In 2010, Kevin Rudd made a statement that came as quite a shock to the conventional discourse that normally frames refugee policy in Australia. In an interview, when questioned on his vision for the future of Australia, Rudd replied “I actually believe in a big Australia, I make no apology for that. I actually think that it’s good news that our population is growing” he said. Several months later, Kevin Rudd was no longer the leader of the party, and his statement had been denounced by the new leader who instead offered a view of “a sustainable Australia.” Since this, the politics surrounding asylum seekers has become increasingly absurd, detached from reality, and inherently destructive to the debate itself. On a national level, both major parties have scrambled to see which can more effectively “stop the boats” whilst the realities of those seeking asylum are buried beneath the vituperative discourse that politicians have spent the last decade weaving around them.
In the last year, five Asylum seekers have died in detention. The latest was Ali Ahmed Jafari, a Hazara man who passed away at Villawood detention center on June 20 this year. I met Jafari just after I finished high school, when I visited the detention center with a group of friends, as a non-political initiative to provide support and social engagement with asylum seekers. Jafari was a quiet and modest man who had taken up painting during his time within Villawood. My friend, who had visited before, asked him to bring out some of his drawings to show us and after a brief period of reluctance he accepted. There were incredible contrasts in his pictures ranging from simple drawings of trees to reflections on the horror of the war-torn country he chose to escape. Everyone was fairly emotional on the day as a man had just announced he was being moved to community detention which is, essentially, the first step to moving out of detention and into society. There wasn’t a sense of envy or jealousy from the other asylum seekers, just genuine excitement for one of their own getting out, against the frightening and disheartening odds.
Not too long after this, Ali Jafari was also able to make the transition into community. He continued painting during this time and even had a series of paintings shown at a UTS refugee art exhibition. This was short-lived, however, as an error within the immigration department forced Jafari to return to Villawood – the result of a ‘conviction’ in Britain, which was found to be a mistake. Despite receiving a police clearance to leave Villawood that acknowledged his forced return was the result of a bureaucratic mistake, Immigration had not yet acted on addressing Jafari’s case.
On June 20, Ali Jafari passed away after a heart attack. The guards at the center took more than an hour to call an ambulance. In an interview with ABC Bashir Ahmad Hamidi, a man who spoke at a vigil for the passing, was asked what Jafari’s family in Quetta would do – his response was bare, distressing and blatantly honest: “They have just only this much money to send Ali Jafari to save the life of these children they have behind. Because today, if Ali is passed, what will his family do? His family don’t have anything. Ali’s dead, his family is dead too – that life is nothing. That life is completely destroyed.”
Australians aren’t a unique breed. Fear-mongering anti-asylum seeker politics happens worldwide. Everyone remembers the last election in the US where Mitt Romney attempted to articulate the idea of ‘self-deportation’, wherein non-documented immigrants would have life made “so hard for them, that they would want to leave.” Despite this, as a country that frames itself as a nation founded on egalitarianism, it’s shocking to see how convincingly the Australian public is able to collectively lie to themselves about the reality of the country’s policy towards refugees. Here’s some numbers: In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, over 330,000 people have been killed in the last ten years as a result of each country’s respective conflicts. In January 30, 2013, the number of people in immigration detention was 7569 (in April, there were 2,400 minors in detention), a mere fraction of the number of those killed in the wars that our country supported.
And yet in 2010 an Essential Research survey asked respondents “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum seekers or is it taking the right approach?” Sixty Five percent answered “too soft”.
There’s a double-edged distortion of reality that punctuates this whole affair. For Australian citizens that distortion is ignoring the injustices that they tacitly accept. For refugees and asylum seekers the distortion is ignoring the fact that many of them will spend their lives in a state of terrifying impermanence – and by ignoring this we’re as responsible as any government bureaucrat, whether we’d like convince ourselves otherwise or not.