About 700 people attended a public forum called “We are one, but we are many: Working towards a humane refugee policy” hosted by the Combined Refugee Action Group (CRAG) in Geelong on February 18.
Taking place on the same day that news broke of the appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and the death of one person after the compound had been attacked, the mood among the crowd was of anger and disbelief.
After a welcome to country from Uncle David of the Wathaurong community, speakers included former Vietnamese refugee from Bishop Vincent Long, Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Professor Louise Newman, a psychiatrist specialising in the mental health needs of refugees and asylum seekers. No federal or state politicians attended.
Long told the crowd the Australian way of life is not undermined by refugees or migrants and the Australian community is instead demeaned when they are regarded and treated as less than human. Recounting his own experience as a “boat person” in 1980, the Bishop urged the crowd to consider that “we are made greater by solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers”.
Newman spoke about the impact that “gross uncertainty” and indefinite and arbitrary detention has on the mental health of people subject to Australia’s mandatory detention regime.
She said the deterioration of conditions in detention experienced by refugees and asylum seekers has resulted in the retraumatisation of incredibly vulnerable people. As a doctor, Newman said: “Therapeutic neutrality is just not possible in the context of human rights violations.”
As an audience member later said in discussion, it is impossible to give refugees and asylum seekers the care they need while their daily lives consist of abuse and detention.
Newman’s final points were that inhumane “deterrence” seemed to be the sole point of Australia’s immigration policy and that although Australia seemed to be “great at spying on neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia”, Australia had failed at the kind of regional dialogue necessary to bring about more humane refugee policies.
Karapanagiotidis captivated the audience by wondering how Australia became a country that kills refugees. He also expressed frustration at how often we hear “stop the boats”.
There was deadly silence when he recounted the detention centre practices that meant hearing and vision aids, and prosthetics were confiscated as a matter of course and that detainees — who have been trapped at sea with no sanitation facilities — are not even allowed to shower before being examined.
CRAG co-convenor Tim Gooden said: “Shamefully, there would be no way Jews would be able to come to Australia now if they were experiencing what they did in the 1930s and were trying to escape.”
A resolution calling for permanent protection visas, an end to offshore detention and the release of people found to be refugees yet still detained because of adverse security assessments from ASIO was passed unanimously.