Vivian Solon, also known as Vivian Young and Vivian Alvarez, is a victim of gross mistreatment by our government. She is an Australian like me, an Australian like you. The delay in dealing with her compensation and the claims made by her pro bono lawyers, is in itself an injustice. Justice delayed is justice denied!
[There is also] the effect on her sons, her family and all who have cared for her in the four and plus years since she was wrongly deported to the country of her birth. When a compensation comes, and it better come quickly, it needs to be generous and inclusive of all the claims of injustices and damage. It should be happening now. What is holding up a just settlement?
There is demonstrated discrimination and bias on the basis of gender and former nationality. As a former immigration officer, I know too well the stereotyping that goes on about Filipino and other brides. They’re women and men who choose to marry for their own good reasons, but the term used to describe them is derogatory. Even ten years ago the government and the department were educating themselves about not using derogatory terms. The leadership shown by our Ministers and our Prime Minister has undone what was learnt.
What is wrong in government? I put it down to the politicised executive leadership of government departments like Immigration, and the brutalisation of public servants who have had to implement an asylum and refugee policy that is constantly changing. When something changes repeatedly it’s very hard to keep up with the training of the officers who are charged with implementing the law and the regulations, and there’s a definite [training] deficit. There has also been an erosion of standards of professionalism in how we treat clients.
So what has changed in the time since I was an immigration officer? I’m very clear that there are many good people in the Department of Immigration, and many of them, like me, are immigrants with two cultures. But this political leadership has reinforced two very different cultures, one of enforcement and compliance and the other of settlement and helping people make a success of their life in Australia.
Economic rationalists now run government departments based on outcomes, not on quality of service. Services have been outsourced, put in the hands of sometimes inappropriate companies that are there for profit, not for service. And [the] government in its observation of its own obligations under international law has moved away from a commitment to human rights. It has undermined UN conventions and this change creates a clash of culture.
Our asylum policy and practices have affected how the Department of Immigration deals with all its clients, including Vivian Solon. There has been a dehumanisation of ‘the other’, the stranger, the person who hasn’t got English as a first language The indefinite detention and non–reviewable detention of people who arrive by boat is a disgrace. Equally, temporary visas for refugees living amongst us are a problem because we’re treating people unequally and we’re actually reinforcing disadvantage.
There’s been a desensitisation and burnout of compassionate Aussies. We in the refugee support movement suffer vicarious trauma. All of us who have worked with asylum seekers and with refugees on temporary visas have been personally affected by the damage done to the victims of that system. I can understand that officers in the department, public servants charged to implement policy, can develop a siege mentality. They feel under siege from us, the advocates, and some of the media who look for bad news stories and do not tell the good news stories.
We welcome the management change that followed the Palmer Report when senior public servants, including the Secretary of the Department, were moved. There is a hopelessness though when there is no policy change. What chance is there of real change, of positive change, when the policies that create the environment are not changed?
The cases of Vivian Solon and Cornelia Rau are landmarks only. We know that the current report by Neil Comrie includes the investigation of 200 more cases of wrongful detention. Comrie’s report is overdue. I ask you to put pressure on government to bring forth that report and also compensation. And I thank you for your continued perseverance in keeping the government focussed on what they’re doing wrong and hopefully getting them to change.
As we all gather here this morning I have mixed feelings about the Department of Immigration. I have friends up there, who as individuals are great people, they do their jobs well and have genuine sympathy with migrants and refugees that they meet in the course of their work. I have dealt with Immigration Officials in this building in my previous job at a Migrant Resource Centre and as a Coordinator of a Filipino organisation and currently as Chairperson of a migrant and refugee women’s coalition.
Setting the deportation and detention issues aside, this Department is widely perceived by migrant and refugee communities as making unpopular and purely bureaucratic decisions especially the recent defunding of many struggling ethno–specific organisations. To say that this Department has no “heart” is not really harsh. There is enough truth to demonstrate this. And this morning allow me to elaborate on this.
I am here this morning representing the Centre for Philippine Concerns Australia, the Filipino organisation that actively collaborated with ABC Lateline in piecing together the Vivian Alvarez Solon story, a sad story of an Australian citizen wrongfully deported to the Philippines four years ago by the Immigration Department that was headed at that time by Minister Philip Ruddock.
The Vivian Alvarez Solon story is a story of incompetence, lies, cover up, stereotyping, prejudices, and systemic discrimination. It is also DIMIA’s story, for it has exposed the culture of DIMIA – a culture of denial and defensiveness, expediency rather than carefulness.
The DIMIA and the government under which it operates, will never be short with rules, regulations, laws; but one thing is sure, it is always short of “humanity”. More than 90 days since Vivian Alvarez Solon was found in the Philippines, Prime Minister Howard is still playing hard ball on this case. Vivian Alvarez Solon is still in the Philippines.
Let me read out to you the latest media release from the office of Vivian’s lawyer, George Newhouse:
She is living in a small apartment in Manila and is being cared for by her family and carers provided by the Australian Government. Her room is sparse but decorated with pictures of her children with whom she communicates by email and telephone.
After hearing the news of the Prime Minister’s refusal to extend her care provisions beyond six months Vivian has become despondent. She is disappointed that she may have to stay in Manila longer.
Vivian is particularly concerned that if provisions are not made for her after the six–month care period, offered by the Prime Minister, expires she will have nothing with which to help support her children. She said, “Everyone tells me I am going to get well with therapy and the proper medication. But it is my body. I know I will never be normal again. I cannot work. What will I do to be able to live decently in Australia? Am I asking too much?”
She says of the six–month care period being offered – “I don’t know that I will still be around in six months. I could be dead in six months. …If I die in the Philippines, my children will never be able to afford to visit my grave. They are so very young. It will take a long time for them to raise enough money for airfare.”
She said that the PM’s apology “sounds nice”. But “after 6 months, when there is no one around to help me about the house, who is going to help hang out the wash? Will the Prime Minister help me to hang out the laundry? How will I … be able to help my children? Before I die I would like to give each of them one big hug. Is that too much to ask?”
Ladies and Gentlemen, let us help bring Vivian Alvarez Solon back to Australia. Let us keep the fight going, in collaboration with all organisations that are working on refugee issues and illegal deportation of legitimate immigrants.