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Sunday, August 24, 2014

What love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man

'What light is to the eyes - what air is to the lungs - what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man'. - Robert Green Ingersoll

Imagine being denied your liberty. Imagine being unable to do anything all day, every day; confined to a hell-hole concentration camp where your captors deliberately and systematically destroy any hope you have of freedom. You can leave ... if you don't mind going back to the hell-hole that you left, where you were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, your life was in danger, your families lives were in danger; death dogged you every day. What a choice. Yet it is the choice that the Australian government is giving asylum seekers who come to Australia seeking our protection.

The irony of this is that we see Australians showing support for Iraqis persecuted by the Islamic State. We see Christians changing their profile photos to the Arabic letter nun, which the Islamic State has allegedly been painting on the doors of Christians. Nun, or N, is being used to signify people who follow the Nazarene, Jesus.

But it isn't just Christians being persecuted. There's also the Yazidis and the Kurds. There are Muslims. Why limit your compassion to Christians?

With all this sympathy for Iraqis being killed and persecuted, it's surprising that Australia is still willing to detain Iraqis who come by boat seeking asylum. Even more surprising is that Australia is returning Iraqi asylum seekers to Iraq while persecution and murder is rampant. This is a breach of the non-refoulement provision in the United Nations Convention on Refugees, which Australia is a signatory to.

According to the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers may arrive by any means they can in order to seek protection, even if those means are normally considered illegal. Those who do arrive by 'illegal' means are not allowed to be punished for doing so. Yet Australia detains most of them in inadequate, offshore camps, that are little more than concentration camps, gulags. Asylum seekers are held indefinitely and told they will never be settled in Australia. Meanwhile, Australia bribes third world nations to take them at the same time as ensuring that asylum seekers aren't seen as genuine. The Australian government deliberately lies and demonises asylum seekers to justify unleashing a military operation on them for 'national security'. Its persecution of asylum seekers is designed to ensure that the majority of Australians believe they are queue jumpers who destroy their documents, hate Australia and are linked to terrorism.

Asylum seekers are not queue jumpers. What queue is there? Asylum claims are not processed in order. It isn't like taking a number at the deli. Claims are meant to be heard based on need, however, given the number of claims received it is more a matter of good fortune when a claim is processed. There are currently more than 50 million displaced persons in the world. Of these, the UNHCR has more than 16.7 million registered as refugees and 1,067,000 claims for asylum received (1). In 2012, there were only 80,000 resettlement vacancies world-wide available for the more than one million asylum seekers (2). Based on these figures, an asylum claim could take up to 13 years to be processed.

A wait in a UN refugee camp could take up to 17 years according to the UNHCR (3). Who would languish for that long in a camp? Many camps aren't safe, have limited or unreliable access to water and food. Rape and attacks are common (4). What parent would want their child to grow up in such conditions, with no education and no hope for the future?

The reality for many refugees is that they have no documents. Stateless persons, such as the Kurds, Hazara and Rohingya are rarely if ever issued documents because they're not recognised by the governments of the countries they live in. Countries such as Sudan and Somalia do not record every birth. The Refugee Convention states that people should not be penalised for failing to have the 'proper' documents.

Asylum seekers chose Australia because of its freedoms. Many asylum seekers love Australia more than Australians do. They appreciate what we have, they want to contribute to our country. They are proud to be part of Australia. They are proud to be Australian when they get citizenship. Yet the government whips up fear against them in a frenzy of xenophobia by manufacturing a threat to Australian sovereignty. They are not terrorists. They are victims of terrorists, of despots, of persecution. Why would anyone travel on a boat, risking their life, to destroy our freedom?

The abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government is a disgrace, a blight on our national character. This is not what Australia claims to be or what it was founded on. Australia was founded as a welcoming and free nation, a fair nation. Australia's abuse of asylum seekers is anything but welcoming, free or fair.

Self-harm is rife in detention centres. The government claims it's because of emotional blackmail. But seriously, what sort of abuse brings a person to prefer death to the abandonment and abuse experienced in Australia's gulags? Part of it is the complete removal of freedoms and their lives being placed in limbo, with all hope torn away as the government perversely enjoys declaring they have no chance of settling in Australia ... but they're free to return to war and persecution any time.

Asylum seekers in community detention or on bridging visas fair much better than those locked up in a soul-destroying prison. Not that this is ideal. They are banned from working or contributing to society. Nonetheless, releasing asylum seekers into the community presents a much lower human and financial cost than barbaric detention (5).

If Australia is truly a welcoming, free and fair nation it needs to shed its xenophobia and addiction to cruelty. It should give permanent residency to asylum seekers found to be genuine, not draw out the process and torment them through temporary visas.

The quote from Ingersoll clearly demonstrates how important liberty is to the soul of man. Instead of destroying desperate people who are fleeing persecution, war and suffering, Australia should welcome them, embrace them, love them.


1. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Facts and Figures about Refugees,, accessed 23 August 2014

2. UNHCR Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, Standing Committee 54th meeting, EC/63/SC/CRP.12, 5 June 2012,, accessed 23 August 2014.

3. UNHCR Protracted refugee situations: the search for practical solutions, page 109,, accessed 23 August 2014.

4. SBS, Go Back to Where You Came From, Series 2, How safe are refugee camps?

5. Medical Journal of Australia, Mental health and immigration detention, Gillian Triggs, Med J Aust 2013; 199 (11): 721-722,, accessed 24 August 2014.