By Paul Dobbyn
A “GROUNDSWELL of public concern” about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been discerned by three Brisbane Catholics involved in raising awareness about the issue.
The three activists – community engagement co-ordinator at Mercy Community Services’ Romero Centre Rebecca Lim; centre volunteer and teacher at Lourdes Hill College Steve Jorgensen; and community forum organiser Brendan Scarce – believe the change of attitude is coming with increasing public education.
Public anger about unjust government treatment of asylum seekers was on display at a forum organised by the Australian Labor Party at Annerley’s Marymac Community Centre on July 11, they said.
Mr Jorgensen estimated 300 to 400 people had attended.
“That showed an extremely high level of interest and it was on a Friday night too,” he said.
“Quite a few people were very outspoken – they took the opportunity to tell the Shadow Minister for Immigration (Richard Marles) and hosts, Federal MPs Graham Perrett and Terri Butler, that there was no real difference between the ALP and Coalition policy on asylum seekers.”
Mr Scarce, who organised a Northside Asylum Seeker Community Forum in May at St Paschal’s Parish, Wavell Heights, with speakers including Fr Gerry Hefferan and Ms Lim, is helping to organise another forum on the issue in August.
He was delighted to see such a strong turnout at Annerley.
“Through such means, people are becoming increasingly aware of what our (politicians are) doing in our name,” he said. “Asylum seekers are being detained in jail-like conditions yet they have committed no crimes.
“Through these forums, those opposing our (politicians’) inhumanity to asylum seekers are becoming aware they are not alone.”
Ms Lim, who was on a speakers’ panel at the Annerley forum, told The Catholic Leader she spoke at “three to four” such forums a week.
She said there were “quite a few vocal ex-Labor people” who told the Marymac July 11 gathering they had left the party out of disgust at its policies on asylum seekers.
At that forum Ms Lim told those present “I will spend the next few minutes being the voice of the voiceless”.
She then went on to outline results of her consultations with Tamil refugees from the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka and India.
Her consultations covered such questions as the impact of bridging visas, the existence of official channels for registration as a refugee, and the nature of life for Tamils in post-civil war Sri Lanka.
Among Ms Lim’s findings as revealed to the forum were:
- Asylum seekers on bridging visas, many able-bodied young people, are very depressed about not being allowed to work and being forced onto welfare
- Tamils thinking of going to the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka are deterred because the staff is Sinhalese
- No NGOs (non-government organisations) are allowed to go to particular villages or towns in Tamil areas to find out if there are any problems because the Government doesn’t allow them to visit
- Tamils are unable to get visas or passports to leave Sri Lanka unless they bribe agents
- Despite the Australian Government’s claims that Sri Lanka is safe to return for Tamils, 69,000 Tamil refugees in India can’t be resettled back in their homeland
- Most of the Tamils’ land has been occupied by military and even the Indian Government doesn’t force Sri Lankan refugees; only Australia is behaving this way
- The Tamil asylum seekers interviewed said they were ready to go back to Sri Lanka if they can live safely, be treated equally and have their culture recognised and their land respected.
Ms Lim’s busy program of public speaking on the topic will continue in the coming weeks and months with talks to a wide range of groups from TAFE, university and Catholic school students to youth groups and social justice groups.
She will also address community bodies including ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Service), the Geography Teachers Association of Queensland and an ALP forum.
Australian Catholic bishops have criticised both sides of politics for their policies on asylum seekers.
The bishops recently expressed deep concern for the wellbeing of 153 Tamil people detained in a vessel while heading for Christmas Island in June.
The group of men, women and children was held aboard the Australian customs ship Ocean Protector for several weeks.
The Australian Government was reported to have intended to hand the asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy but was stopped by an interim injunction granted in the High Court on July 8.
Last Sunday (July 27) the group was finally let ashore. They were flown from Cocos Island to Western Australia’s Curtin detention centre.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the asylum seekers were economic migrants.