Having recently returned from Indonesia only to observe off-shore processing laws being hastily passed in the Australian senate on 16 August, I feel helpless and sickened. It’s hard to know where to begin. The revival of the flawed, racially-driven “Pacific Solution” is a major human rights setback. It stages Australia as a regressive, neocolonial country and as far as I am concerned it is something that the literary community ought to resist.
The Migration Legislation Amendment authorises the transfer of asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island with fast-tracking in place, meaning effectively that tent ghettoes could be set up in a matter of weeks. Australia is tragically neglecting international and judicial obligations, scrapping regulations concerned with proceedures and protections, while ignoring most of the positive recommendations of the expert panel’s Houston report. In particular the recommendation for the immediate increase of 20,000 humanitarian places of which 12, 000 should be allocated to refugees, has been ignored. The government is clearly absorbed by electoral pressures and not availing itself of our strategic expertise to build respectful co-operation with regional neighbours on the policies for protection and asylum. The panel recommended doubling the current level of refugee intakes, which has not significantly increased since 1997. For all the media hype about “overflooding the gates” Australia takes a small fraction of its UNHCR quota. If this number were to increase Australia could honour its commitment to the 254 Tamils in Indonesia to whom resettlement was promised in 2009.
I met some of these refugees in Medan recently. I witnessed their distress, their fear and I observed neglect and corruption by the local immigration and refugee organisations. Nalini and Suthakaran have been stranded in impoverished Indonesian facilities for two years with their children Anuja, Kirushni and Matheshkumaran. But their story as refugees began more than five years ago when they fled war torn Sri Lanka spending over two years in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. The situation for refugees in Malaysia is fraught and unpredictable. ( However, I was able to speak to UNHCR whilst in Kuala Lumpur and one major difference compared to the situation in Indonesia is the emphasis on self-autonomous capacity building). Nalini, her husband and her children took passage on the ill-fated Ocean Viking which was stranded in Merak port during tense negotiations in 2009. They spent six months in the Australian-run Tanjung Pinang detention centre where living conditions are notoriously bad and surveillance is high. They shared stories of their traumas whilst incarcerated: poor water, inadequate or unhealthy food beingthe most benign.
The family are unable to work, to access education or health for their children, to hold a driver’s licence, and though they are classed as refugees, Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Convention so they may be deported; their futures remain uncertain. Merak Tamils have protested the discrimination that is completely stalling their resettlement. In comparison to other refugee communities the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Rohingya Burmese are the most forgotten. The situation for deported Tamil asylum seekers is precarious: many have been tortured and imprisoned as LTTE by the Criminal Investigation department in Sri Lanka. Australia promised to resettle only six of these Merak Tamils in March of this year yet so far nothing has happened. I wonder for how much longer Nalini and her family will be stranded in Medan? With the small refugee stipend they receive they are learning to read and write English and try to educate their children. They feel neglected by the world but they remain a warm and beautiful family. As refugees with the potential to contribute so much socially they deserve better treatment from affluent nations like Australia. It was the hardest thing for me to get into the taxi and leave them behind in the dusty remoteness of Selamat Medan.
As a poet I wrote about these border themes in my first collection. I wanted to title the collection “Asylum” but for several years no Australian publisher was interested so I came up with a another title, The Accidental Cage. It’s harrowing to accept that after ten years nothing much has changed. Minority groups remain unable to lever cultural policy. As a writer I’d like to use whatever skills I have to influence greater awareness and tolerance. I believe the literary community is responsible for amending its largely monochromatic cultural representations to raise the status of minority groups. We are not the ethically-mute masses. Inevitably racial inequality within this country reflects on what happens off-shore.