Newcastle hosts huge refugee rights forum

August 5, 2011
Niko Leka and Gleny Rae.

Mark Goudkamp from the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition, Gleny Rae, a participant in the SBS series Go Back Where You Came From, and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young addressed the biggest meeting supporting asylum seekers seen in Newcastle since the Howard era on August 4.

Goudkamp said 54 asylum seekers, 19 of them children, had recently arrived by boat on Christmas Island. They had not yet been told they would be sent to Malaysia. “The media reports extra riot police have been sent there,” Goudkamp said. “But the government is saying they have counsellors on hand.”

Rae described a midnight raid on asylum seekers she witnessed in Malaysia. Families were dragged out of bed, cable-tied and driven away. “We need to stand up and think what is right, and what is the humanitarian way of dealing with our brothers and sisters,” she said.

Hanson-Young said: “Australia is the only signatory to the [United Nations] Refugee Convention that has mandatory detention, and it is detention without any time limit.

“The rate of suicides, attempted suicide and self-harm in immigration detention centres is skyrocketing. An ambulance driver on Christmas island told me she’s called to treat attempted suicides almost daily.

“When I visit [detention centres] the most chilling thing is seeing grown men wandering up in a daze and breaking down on my shoulder. We have no limits on how far we push people. We push them to breaking point and beyond, it’s a system that ruins people.”

Turning to the “Malaysian solution”, Hanson-Young dismissed the idea of an orderly queue: “When you work out the numbers of people and the amount of time they’ve been there for, the ‘queue’ is 53 years long.”

She said the Malaysia solution undermined the idea of a Regional Protection Framework, because such a framework should mean countries in the region provide protection. Instead, Australia is shirking its responsibilities onto other countries, which sets a bad example.

She said: “The Australian government is going to spend $2.5 billion that it doesn’t have to, over the next four years, on what’s really just a handful of people.

“Prime Minister [Julia] Gillard said during her election campaign that she wanted to put all the facts on the table. She’s done nothing, but continues to peddle the myths. It’s up to you guys to continue to put the facts on the table.”

She concluded the ALP/Coalition policy of sending asylum seekers to other countries does not go to the heart of the problem. “What we should be aiming for is a practical solution, a human solution, an Australian solution.”

[Niko Leka is a member of Refugee Action Network Newcastle and the Socialist Alliance.]

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