KASAMA Vol. 19 No. 2 / April-May-June 2005 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Protesters March for Refugee Rights

GEORGE NEWHOUSE, one of Vivian Alvarez-Solon’s legal team, addressed the Sydney gathering for World Refugee Day on June 19th.

First, I want to make a confession. I am not a human rights lawyer, I’m an ordinary solicitor and I’m a father, but I was so shocked when I found out what our government did to Vivian Solon that I determined to fight her case, and if that fight is victorious and other people’s lives are saved, or improved in the process then, so be it.

On hearing of Vivian’s circumstances for the first time I was moved by the thought that her children had not heard a word from their mother in four years and that they could only imagine why she had vanished without a goodbye or a trace. Vivian’s children are about the same ages as mine and I know from my own experience how it feels to have lost a parent at a very young age. My stomach turned at their anguish.

And I also know, as a member of the Jewish community, the full horror of the words ‘illegal deportation’ and ‘racial discrimination’. My people have been there, and their suffering is well known to me, as it is to the world.

But is this a fair comparison? Is there a racial or religious element in what John Howard is doing to people of a different complexion, with different dress and accents or even different convictions? I believe there is. And I pose these questions.

If Vivian had an English, American or Irish accent and if she had been involved in a car accident and was found by the side of the road in Lismore, north New South Wales — what would have happened to her? Would she have been frogmarched to the airport and exiled to the Philippines?

No, She would have been treated in hospital, healed of her wounds, her identity uncovered and her children, her Australian friends and relatives told where she was.

But this didn’t happen to Vivian.

She was dumped in a hospice for the dying in the Philippines where she might have remained — and those who put her there well knew this — for the rest of her life.

Why? Because she wasn’t white and she spoke with an accent. That’s all it seems to take for someone to be locked up and deported these days.

Gross negligence, reckless indifference and the cruelty of those who look once and then look away is, I believe, at the heart of Vivian’s case. I feel uncomfortable calling it a fight for human rights.

We are fighting to get Vivian what she deserves and bring her home. But this government is mean spirited and refuses to provide her most basic needs like shelter and some money to live on. Even today, more than a month since she was discovered in the Philippines, after an initial settling in period, John Howard has offered Vivian nothing other than her medical expenses. What we seek are conditions under which Vivian will be able to recover from her traumatic ordeals in reasonable safety and peace.

But of course there’s a larger question too. Vivian’s case begs the question about what the Howard government has been doing to people like her for the past four years. At long last Liberal backbenchers are speaking out. But it’s been many long years and too many lives that have been wrecked to bring us these headlines, this public hand-wringing, this ‘non-core’ promise to do better in future. Years in which John Howard, Amanda Vanstone and Philip Ruddock vilified the innocent and smashed childhoods. Yet instead of rebuking the head of the Immigration Department for the damage, this government rewarded him last week, with a Queen’s Birthday honour.

How have we let this government castrate, disempower and morally corrupt the federal public service, trample over human rights and unleash sadists into immigration detention camps which imprison vulnerable women and children? What kind of people would put a helpless woman with unresolved spinal injuries on a plane to fly to another country while she was having fits; to another country where they knew she wouldn’t even get painkillers, let alone decent medical care?

I could not sleep at night if I did that to an animal let alone another human being. But the head of the Department of Immigration, Mr Farmer, sleeps well. He said in a statement that immigration staff deserve more recognition for their achievements.

Well, Mr Farmer, I will not rest until the achievements of the officers responsible for Vivian’s misery are recognised and they are disgraced for what they did. You can shift them to other departments, but they can’t hide. I want men like Mr Farmer and his lackeys to think twice before they become accomplices in such reckless cruelty ever again.

Since Vivian’s case became known, up to 200 other cases of what is insidiously described as ‘institutional maltreatment’ — we used to call it cruelty and injustice — have miraculously turned up.

Yes, Petro Georgiou has pushed for change and the Prime Minister is now stumbling backwards, waving his arms and burbling about this being one of his government’s many failings. Amanda Vanstone, like Pontius Pilate, washes her hands of it all with calls for a change of culture in her department.

Of course Cornelia Rau contributed to the government’s change of heart but Vivian Solon, I believe, tipped the balance in changing Australians’ attitudes towards mandatory detention, and I suppose we all should, in a way, be grateful for her suffering. Because by it a culture of humiliation and contempt has been made known to everyone, and even admitted to by its minister, and things may therefore change at last.

I am an ordinary Australian, who became concerned about the treatment of a vulnerable woman and I give thanks to Vivian for having faith in me and my partners and allowing us to take on her case.

I am proud to have been part of the avalanche that is now rolling across Australia, and will ultimately roll this inhuman government out of office.

I thank you.