Shining a light on Australia’s asylum seeker crisis

Renee Searles at Light the Dark, Byron Theatre, 27 September. (Picture Harsha Prabhu)

Renee Searles at Light the Dark, Byron Theatre, 27 September. (Picture Harsha Prabhu)

By Harsha Prabhu

The empty chair at the forum on asylum seekers and refugees at Byron Theatre recently told a story.

That chair was reserved for a case worker from the Australian government’s offshore detention centre for asylum seekers in Nauru. She could not attend due to the government’s draconian policy of gagging and going after anyone disclosing any information about conditions in Australia’s gulags reserved for people fleeing persecution.

Australia’s Border Force Act, enacted in May, criminalises the disclosure of “protected information” relating to detention centres, with whistleblowers facing up to two years in jail. The UN’s own Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Canada’s Francois Crepeau, had cancelled a recent visit to investigate the conditions at Nauru and Manus Island as the Australian government could not ‘guarantee legal immunity to detention centre workers who discuss asylum seekers and migrants’ (SMH, 26th Sept).

Both Amnesty International and Australia’s own Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Trigs, have been refused entry into Nauru and Trigs was demonised by the Abbott government.

With serious allegations of mismanagement, lack of medical facilities, overcrowding,  violence,  sexual assault, rape, including ’67 allegations of child abuse, 30 of them involving detention centre staff’ as a Senate inquiry in July heard, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has become a national disgrace and an international scandal. Meanwhile, Australia is busy seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, mandated to protect and promote human rights worldwide.

Official hypocrisy and mendacity aside, who are these asylum seekers and what are they fleeing? Are there lessons to be learnt? What can we do as a community?

The evening featured the award-winning documentary ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, shot with hidden cameras in refugee camps in Indonesia. The film gave a human face to the asylum seeker tragedy unfolding across our shores. A Byzantine and corrupt bureaucracy controls the fate of refugees in Indonesia, many of whom have risked all and crossed continents, then have had to wait months to be registered with UNHCR. Many were also critical of International Organisation for Migration (IOM), funded by Australia, saying IOM was paying refugees to return to their countries, despite the risk of persecution . One clip from the film showed refugees in an Indonesian jail, saying: ‘We are continuing our hunger strike until free or die.’

The film painted a harrowing picture of the fate of refugee detainees in Indonesia and of those who make the perilous voyage across uncertain seas to Australia. We saw pictures of whole families, some still missing, many drowned, a few who made it. One young Afghani man was the sole surviving member of his family, the rest were killed by the Taliban. Another segment showed a young family living in Australia, minus the husband, who was denied entry. An asylum seeker said: ‘We are not dangerous; we are escaping from danger.’ An Iraqi man said: ‘I would choose to die in pursuit of freedom’, while his wife cried in the background. Whole boatloads of people had been intercepted and turned back by Australian customs, one after a 22 day voyage. The most gut-wrenching scene of all showed a boatload of refugees, tossed in huge seas, about to be smashed on the rocks.

To come back to that empty chair. Byron Councillor Paul Spooner, moderator of the forum,  read out a letter smuggled out of Nauru that was sent to the absent caseworker. The letter was from Hazaras from Afghanistan. The letter spoke of the ‘images of torn bodies and bloodied coffins still in our memories’; of the Hazara as ‘wounded birds worried by the cat.’ The cat was the Taliban, Sunni Muslim extremists who persecute the Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan’s sectarian conflict. The letter spoke of the Hazaras determination to make the dangerous journey to Australia, braving the risk of becoming a ‘meal for the fishes.’

Speaking at the forum, Abdul, a Hazara asylum seeker from  Afghanistan, said: ‘The Taliban is why I had to leave. Over 60 % of my people have been massacred. My people are now scattered in Iran, in Pakistan, in Indonesia…’ Abdul was forced to flee Ghazni in Central Afghanistan when he was seven. Afghanistan was overrun by the Taliban and Hazaras and other minorities were fair game. Abdul journey to Indonesia was via Pakistan and Iran. He came to Australia when he was 14 after a two day sea crossing. He was detained for four months at Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia before being released into community care on a Temporary Protection Visa. Abdul is now an Australian citizen but at the forum he requested that no photos of him be taken for fear of jeopardising his family, some of whom were still in Afghanistan and some in detention in Indonesia.

Abdul had been to Byron shire before, to play a soccer match. Abdul was part of the Tigers 11, a soccer team comprising mostly young Afghan asylum seekers, who played friendly games in Queensland, NSW and against politicians in Canberra as an exercise in soft politics, to  ‘win the hearts and minds of those they meet — people who may be unsure of, even against, asylum seekers.’ (ABC, 2002).

Abdul now lives in Brisbane and works as a mental health professional at a school with a high migrant and refugee intake. Abdul said he still struggling to understand the scale of the tragedy that had befallen his people and the depth of the current refugee crisis. He was happy for the 12,000 Syrian refugees the Australian government had agreed to accept, but he added: ‘Let’s not forget those still in detention. We have to address this as human beings.’

Another speaker at the forum was Sudanese writer Yai Atem. Yai was one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan, driven out of their ancestral lands in South Sudan by a bloody conflict in 1987. Of the 50,000 children that fled Sudan, only half survived. Yai was one of them, his amazing odyssey described in his book Under a Sudanese Star. Yai spent years on the run, facing starvation, disease, attacks by wild animals and militia.

Yai thanked UNHCR for saving him and repatriating him across the world: 10 years in Kenya, two years in Ethopia, then the US for seven years where he studied law and political science.  Yai now lives in Coffs Harbour with his wife and three children and has completed his law degree from Griffith University. Yai said that education and health were the key to progress in South Sudan. Proceeds from the sale of his book support community development projects in his country and Yai plans to go back to make a documentary for the ABC. Yai also commended Pope Francis’ support for action on addressing poverty, refugees and climate change. Meanwhile the civil war in South Sudan continues, with over 2 million people facing a severe food and humanitarian crisis.

UNHCR estimates for the refugee population in 2014 was over 50 million displaced worldwide. Paul Spooner reminded us that less than 1% are resettled each year. He said around 5% of Australia’s yearly immigration intake gets allocated to refugee visas,  demonstrating where Australia’s priorities lie. Australia’s agreement to take in 12,000 refugees affected by the Syrian conflict is a drop in the ocean. Australia can and should do more.

While the Australian government drags it’s feet, everyday Australians are wiling to help. Byron Shire Council has adopted a refugee-friendly policy and signed the declaration of the Refugee Council of Australia, making the shire a Refugee Welcome Zone. Over 120 local government areas have signed this declaration, showing the extent of grassroots support for refuges and asylum seekers in the community.

Sue Hori from the Australian Homestay Network (AHN) spoke of the groundswell of interest within Australia to help refugees and asylum seekers. AHN’s Community Placement Program, begun in 2012, has already placed 600 asylum seekers released from detention in homestays within the community. Since the current phase of the crisis AHN have received expressions of interest from over 3000 people wishing to do their bit. This program assists refugees and asylum seekers and their hosts with a four to six week homestay accommodation package and ancillary support. She said: ‘Our aim is to show the government there’s a high level of interest in this program.’

Greens MP Tamara Smith said Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea humanised the whole issue of refugees. There was a lot of fear and misconception that needed to be addressed. She said: ’No one wants to leave their home.’ She said the Greens were pushing for a policy of no mandatory detention, no off-shore processing and a 30 day processing cap. She said the government spent around $8 billion on their detention program, money that was better spent elsewhere, including on resettling people in the community.

Dudley Leggett of the Sustainability Research Institute called for the resettlement of refugees in regional areas and for funding for a pilot project to settle refugees in alternative communities as an experiment in sustainable living.

How many asylum seekers are in detention in Australia and how much does it cost the taxpayer? It’s difficult to arrive at a clear picture of the situation, what with the secrecy and bureaucracy surrounding Australia’s mandatory detention policy.

As of May this year, there were 1577 men, women and children in detention. (ABC Fact Check, July 2015).

According to the government’s own figures, Australia spends $3.3 billion a year on it’s immigration detection regime. Government figures from last year gave a cost of more that $400,000 per detainee per year, i.e., more than 10 times the cost of supporting an asylum seeker living in the community, which would be under $40,000 a year. Further, Australia’s immigration detention costs are more than twice as expensive as in the US and Europe (Guardian, 2 October).

Clearly, Australia’s mandatory detention policy is a gigantic fail on costing alone. Australia’s bigotry comes with a high price tag.

However, it’s not just about saving a buck on ‘queue jumpers’ , the standard slur applied by the government to asylum seekers arriving by boat; it’s also about winning votes. John Howard won an election riding on the Tampa incident; Rudd got tough with his Pacific Solution with mandatory detention and off-shore processing; Abbott went hung ho with his ‘stop the boats;’ and Turnbull has promised to continue this hard line, saying ‘They will never come to Australia.’ Indeed, Australia’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat and off-shore processing of refugee claims has bipartisan support.

The elephant in the room at the forum was Australia’s own role in the neo-colonial wars being waged in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan,Yemen and Israel-Palestine. These wars and the continuing exploitation of the global south by the global north have collectively caused the largest displacement of people since WW2.

Australia, a country colonised by an invasion of boat people, has been resettling refugees for over 170 years. Australia has a legal and moral responsibility to treat the newest arrivals with the respect and compassion they deserve.

Meanwhile, if we truly want to stop the boats, we will need to stop the bombing.



Light the Dark was supported by Sustainability Research Institute & Byron Community Centre. Over $2500 was collected on the night for Communify, a Brisbane-based service. More at:


To register a no obligation expression of interest in hosting asylum seekers go to:


To support asylum seekers living in the community go to:


Sudanese writer Yai Atem’s website is


Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is at:


One response to “Shining a light on Australia’s asylum seeker crisis”

  1. Rani Willis says:

    A big thank you to all that came out and supported the event at the Byron Theatre​ last Sunday and to the Byron Community who generously supported the infamous raffle at the end of the night, i don’t think anyone left singlehanded. I felt deeply moved by the film, guest speakers, talented musicians and the sea of people that kept the afternoon afloat. We are still collecting donations, mobile phones and computers in good working order. Please email [email protected] if you would like to contribute to Light the Dark for Communify Queensland​ . Lilith Rocha​ Judy Shelley​ Ritamba Allen​ Pippy Wardell​ Renee Searles​ Nirupa Hoffman​ Amir Paiss​ Julia Meg​ Barnaby Jones Ed Love Paul Kevin Spooner​ Tamara Smith, MP​ Susan Horan, Australian Homestays Network, Yai Atem, Andy Bambach​ , Jude Burmeister, Clancy & The Byron Community Centre​ you rock !

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