But what can I do? 11

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Gulnaz Beg, front row second from the left, and Vijhai Utheyan, back row second from the right are involved with ChilOut. Photo Andris Heks.

ChilOut, Children Out Of Immigration Detention, is a major advocacy group for ending Australia’s uniquely draconian status of being the only Western democracy that keeps refugee children in prison-like lockups. ChilOut’s Youth Ambassadors turned up in force on Sunday evening, October 30, to educate the public about this and alternatives at the Blackheath Baptist Café Church, together with the representatives of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group, the largest of its kind in Australia.

The packed out event with more than 80 attendees was organised by the Catalyst Social Justice Group of the BBC. The ChilOut presenters were led by campaign coordinator, Niru Palanivel, a teacher and human rights lawyer and two university student ambassadors, with refugee and migrant backgrounds: Gulnaz Beg from Afghanistan and Vijhai Utheyan from Sri Lanka.

Gulnaz Beg, front row second from the left, and Vijhai Utheyan, back row second from the right are involved with ChilOut. Photo Andris Heks.
Gulnaz Beg, front row second from the left, and Vijhai Utheyan, back row second from the right are involved with ChilOut. Photo Andris Heks.

Having heard the refugees’ stories, there were audience members who said later they felt ashamed to be Australians. Indeed, the government could only maintain its mandatory detention policy by a long campaign of misinformation including the systematic demonisation of boat refugees and keeping them in remote offshore facilities in conditions that the Gestapo would have endorsed.

Seeing the faces of these refugees at this event by meeting them in person, contributed to breaking down ‘the out of sight out of mind’ mentality, which the Australian Government is so keen to foster among the public. When criminals receive prison sentences in Australia, it will be for a specific duration but the refugee children together with their parents who committed no crime in trying to reach Australia to seek asylum, are subjected to incarceration of indefinite duration. It was also pointed out by the Ambassadors, that children who were born in detention and who are now several years old, never experienced freedom and to them incarceration and lack of education behind barbed wires, is the only way of life they know. There is a consensus among health professionals who dealt with these children that they are dehumanised and traumatised to such an extent that many of them will be damaged for life.

Because Gulnaz’s family belonged to a particular ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Taliban targeted them for extermination, so their choices were between the devil and the deep blue sea. They literally chose the latter, by selling everything they had, including her mother’s wedding ring to be able to escape the country. After three attempts that included getting shipwrecked, it was third time lucky. They made it to Australia when she was four years old. Her younger sister, who was under two when they were on the boat, took her first steps on the refugee boat out on the open sea. Her parents did not know whether to smile with joy at this landmark event or cry in terror at the very real prospect that the boat may sink.

There was also the story of a child who after many years of detention was finally released and went to school. The teacher could not tear him away from the classroom window where he just kept looking out, as it turned out, because he never had an access to a window before through which he could have seen the outside world.

Listening to these stories, I had a flashback to my escape from behind the Iron Curtain as a 17 year old, from communist Hungary to the West in 1964. The train stopped at the Austrian-Hungarian border with its tall, barbed wire fence and the Hungarian guards with their Alsatian dogs walking alongside the train. The few minutes, while the train was stationary at the border, seemed to me like eternity. I was sweating and trembling with fear. And when the train started up eventually and crossed to Austria, I jumped up and cried out: ‘I am free’.

Australia welcomed me with open arms as a refugee then. I would have never imagined, that our country which prides itself as a land of ‘fair go’ with ‘boundless plains to share’, would ever sink so low as to put children behind an Iron Curtain.

It was also revealed by ChilOut, that children at the offshore detention centres are called by numbers, not by their names; a literal example of dehumanisation when people lose their names and become numbers. Remember, inmates in the Nazi concentration camps were also called by their numbers only, which were tattooed on their forearms.

George Winston, the Secretary of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support group also talked about the many ways his Group assists a staggering number of 750 refugees, that include clothing them, providing scholarship to refugee children and finding them accommodation and employment. He also recalled his own experience as a Jew in wartime Poland. Relating his story to the Afghan born Gulnaz, he said that he was in mortal danger in Poland then because he looked a Jew and there was a policy of extermination towards the Jews.

It costs $400 000 per year to keep a single refugee in our offshore detention centres. If we scrapped this policy and spent the same amount of money we waste on it on improving living quarters for refugees in Indonesia, in other vital areas of our the region and on speeding up the assessment process, we would likely to be both more effective in stopping the boats and more humane simultaneously. That way we could restore our now tarnished image as a country of ‘fair go’ and would stop breaching our UN obligation not to violate human rights.

During the lively Q and A session about alternatives to the children’s incarceration, there was an amazing moment. Although it was a predominantly adult audience,
I heard a boy’s voice who happened to sit right behind me. He asked:

‘I am only twelve, but what can I do?’

I was so touched by his initiative that I swung around on my seat to see who was this twelve year old who would venture to ask such a mature question? As I caught sight of the boy’s magnificently curious, innocent and down to earth and casual expression, I could not help myself but to stroke his hair in appreciation.
The Campaign Coordinator of ChilOut, Niru Palanivel, a Teacher and Human Rights Lawyer, answered him in an equally matter of fact way. This was the gist of what she said:

‘You can do a lot. You can talk about this in school with your friends and teachers. And you can write a letter to politicians. They will take much more notice of you as a twelve year old than of adults.’

As I was mentally recapping this moving exchange, my mind drifted to a memory. It was this striking British film, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, I saw a few years ago about a tragic friendship between two eight year old boys in Germany during World War II. One boy was in the Nazi concentration camp, tucked away in the bush, out of sight, out of mind, at the back of this town. The other boy stumbled upon the camp during one his daily walks in the bush. He saw the boy on the other side of the barbed wire fence and they struck up a conversation. They became friends in secret. The boy who was free began to steal food from home to feed his starving mate. There was a hole big enough under a section of the fence where he could pass the food through. The only complication was, that the free boy happened to be the son of the SS Officer in charge of the concentration camp. One day the free boy went for his arranged meeting with his incarcerated mate but he was not to be seen anywhere. So the free boy squeezed himself through the hole under the fence and went to look for his mate inside the concentration camp. Eventually he spotted him marching with a group of people.

He ran over and joined him in the group. What neither of them knew was that their group was marched to the gas chamber to be killed.

In the meantime, the boy’s mother noticed that his son was gone and has been away for a long time. Worried as to where he could be, she somehow intuitively thought of the concentration camp. She frantically phoned her husband to look for the boy. It was too late; he was gassed, together with his mate and the others… This story dramatised the fact that human atrocities devastate both the perpetrators and their victims.

My mind drifted back to Niru’s answer to the boy on Sunday night:

“You can write a letter to politicians. They will take much more notice of you as a 12-year-old than of adults.”

Next, I thought of a meeting, that three of us from the Church’s Catalyst Social Justice Group had with our political representative in the Federal Parliament, Suzan Templeman, just two days before the ChilOut event. Suzan Templeman lamented that sometimes she gets letters telling her that instead of spending money on foreign aid, the government should help the local poor. I pointed out that we did not need to take away from foreign aid to the poorest people in the world in order to help the domestic poor. We can help them both by collecting due tax from the wealthy who fail to pay it.

It has been calculated that the sum of money that multinationals take away from poor nations alone, by not paying their due taxes, amounts to the total foreign aid from all nations to these poor countries. And as I was recapping this conversation, an idea popped to my mind:

What if this boy did write a letter to Suzan Templeman about his reaction to the plight of the refugee children? She could then table the letter in Parliament and it could get national media coverage, like:

‘An Aussie 12-year-old speaks out for other children whom we put behind barbed wire fences.’

Should children be locked up in immigration detention centre? Share your thoughts with us.

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Andris Heks

Andris is a former journalist, working on 'This Day Tonight' and 'Four Corners' -- ABC television's top rating current affairs programs. He has been a social worker, psychodramatist and yoga therapist, and enjoys singing and playing music, especially Hungarian Gypsy Music. He also enjoys swimming, cycling and writing. Andris is currently working on his memoirs. He welcomes feedback and comments on the opinion pieces published at Starts at 60.

  1. Sorry Andris, you totally lost me on this one. These so-called ‘refugees’ on Manus and Nauru criminally attempted to sneak
    into our country illegally. If the Labor government had had any sense they would have immediately put them all on planes and sent
    them back to whence they’d come. This would have saved the Australian taxpayers $billions of unnecessary wastage on these
    parasites. Your comments like “demonisation of boat refugees”, “conditions the Nazis would have endorsed” and “put children behind
    an Iron Curtain” are frankly offensive, dishonest and do you absolutely no merit whatsoever.
    These people have been humanely accommodated in both these facilities, ie: sub-tropical style accommodation, air-conditioning,
    all their food and clothing requirements, cash allowances, free medical services, etc.etc. Hardly a Nazi concentration camp environment !!
    BUT IT’S ALL BEEN A GROSS WASTE OF PUBLIC MONEY !!! … if both the Coalition and Labor had acted years ago and got rid of this scum
    we would not have to be continually listening to the inane and dishonest bleating of these money-grabbing refugee advocates, the
    loathsome, loony Greens and the pathetic rantings of morons like this ChilOut mob.

    3 REPLY
    • I would just love you to be one of the people on manus or narua. Don’t you have any compassion or sympathy for these human beings. I feel sorry for you.

      2 REPLY
      • Yes, Lesley I do have compassion … for the millions of true refugees waiting patiently in truly awful refugee camps
        throughout the Middle East. These illegals on Manus and Nauru have been receiving FAR better humane treatment than
        the true refugees.

    • You certainly believe all the lies you have been told. Read the article again. They are not criminals or scum. Just people fleeing for their lives. Wouldn’t you do the same?

      1 REPLY
    • AUSTRALIA’S AUSCHWITZ: NAURU AND MANUS ISLAND Andris Heks

      Is the above title exaggerated? Maybe not, after viewing CHASING ASYLUM, from Academy Award winner Australian documentary maker, Eva Orner. It is a must see for Howard, Turnbull, Abbott, Dutton, Morrison, J. Bishop and Rudd, every one of whom refused to be interviewed for this documentary. It is a film the Australian government does not want you to see.
      Just a small sample of facts from the film, secretly shot on locations:
      Running the Manus detention centre cost $1.2 billion, that is $500.000 per refugee.
      What do the refugees get for this money? Indefinite detention combined with futurelessness where the gradual psychological disintegration of inmates begins after six weeks there. Australia is the only Western country in the world that keeps children in mandatory detention. The Manus Island riot of 2014 was started by locals on the Island attacking the refugees. During the riot some refugees shouted: ‘Manus is Guantanamo Bay.’
      If you think, you live in democracy in Australia, think again:
      The Australian government refuses to disclose to the population what it does with refugee boats approaching Australia. It refuses the public to learn about the conditions in the offshore detention centres. The government legislated that anyone working at the detention centres who reveals information to the public about conditions there, are punishable with imprisonment. It gives misinformation about the nature of the boats people.
      (Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton recently stated that most refugees were illiterate and innumerate. The ABC fact check indicated that over 75% of them completed secondary education and 25% were tertiary graduate professionals.
      He also claimed that the refugees take away jobs from Australians and that they are a Social Security burden. In fact, according to the Immigration Department’s own report, refugees tend to be employed in jobs left vacant by Australians and their long term economic, let alone cultural contribution to Australia is very positive).
      Criminals in Australia receive a given length prison term. Yet boats people, who are neither illegal nor criminal, are detained indefinitely and therefore are treated worse than criminals.
      I worked in Long Bay Jail as a Probation and Parole Officer. But the living conditions of even maximum security criminals there look like four star hotels in comparison to the conditions of asylum seeking refugees shown on these islands. These people are first traumatized by life threatening conditions in their own countries which they try to escape by traumatic boat trips as refugees. But the way in which they are re-traumatized in Australia’s offshore detention centres completely dehumanizes them and tends to damage them for life.
      The Australian government can get away with its Gestapo like treatment of boats people by keeping the Australian public in the dark about the appalling conditions in detention centres and depicting the inmates as potential threats to the people of our country.
      In fact, in 2011-12, asylum seekers living in the Australian community on bridging visas were about 45 times less likely to be charged with a crime than members of the general public. (amnesty.org.au/refugees). (See also a whole list of refugee facts on this website and win-win solutions for refugees as well as Australia.)
      This film is a great antidote against our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards detained asylum seekers. Seeing their faces and their conditions can only prick our conscience and make us feel ashamed of what our governments have been doing on our behalves.
      Be sure to see this film. It will make you think about what the government is up to in our name.

  2. Hi these people have every right as a human being to seek refuge in a safe country. Calling them names is not going to make things go away. What happened to people caring about each other. Instead of spreading stuff that isn’t true find out the truth! They are people like you & I and deserve to be treated fairly and kindly.

    2 REPLY
    • Heather, they HAVE been treated kindly and exceedingly fair … far better than they deserve. These illegals have actually
      been treated better than many of the immigrants that come to our country by legal means. If you mindlessly believe
      the lies of the refugee ‘advocates’ and the loony Greens then I feel very, very sorry for you.

  3. [email protected]

    $ 89 per hour Seriously, I do not know why more people have not tried it, I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening … and I receive an unsatisfactory check for $ 12520 which is genial is Im Works from home if I get more time with my children.M$2.

    This is what I do. >>>>>>>>> NYTrends66.Tk

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