KASAMA Vol. 15 No. 4 / October-November-December 2001 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Rural Group Gives Tampa Captain Human Rights Award
Captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, has been awarded for rescuing asylum seekers from a sinking vessel near Christmas Island in August. The human rights award, made by the non-government organisation Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) was received on Captain Rinnan's behalf by the Norwegian Ambassador, Mr Ove Tehorsheim, in Canberra on December 10, International Human Rights Day.
A spokesperson for RAR, Dr Helen McCue, said rural people appreciate someone who gives a helping hand to those in need. It was hoped the award would become an annual event, presented to an individual who had made a selfless and substantial contribution to the welfare of refugees. She said: "Captain Rinnan displayed courage, compassion and moral fortitude during the Tampa crisis." Capt Rinnan has been named 'Captain of the Year' by Lloyds and is also in line for the German 'Person of the Year' award. Dr McCue said: "We want him to know that many Australians also thank and honour him."
Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) formed in response to, and reaction against, the bi-party policy on asylum seekers. It began in the Southern Highlands of NSW in October 2001 when three depressed people in a lounge room, feeling angry and helpless said, "what can we do?" The answer was, "let's work locally". After leafleting outside the supermarkets, promotion in the local press and on radio, RAR put on a hugely successful public meeting in Bowral on November 5 attended by over 400 people. Since then a national network has formed with RAR groups springing up all over the country, from Denmark in WA, to Wangaratta in Victoria, to Katherine in the Northern Territory. They have a ten-point action plan and hundreds of people prepared to put in work.
Rural Australians for Refugees wants the Government to act in accord with the UN convention on Refugees signed by Australia in 1954, close detention centres in their present form, abolish Temporary Protection Visas, and increase Australia's annual refugee intake to 24,000.
The Tampa Human Rights Award is only one of several RAR initiatives. Others include encouraging towns to become 'Welcome Towns' - communities who are prepared to take refugee families and help them settle; and the establishment of 'Welcome Books' similar to the Sorry Books that were such a significant part of the Aboriginal reconciliation movement.
When You Know The Facts, You Will Open Your Heart
Australia receives very few asylum seekers compared to other countries. Last year it received 4,174. Sweden with about half our population, receives the same number as Australia. Iran and Pakistan, two of the world's poorest countries, each hosted over a million Afghan refugees.
No other country imprisons its asylum seekers. In Australia they are placed indefinitely in detention centres in harsh conditions without access to services. Canada allows its asylum seekers to live in the community. In Sweden they are allowed out of detention as soon as they have gone through identification and criminal screening.
Australia does not even fill its small quota of 12,000 refugees per annum. Not one of 400 allocated Women at Risk' places has ever been filled.
Almost one in five people in detention centres is a child. In Sweden the maximum time a child is kept in custody is six days. In Australia we keep children in detention indefinitely.
60% of asylum seekers are victims of torture or severe trauma. But in Australia they are treated like criminals rather than ordinary people fleeing persecution.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Anyone can be a refugee. Boat people are ordinary men and women, many of them urban professionals fleeing their countries because of war or persecution.
Nearly all refugees are genuine. 93 percent of Afghan and 97 percent of Iraqis are found to be legitimate asylum seekers. Anyone who does not fulfil the criterion of "having a well founded fear of persecution" is sent back to their homeland.
Boat people are not illegal. Under the UN Refugee Convention, which has applied for fifty years, Australia has an obligation to take in asylum seekers and assess their claims. They are in a totally different category from immigrants. The real 'illegals' are the 14,000 Britons and Americans caught each year for overstaying their visas. They are not put in detention centres.
There is no queue to jump. Australia has no embassy in Iraq or Afghanistan for people to apply to for a visa. In overseas refugee camps there is frequently no resettlement process available. Where one exists it is often ad hoc, agonisingly slow and corrupt.
Contact: Rural Australians for
Refugees, P.O. Box 1308, Bowral NSW 2576
Convenors: Dr Helen McCue - phone: (02) 4862 2325 or Susan Varga and Anne Coombs - phone: (02) 4883-6098.