I often think everyone should ask themselves the basic question that I pose to myself each day: What would I do if I was fleeing for my life and trying to save my family? I know I would do whatever it took. I would get on a boat no matter how dangerous and would pay every last cent I had, if it meant my family could live another day. Wouldn’t you do the same?
In the nine years since I started the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), I have sat face to face with thousands of asylum seekers, trying to provide them with support and legal advice. There is a lot I notice in those moments: the look of fear, despair and uncertainty on people’s faces, the weariness of a life lived on the run from persecution and the slump of bodies overwhelmed with experiences of loss and grief.
The memories sit deep within me. I don’t want to forget a single one. I’ve held a man in my arms as he wept uncontrollably, having just tried to take his own life. I’ve rushed to the hospital at 3am to be at the bedside of a 10-year-old little girl after she tried to hang herself with a bed sheet while in detention. I’ve struggled to find a way to conjure up some hope – many thousands of times over – as the words “I don’t want to be here”, “I’m scared that my government will kill me if I go home” and “I am losing all hope” have all been uttered to me.
In these moments I feel, and waver between, so many emotions: from compassion and deep sadness at how much people suffer and sacrifice to be free, to amazement at the courage and resilience of people who have risked their lives to keep their families safe from harm, and a deep sense of anger at how our government treats people seeking asylum.
Never in those moments do I look at the person as someone to fear, or someone whose plight should be politicised. I look and think how easily that could be me, my mum or my sister. I remind myself that life is a human lottery. That I could have been born anywhere and it could so easily be me fleeing for my life on a leaky boat, begging for Australia to show me some compassion and care about my human rights.
I also think how, apart from our Indigenous Australians, my parents and most people’s grandparents came on a boat themselves to Australia, in far greater numbers, as migrants. The only difference was that they were welcomed and wanted.
Today, everywhere I look, the message is the same. It’s Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott vowing to be ‘tough’ on asylum seekers and stop the boats. Or our mainstream media telling me that we are being swamped by refugees. I wonder how a moral and humanitarian issue has become a political one. I question why – in a country as multicultural, peaceful and prosperous as ours – we fear people arriving by boat.
In the past, I have naively thought the facts would win the day and bring an end to the fear-mongering by explaining to people that we receive just a few thousand asylum seekers each year, and that they pose no threat to our way of life or sustainability. I want to explain that we have had, on average, just over 700 people seek asylum by boat based on the past 35-year average; that 99.99% of people who entered Australia last year did so by plane; that Australia takes just 0.03% of the world’s refugees and displaced people; and that there are 76 countries that take more refugees than we do, based on wealth.
These days, I talk about a much simpler truth: the moral responsibilities that come with living in a free and democratic country, and what it means to be an Australian. This means we have a moral duty to act and show compassion to vulnerable, innocent people who are fleeing for their lives.
Being Australian should count for something greater than pandering to baseless fears. We should stand up for what is moral and just. The idea of turning back the boats or being tough on people who are fleeing war and torture represents the worst in us as human beings.
I know that, deep down, we are far better than this.