This was a speech given to a Refugee Action Coalition forum in Sydney on May 5.
I am in Year 11 at a school in Sydney’s inner-west, and like many other high school students, I care about refugee and queer rights, as well as for the rights of women, the rights of Aboriginal Australians and the environment. I am also an activist for all of these things.
From what I've seen, many students support refugee rights and I've found few people my age who oppose them. But I've got into many stupid arguments about refugees with older people.
I think a recent example of this tolerance and compassion that our generation shows was the viral video of students at Newtown High School grilling Prime Minister Tony Abbott during their visit to Canberra. It was refreshing to see other people my age seeing things the way I do and being informed about the things that really matter.
One student asked why Abbott wanted to follow former prime minister John Howard in turning back the boats, to which he launched into a ramble of how Operation Sovereign Borders is saving lives. He then was asked if he was aware that seeking asylum is a human right, to which he replied that that question had already been asked and refused to answer it.
That nine-minute video made the rounds on Facebook and received almost 500,000 views on YouTube. It damaged Abbott's reputation and made the rest of us high-school students look much better informed.
I'm here today to talk about how there are other high school students who inspire me to continue fighting the good fight for the rights of the oppressed in our society.
I've picked out several notable examples of high-school students making a difference.
In May 1997, 700 high-school students walked out of school to protest both a 23% funding cut to the education system and cuts to Australia's educational financial aid system Austudy.
The government and schools tried to prevent the protests, with the NSW Department of
Education trying to stop the walkout, the local council not allowing permission for the march to go ahead, and school principals threatening students with detentions and suspensions at school assemblies.
Manly High even went as far as cancelling the buses that were hired to take students to
the protests, that the student representative council had paid for. Undeterred, 700 students marched, which was an amazing turnout and proved students' commitment to the cause.
In July 1998, high-school students played an integral role in combating racism. One of the main targets of this protest was politician Pauline Hanson, whose name has become synonymous with racism.
They also fought against Howard's abolition of the recognition of native title for Indigenous Australians and the abolition of welfare payments for migrants. This fight took place as a sit-in in Howard's office.
In 2001, 50 people, many of them high-school students, held a vigil outside Maribyrnong Detention Centre in Melbourne to pay their respects to and protest the detention of hundreds of school-aged children. In a way, this example mirrors the vigil GetUp! held in late February this year to remember Reza Barati, who was brutally murdered by G4S staff on Manus Island.
It saddens me that almost 13 years later we're still holding vigils for refugees who should have been freed long ago but who are still being tortured in arbitrary detention.
In 2003, socialist youth organisation Resistance founded the anti-war movement Books Not Bombs. It also organised two huge student strikes and rallies, Australia's largest ever high-school protests. The crowd was protesting against the invasion of Iraq. The rally drew a large amount of criticism from all sides of politics and then-NSW Premier Bob Carr tried to ban the protests.
In 2007, when then-US President George W Bush visited Australia as part of APEC, students at over 25 high schools held a mass walk-out and then a rally at Belmore Park to publicly oppose war, as well as to defend the right to protest.
They said that reception to the cause was “pretty positive” and that the only major concerns which were brought up were that their parents wouldn't let them go, or that they were scared of the police's water cannon.
In 2011, high-school students in Geelong, Victoria formed the Refugee Advocacy Group; a group for young refugee activists to express their dismay for Australia's immigration policies after Chris Bowen's announcement of the Malaysian Solution. They organised a rally for refugee rights that year in Geelong.
Today, many high schools run visits to the Villawood Detention Centre. I've also met many students who go to high schools that not only support refugee rights, but actively teach their students about why they are so important.
Being an activist in high school presents its own unique set of issues that we have to deal with. For example: “Should I bring a change of clothes to this rally? What are the chances I'll end up on the front cover of the newspaper getting violently arrested in my uniform and it makes the school look bad?
“Should I spend my free period in the library studying or making posters for the next rally?
“If I decide to take part in a strike, will the principal give me a detention?”
Despite these problems, I believe that public protest plays a big role in the refugee rights campaign. In my personal context, I might attend a rally and then post it on Facebook or tell my friends about it, and that might encourage them to come to the next rally. In that way, these protests play an integral part in bringing new people to the cause, especially with young people.
In a more general aspect, public protest can also gradually change public opinion over time. People like us staunchly oppose the current measures the government is employing against refugees. However, at the moment, this is not reflected in the majority opinion. A recent poll by UMR Research found that 60% of Australians want a harsher policy against asylum seekers, and 59% think that most people who arrive by boat are not genuine refugees.
As we all know, a simple visit to the Department of Immigration website will tell you that between 90 and 95% of maritime arrivals are found to be genuine refugees.
We just need to sway public opinion in order to change the government's harsh and cruel stance on asylum seekers. I dare say that with the exception of certain politicians, most Australians — even the ones that do support mandatory detention — are good people who believe in human rights.
BUILDING THE MOVEMENT
This is why I don't blame Australians for this treatment and why many refugees don't either. The reason this is so supported is that many people are ignorant to not only the persecution they are facing, but also their legal rights to seek asylum and the conditions in Australian detention centres. I think if they saw the truth of the situation, they would want to treat refugees fairly and with compassion.
So, in conclusion, my suggestion to everyone in the refugee movement is to just keep going to protests, and to keep informing others of the facts about refugees, and — in time, with a growing movement — we will stop these barbaric policies, especially given that we have cold, hard facts on our side. High-school students are looking and listening and organising to support these rallies.