how i became a refugee rights advocate

This morning on twitter I retweeted this tweet,

Lebanon has received more #asylum seekers from #Syria in last 24 hours than #Australia has in all of 2013. #auspol

by Kon Karapanagiotidis, founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne. Very soon someone I don’t know responded with this,

@wildecrafted @Kon_K Who cares? You can bet they won’t be housed in air conditioned luxury & paid welfare in Lebanon #notourproblem #auspol

Who cares? I care!

I’ll admit that lately, for the same reasons I haven’t blogged in almost seven months, I haven’t been keeping up with the news about asylum seekers & refugees or the awful race-to-the-bottom politics of the two major political parties in Australia like I used to but my values have not changed.

When I was 21 years old I went on a convergence from Perth to the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) just out of Port Augusta in South Australia. At the time I didn’t understand the history of mandatory detention in Australia, and if I’m honest I didn’t really understand why I was going on the convergence.

I first heard about the convergence when I was at a friend’s house, we were sitting on her bed eating highly nutritious mi goreng two minute noodles when I noticed a poster on her bedroom wall that was promoting the 2003 convergence to Baxter IDC.

“Shell, what’s Baxter?” I asked.

Between mouthfuls Shelley told me what Baxter was and we talked about people who had fled persecution and wound up in prisons here in Australia, detained indefinitely without charge or trial. I knew some of this stuff, I’d seen it on the news at my parent’s house but I didn’t yet know that there were people standing up and saying it was wrong.

It was a couple of weeks later when I was hanging out at a feral little bunker of awesomeness called Groovy Space (the home of a local junk percussion band) that my friend Scoutt told me that another convergence to Baxter was being planned and it was happening in a few weeks. She asked if I wanted to come.

There were around 80 of us on the bus from Perth to Baxter. It took us 28 hours to get there, the bus had two drivers who took turns to drive and to sleep in a bed at the back of the bus, we stopped infrequently.

For the three days that we were at Baxter I experienced more than I could have imagined when I signed up to go. I saw a friend, who was well known for his non-violent direct action (NVDA) workshops, get punched in the face by a particularly aggressive police officer. I saw people trampled by horses. I saw helium balloons popped by cops holding pins. I saw the cuts on the face of a fellow Perth activist after his face was rammed into the ground by the police officer who arrested him. I heard our friend tell us about how he’d been arrested because he was holding a camera that had recorded the police brutality and of how the film was wiped clean when he received his camera back. I saw asylum seekers climb onto the roof of the detention centre and heard them call out to us. I chanted “AZADI” (which means freedom in Farsi) with the hundreds of other activists who had come from every state and territory in Australia to protest Prime Minister John Howard’s cruel policies.

While all of this was certainly powerful it was the experience of keeping an overnight vigil at the front gates of the centre with a small handful of the hundreds of convergence attendees that really affected me. We spent the night huddling together under blankets, running on the spot and doing star jumps in an attempt to stave off the chill from of the cold Autumn night in the desert. We discussed anything and everything, always mindful of the people detained in the IDC we sat before. As the sun rose that morning I was struck by the beauty of the vast desert sky. As I stood to face to rising sun the stars still glowed in the dark night sky behind me. I felt free.

The children, the women and the men who were detained at Baxter IDC could not see the horizon. They could not see the simple beauty of the morning washing over the desert. They were not free.

It was in that moment that I knew, I really knew, why I was at the convergence. It was at that point that I understood my own privilege in a way I never had before and it was at that point that I silently vowed to myself, with tears in my eyes, that I would fight for the freedom of those seeking asylum in Australia. They deserve freedom as much as I do.

We won some things during that period of the refugee rights campaign, and in 2007 when John Howard was finally defeated by Kevin Rudd we all had high hopes. Unfortunately since then we have seen a return to policies every bit as inhumane as those of the Howard era.

Thursday June 20, 2013 is World Refugee Day. This Sunday (June 16) the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) are hosting a rally calling for an end to the mandatory detention of  asylum seekers and for an end to the awful policy known as “The Pacific Solution”. I will be there, with my children, because the least I can do is spend a couple of hours of my weekend marching for an end to mandatory detention and the closure of offshore immigration detention facilities.

 

posted by wildecrafted in activism and have No Comments

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