April 2011

Can we open our hearts and minds?

We need to open our hearts and minds to the bigger story of asylum seekers in Australia and seek out information from a variety of informed sources, rather than accepting generalisations presented in our media, writes Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls.

BY Sarah Puls SGS

While community opinion is understandably varied on the issue of asylum seekers, the vigour and passion with which asylum seekers are discussed deserves closer analysis. So often the debate about asylum seekers and refugees in our community is based on half-truths and misunderstandings.

Firstly, Australia has significantly fewer people seeking asylum annually than many other industrialised democratic countries. According to the UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, in 2010 Australia was ranked 15th in terms of the number of asylum seekers it received, while Sweden, Canada, Belgium and Italy all receive vastly more claims.

Secondly, many people are under the impression that all asylum seekers are in detention. This is understandable given that the policy of mandatory detention focuses on those who arrive by sea which is less than half of the total. But the majority of asylum seekers arrive by plane.

It is of grave concern that the situation of thousands of other asylum seekers who have arrived by air and then are living in our community with minimal support and terrible fear is so consistently overlooked in the media and by activists.

Mandatory detention, particularly of children, is abhorrent and incomprehensible when the people we lock up have not committed any crime. It is important that voices opposing this policy be heard.

To be an asylum seeker is to put your life and your safety in the hands of another. These people are individuals who come seeking protection and are completely vulnerable to the policy, politics, and even the whim of the people who receive them. They are here because it is not safe for them to live in their country of origin.

Any person who comes to Australia seeking asylum is put through a lengthy and detailed process before they have any hope of being deemed a refugee and granted residency. The bar is set extremely high and there is no room for the Department of Immigration to respond with compassion.

The process of applying for a ‘Protection Visa’ (to be deemed a refugee and allowed to stay in the country) can be a brutal experience for those whose claims are rejected. For example, being able to show that you have been tortured and raped because of your personal or political situation does not mean that you are a refugee, especially if you are deemed to be able to live safely in another area of your country or to be safe if you curtail your activities.

The impact on the mental health of people going through this process is consistently negative, whether they are in detention or in the community. The long period of uncertainty; the renewed trauma of having to tell and retell your story to an immigration department official whose role is to look at its veracity rather than to see the human being; and knowing that sections of the Australian community in which they are seeking refuge do not want you to be accepted, all have lasting detrimental effects.

To be a good neighbour to these human beings, these individuals with unique and yet consistently traumatic stories, is to respond with an open heart. This means opening my own heart and mind to the bigger story of asylum seekers in Australia and seeking out information from a variety of informed sources, rather than accepting the generalisations and simplified versions so often presented in our media.

Some things you can do to “Be a just neighbour”
  • Support the House of Welcome. Find out about the vital work of the House of Welcome. Perhaps you’d like to become a volunteer or make a donation? Find out more.
  • Support the letter-writing project. Writing letters to people in detention has been an integral part of assisting asylum seekers in remote locations where the likelihood of receiving visitors is minimal. Because of Christmas Island’s extreme isolation, letter-writing is even more crucial to help bridge the gap between Australians and asylums seekers. They need to know they’ve not been forgotten. Find out more.
  • Participate in conversation workshops: “Asylum seekers are used as political footballs. What can we do?” (VIC, WA). Research shows community views and fears around so-called ‘boat people’ are founded on myth, not fact. You can help to change current public misconceptions about asylum seekers in Australia. Watch the new Amnesty International TV campaign and then share it with friends and family. After watching the ad, participate in training to help develop conversation skills. Find out more.
  • Attend the Palm Sunday Rally April 17, 1pm (NSW). “Free the refugees, end mandatory detention”. Speakers: Susan Connelly RSJ, Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission; Patricia Garcia, National Council of Churches; Sally McManus, Australian Services Union plus refugees from Iran and Afghanistan. Rally at Sydney Town Hall, marching to Hyde Park. Find out more.

Sarah Puls

Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls has worked as a social worker with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Western Sydney and more recently as a spiritual care practitioner and clinical pastoral supervisor at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

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