Troubled waters

Fed up with the government's asylum seeker policies, one group is speaking in a loud and passionate voice, HANNAH CARRODUS writes.

A COUPLE of weeks ago, 60 Bendigo residents formed a new protest group to lobby the government over its treatment of asylum seekers.

Group co-ordinator Dave Fagg says people are fed up with the government’s “appalling” policies and they’re determined to be loud about it, with a number of protest actions now in the pipeline.

“Everyone was very enthusiastic and wanting to do something … I think from the people who turned up, it represents a significant amount of passion about the issue," he says.

(There is) a significant amount of passion about the issue. - Dave Fagg

It seems the plight of refugees is once more in the spotlight in Bendigo. This new protest group was formed on the back of a vigil for asylum seeker Reza Berati in Rosalind Park on February 23, which was attended by more than 100 people.

Mr Berati died during a riot at a detention centre on Manus Island last month.

Pat Horan, of Refugees for Rural Australians, says in the past few months her group has come across many new faces at refugee action conventions.

“People who haven’t been involved before are starting to think about the issue and wanting to help,” Ms Horan says.

“This latest incident on Manus has brought it home to people.”

But there are also many in our community who don’t share Ms Horan’s views.

On the Bendigo Advertiser website are comments decrying the vigil for Reza Berati.

“Just another picnic in Rosalind Park,” says one poster.

“This asylum seeker came illegally to our shores; we didn’t abduct him from his home in Iran,” says another.

It’s been almost 13 years since the Tampa crashed to our shores – bringing with it a wave of suspicion and uncertainty of those who arrive by boat – yet it’s clear this issue remains as divisive as ever.

Those who support a strict hand in dealing with asylum seekers, such as Tony Abbott, argue that the majority of people trying to reach Australia are economic migrants, not refugees.

"Let's remember that every single one of the recent arrivals has come to Australia through a series of other countries where they could easily have claimed asylum but they choose not to do that because they are seeking a migration outcome here in Australia,'' Mr Abbott said recently.

“We want to make them go back to the country from which they came.”

Mr Abbott has been vocal about his determination to “stop the boats”, which he is achieving by towing boats on their way to Australia back to Indonesia and housing asylum seekers in detention centres on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, as they await the outcomes of their claims.

The Coalition has also said it will continue the ALP’s policy of permanently resettling those found to be genuine refugees in Papua New Guinea.

Proponents of this policy say the benefits are two-fold - asylum seekers are less likely to risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys and economic migrants will hardly find the prospect of creating a new life in PNG, one of the poorest and most dysfunctional countries in the world, appealing.

Indeed, although the Labor Party has been critical of the government’s management of detention centres on Manus Island in recent days, the differences in their policies towards asylum seekers are miniscule.

But many Australians, including those within the ALP, argue the Manus Island policy is a breach of Australia’s international obligations.

Lisa Chesters, Member for Bendigo, is one of those people.

“I said before the election and continue to state that we should always honour our obligations under the refugee convention, which means processing asylum seekers onshore,” she says.

“Regardless of political colour it’s an issue where we need to put the human beings at the centre … and not indulge in political point scoring.

“I’m disappointed that the government continues to politicise these people.

“It’s not illegal to seek asylum.”

Pat Horan agrees.

“With the Tampa entrenched lines were drawn and politicians realised the effectiveness of using fear and depersonalisation,” Ms Horan says.

“The government’s misuse of language using words like ‘illegal' and ‘war’ give a slanted view of the situation.”

Both Ms Horan and Ms Chesters would like to see the government hold talks with Indonesia and other transit countries to form a regional solution and for asylum seekers who do make it to Australia to be processed onshore. They have called for politicians to tone down the rhetoric surrounding this issue and discuss it in a calm and rational manner.

Ms Horan also points out that while deterrent policies seemed to be based on the premise that Australia has an influx of refugees hitting our shores, the numbers tell a different story.

Contrary to comments by politicians that Australia accepts more refugees on a per-capita basis than any country in the world, statistics from the UNHCR reveal that in 2012, Australia in fact ranked 22.

Yet in the middle of this complex debate, it’s easy to forget about the people at the centre of it: the refugees themselves.

Ashin Moonieinda, one of the 700 Burmese of Karen ethnicity living in Bendigo, says it’s hard for Australians to understand refugee experiences. He says as a child growing up his family was in constant fear of being persecuted by the Burmese military.

“We always have to run and hide,” Mr Moonieinda says.

“Sometimes we stay in the forest.

“We cannot cook because the military would see us.”

But one time the family wasn’t successful in their escape attempt. Mr Moonieinda's parents were arrested by the military and kept in solitary confinement for three days, without food. On another occasion the military severely bashed his parents, breaking seven of his father’s ribs.

In 1999 Mr Moonieinda, who was then 24, fled to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. He stayed there for seven years, before being granted refugee status to live in Australia.

He says there have been occasions when people in Bendigo have stared and pointed at him, sometimes yelling for him to ‘go back to where you came from’. But Mr Moonieinda says he doesn’t let comments like this worry him and that on the whole he is happy with his life here.

“I really love the laws in Australia,” he says. “After I arrived in Australia I was very happy.”

As our politicians, lobby groups and human rights organisations bump heads over the most appropriate manner to deal with asylum seekers trying to get to our shores, Mr Moonieinda will be getting on with his life and helping newly arrived Burmese adjust to their new surroundings.

In the meantime, the government will conduct its inquiry into the Manus Island riot and Dave Fagg’s group will start enacting their protests. The battlelines remain drawn.

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