‘All Australians have to fight to reclaim our heritage as a country that learns from it’s mistakes, that moves forward and learns to include and love all races of people’.
That was the Palm Sunday message delivered to over 150 who braved inclement weather to attend a rally for refugees at Lennox Head on Sunday morning.
The message was delivered by refugee activist and long-time local Jane Healy, who said conditions in Australia’s detention centres were much worse than was reported in the media.
‘There are people who’ve been on Manus and Nauru for four years now. The damage that’s been done…Your mental health is neglected on a daily basis by the profit-driven providers our government hires to provide health care,’ Ms Healy said.
‘On Nauru and Manus there are regular food, water and health needs shortages. There is a constant level of violence, harassment, sexual abuse, racial vilification that comes from the staff from Serco and Transfield and I have seen this myself.
‘There is an incredible deprivation of human intimacy – you’re not allowed to talk to people, you stay in your section, you’re treated as a number. Some of them haven’t seen their case manager for a year. And [there is] the ongoing thing of not knowing when they’re getting out.’
Ms Healy said the people she met had, ‘fled war [and] fled persecution –circumstances that none of us can imagine – and yet we detain them and emotionally and physically torture them on a day to day basis.’
‘This ongoing campaign to create a fear that lurking amongst these boat people is a terrorist who poses a danger to any of us is a lie.
‘I have met hundreds of these people from every country you can imagine and have yet to meet anyone who poses a danger to me. These people believed in us; they came here thinking Australia was open-hearted, tolerant, multicultural. We are shaming ourselves in the eyes of the world now,’ she said.
Speaking about the secrecy surrounding Australia’s border protection regime, Ms Healy said that of the 11 onshore and offshore detention centres she had visited all except Nauru and Manus Island.
‘I was in the process of applying for a visa to go to Nauru when the visas were cancelled and now no one is allowed to go, unless you’re a tourist doing snorkelling. If you don’t snorkel you will be fined $15,000,’ she said.
‘This secrecy alone is something that we should question. This government’s constant attempt to hide from the Australian public what is happening in detention centres is frightening for all of us. If we allow our government to implement secrecy on this scale about processes we pay for as taxpayers, where does it stop?’
Ms Healy also spoke about the ‘incredible privilege and beauty’ she had experienced through advocating for refugees.
‘The Iranians who tried valiantly to teach me to dance, unsuccessfully; the beautiful Sri Lankans who are gentle, gracious and generous despite the fact they’ve had extraordinary circumstances in their country; the Egyptians who taught me the rituals of an observant Muslim by taking me to the mosque and making me a part of their family life; the Hazaras, who don’t celebrate birthdays because they think it’s too self-indulgent and tell their history through poetry and song; and my favourites, the Iraqis, who are incredibly cultured and intellectual and worship education. These people bring nothing but worthwhile things to our community.’
Ready to be arrested
Ms Healy said she was not ‘special’ and described her path to becoming a refugee advocate.
‘The reality is we allow our government to do this. I’m by no stretch any different from any of you. I’m just a citizen who stumbled upon something that was happening in my country and was so horrified it’s galvanised me into being a full time advocate for refugees.’
She told a story of helping a young man with his visa application. One day he was phoned by the Compliance Unit and asked to appear for an interview. She knew the Compliance Unit takes people from the community and puts them back in detention.
‘These days you are sent to Christmas Island because Christmas Island has been a successful avenue to make people go home because they cannot stand the hellish conditions. I knew the young man would end up on Christmas Island,’ Ms Healy said.
‘I had an epiphany. I realised I was ready to be arrested. We were met by a wall of black Border Force uniforms who told me they wanted to send the young man to Villawood detention centre. I said to them, “I’m a menopausal, middle aged taxpayer and you’re not taking this boy today.”’
‘He’s here today. He’s here among you and is about to get married and he’s free,’ Ms Healy said, to cheers from the crowd.
‘I tell you this story, not because I’m braver than you. I tell you this story because if I say no, imagine if all of you say no, you won’t allow our government to continue to this treatment that it’s perpetrated against these people.
‘All it took was a menopausal, middle aged women to stand in front of a whole pack of Border Force employees and say “it’s in my capacity to have a barrister here and sue you all”. They backed down very quickly. I encourage all of you to find ways that you can to say no.
Ms Healy also praised Ballina Region for Refugees, organisers of today’s action, for providing homesteads for up to 20 refugees, with more expected over Easter.
People over politics
Ballina mayor David Wright, who was also at the event said ‘’people are more important than political things’ and applauded everyone for coming to the event.
He added that as Australia’s offshore detention was costing $3 billion a year he thought it would end soon as ‘they can’t afford it’.
‘Whatever the reason, let’s hope they do it,’ Cr Wright said.
A capella group Bronny and the Bishop treated the punters to an alternative national anthem, whose first verse ran: ‘Australians are we ostriches, Our heads stuck in the sand, Our country and its riches bound, For shores beyond this land; Our land is mined for coal and gas, Its beauty thrashed and pale; Its landscapes’ changed maintain the rage, our country’s not for sale.’
After the rally ended I spoke with the young man that Jane Healy had rescued in her epiphany. Let’s call him Sri. Sri is a 31-year-old Tamil from Sri Lanka. He came in a boat in 2012 from Indonesia, landing at Cocos Island after an 18-day voyage, the last three without food and having to drink seawater.
After eight months in various detention centres he was released on a bridging visa and now lives in Sydney. His fiancée is from New Zealand.
He spoke about his life in Sri Lanka, in Batticaloa, a small town on the east coast. He remembered the frequent army raids where young men were picked up for interrogation, which also happened to him. Batticaloa was the stage for some of the worst human rights violations in a violent civil and international war that pitted the Sri Lankan Army, assorted Tamil rebel groups and the Indian Peace Keeping Force in a free-for-all.
Sri said he was not involved in any politics but still feared for his life. He has a mother and brother in Batticaloa whom he misses but he worries about returning to Sri Lanka. He said: ‘Nothing, just suicide [to go back]’. Smiling at me, he said: ‘Better here.’