On 21 June, church groups, political groups, non-government organisations (NGOs) and caring individuals gathered on a hill facing the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre to show the detainees inside that we did care about their plight and that they weren’t forgotten. We stood on our hill, waved banners, lights and shouted chants. In turn detainees would chant back. They knew that we were there and they were thankful.
That evening, as an Amnesty International representative, I gave a speech where I reflected on how I first came across the problems faced by refugees in Australia. I was about 10 and found a picture of a barbed wire fence with children behind it on the cover of a magazine. I assumed that far away something terrible was happening and we were being asked to help fix it. We were after all the lucky country and we were often using that luck to help others.
However, when I asked Mum about the picture her answer was devastating. She told me how these were people who had come to Australia for help but we had locked them up because we didn’t want them here. I was shocked. This didn’t match my picture of Australia. We were a nation that helped people. We were the Simpsons with our Donkeys, helping those without hope. This gap between what I was taught about Australia and the reality cut deep and ever since then I have longed to repair it.
I recently visited the Yongah Hill detention centre. I was nervous, not really knowing what to expect. However my nerves subsided as I stood outside the door to the visiting area when all I could hear was the sound of laughter. It was the same laughter I would hear before entering any gathering of friends and it truly reminded me how these detainees, boat people, asylum seekers or whatever name we give them are, in every sense, just like us. Clothing preferences, food styles and accents mean very little in the face of our common humanity: our laughter, tears, hopes and dreams.
I got on well with the detainees; however, they didn’t seem to be anything special. In fact they were so like everyone else I knew that it was difficult to comprehend that they were what all the fuss was about. So often we forget that asylum seekers are just like us. You can do anything you like to a number, but it would break our hearts to do what we are doing to another human.
This policy is a waste. We’re playing politics with people lives and forget that we aren’t locking up boat people; we’re locking up our friends, co-workers, bosses and business owners. We are locking up our future.
For more information and to contact the WA Amnesty Refugee Group visit http://www.amnesty.org.au/wa/group/34372.
Top image: Signs at the Yongah Hill vigil were held high enough for detainees inside the centre to see. They read ‘freedom’ in six different languages.