World Refugee Day is dedicated each year to raising awareness about the more than 43.7 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. The United Nations and non-government organisations usually share refugee stories and make pleas for compassion and empathy.
But in Australia, refugees and asylum seekers are treated like the enemy in a war: the target of a highly resourced, military-led “deterrence” strategy complete with arbitrary detainment, detention camps, guards to terrorise them, forced deportations and the violent suppression of those who protest.
World Refugee Day on June 20 comes this year amid grief and anger over yet another asylum seeker’s death and yet more refugee protests in Australian detention. As 29-year-old Tamil man Leo Seemanpillai died of his injuries after self-immolating while on a bridging visa in the Victorian town of Geelong, refugees were sewing their mouths shut and facing down brutal beatings from Serco guards on Christmas Island.
Seemanpillai was in anguish due to uncertainty surrounding his visa and terrified of being killed if deported to Sri Lanka. This was a well-founded fear. The Australian government continues to undertake forced deportations of asylum seekers.
Edmund Rice Centre director Phil Glendenning — who is also president of the Refugee Council of Australia, which recently lost government funding in the federal budget cuts — has been investigating the outcomes for those forcibly deported from Australia since John Howard was in office.
He said that since October last year, 1200 people, many of them Tamils, have been sent back to Sri Lanka. Glendenning said: “Some of those people remain in prison in Negombo in seven by 10 metre spaces with 75 others ...
“In previous years, at least nine asylum seekers who were returned were killed.”
Now refugees may be forced to organise their own, premature, deportations. Refugee advocates said on June 9 that asylum seekers who were refused protection were being pressured to make their own plans to leave Australia, even if still trying to appeal their claims, or risk being put back in detention.
Refugee lawyer David Manne said the requirements were “at fundamental odds with a person's claims for protection against their country”.
Refugee advocates also fear that a recent operation to move several refugee families from a Melbourne detention facility to the Christmas Island detention centre was a precursor to further deportations. Young children were among those transferred.
More than 1000 children will spend World Refugee Day in Australia's detention centres.
Many Australian refugee rights advocates use World Refugee Day to point out what a small share of global refugee numbers Australia actually bears.
Countries that share the highest refugee numbers are in the Third World and have refugee populations of their own, such as Pakistan, Iran and Syria. The Refugee Council said in 2012 that Australia shared 0.29% of the total number of refugees, ranking 49th worldwide. Compared with national wealth GDP, Australia ranked 87th — behind countries including Kenya, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the recent figures for Europe on June 5: “So far this year about 42,000 people have tried to cross the Med[iterranean] to get to Italy. They're from Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria — anywhere in Africa and the Middle East beset by bloodletting. Men, women and children …
“That should put our little old 'illegal maritime arrivals' problems into perspective, with 51,637 arriving by boat on our shores over five years between 2009 and 2013 (parliamentary research figures). The peak year for us was 2013 with 20,587 arrivals, about half what Italy has received in the past five months.”
It is shameful, then, that Prime Minister Tony Abbott likens boat arrivals to a war and a threat to “national sovereignty”, to justify his government's secrecy and cruelty.
It is embarrassing that such large numbers of Australians swallow lies like the “not genuine” and “queue jumper” myths, precipitating poll results like “59% of Australians believe Abbott should increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers”.
And as a day approaches that is intended to commend the resilience and courage of the world's displaced approaches, conservative think-tank the Lowy Institute has said 71% of Australians support turning back refugee boats at sea by the navy, despite ongoing accusations that naval officers abuse and torture those in their custody.
This apparently widespread public sentiment against innocent people legally seeking protection was a large part of Abbott's successful election strategy. Relying on much of the prejudice and fear developed by Howard, Abbott's promise to appoint a three-star general to respond to a non-existent crisis was highly effective political camouflage for the multiple attacks on working people now being enacted.
It is an understatement to say that raising awareness about Australia's place in the global refugee crisis is an uphill battle, thanks to decades of manufactured public anger against asylum seekers. But the burgeoning fightback against Abbott — as seen in the “Bust the Budget” movement and several big refugee rights rallies this year — show there is ground on which a big campaign for refugees can be built.
On World Refugee Day this year, the UN refugee agency asks people to imagine what they would do if it were their family being forced to flee just to survive; where would they go and who would they turn to for help?
It is also important to imagine: what if it were me in an Australian detention centre, locked up with my small children in the squalid conditions of Nauru, or being terrorised by security guards on Manus Island?
Would I despair, or protest, or both? How would I want Australians to see me — as a foreigner, an illegal boatperson, or as a human being just like them? And what would I hope they do?
Human displacement is a global emergency. There are 40 million people in the world struggling through unimaginable circumstances, wrestling with questions, fear and trauma. This includes the small number of refugees in Australia — and they deserve much more than being Abbott's political leverage.