of when they will get out.
This lack of knowledge about their future is having a significant impact on their mental health. Refugee activists continually hear stories of self-harm, and even suicide attempts inside detention centres.
Finally, just before I was cut off, McLaren argued that we can't just assume everyone who comes into the country is a genuine refugee. He wouldn't stop talking long enough for me to say this, but 90-95% of asylum seekers are accepted as refugees when they are finally processed.
Overall, it was a learning experience. Listeners of 2GB were probably convinced that I had no idea what I was talking about, which is a sign of an excellent “shock jock”.
Silencing callers with a conflicting point of view by talking over them, trying to make them feel guilty for supporting the cause and eventually cutting them off with ads when the argument becomes too tough is all part of a day's work for these people. I would encourage people to get on the phone and take their arguments apart, at the next chance you get.