Speaking of Siev X…

25 Nov

As I referenced the Siev X disaster in the last post (and the second video ‘Left Behind‘ all but explicitly invokes it), I think I can almost get away with crow-barring an already prepared piece in here.

I delivered this speech on the 23rd of October, 2010 to a rally calling for an end to mandatory detention at Sydney Town Hall:

To the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the owners of the conquered ground on which we stand today, the latest wave of rose-coloured proto-nationalism in the Adelaide Hills must represent a sickening irony. Australia, a nation of immigrants, founded on the imperial exploitation of open borders, that loudly proclaims it’s own fairness, magnificence & opportunity to anybody who will listen… before hastening to add that these opportunities be afforded only to those who’s ancestors arrived on boats at a different point in our history. Though most prefer lazily-guised dogwhistling to flat out racist invective, the message is clear – we’ve got what we wanted out of this land, declared it our own, the rest of you be damned.

For Leela Krishna, a young Tamil man from war-torn Sri Lanka, Australia embodied what it has always represented to desperate people. From the British Isles to Vietnam, from Africa to the subcontinent, from China to the Mediterranean; Australia has stood at nobler times in our history as a distant beacon of opportunity & safety. Now it seems, unless one is an offshore mining conglomerate, that flickering torch has been all but extinguished.

Leela simply hoped for another kind of existence – free from the shelling, the immense human misery of concentration camps, the roaming government death squads, the arbitrary arrest & imprisonment, and the very real threat of persecution due to his sexuality. Forced to abandon everything he knew and loved, Leela arrived on Christmas Island over a year ago. In the time since, Leela has endured systematic abuse of his rights under both the UNHCR & Geneva conventions, and has lived every day plagued with terminal uncertainty endured by every incarcerated refugee.

He has self-harmed and attempted to take his own life several times. He has suffered physical, sexual & emotional abuse at the hands of Serco’s footsoldiers; and despite being deemed a genuine refugee in April, he continues to languish inside detention whilst ASIO dither over security checks. Earlier this year as a campaign to free Leela from Villawood Detention Centre gained momentum, and a sponsor was found to house him in the community, Leela was suddenly and unceremoniously uprooted by the Department of Immigration and moved to Melbourne’s Maribyrnong detention centre, torn away once again from everyone and everything he knew.

The reason? None have been forthcoming, but the motive is not hard to identify. As a microcosm of the whole sordid affair, Leela’s experience perfectly personifies everything that mandatory detention seeks to do: hide him away, out of sight, out of mind. As a nation, we’re getting quite good at it. There is bipartisan agreement on the need to talk about human lives as if they were abstract, and the corporate media does their part with sterile, dehumanising language… to ensure that we do not recognise in Leela, or any other refugee, anything that reminds us of our own humanity.

Yesterday was Leela’s 21st birthday, a right of passage sacred to many Australians. But for Leela, this doesn’t mean a party, or cake, or laughter with his family and friends… it just means another day in a cage, waiting for the day that he gets to stand as a free man on the boundless plains to share that Australia proclaims in it’s anthem, uncertain that that day will ever come.

For Leela, and so many countless others like him; gone is the fair go, the mateship, and the recognition that though we hail from every corner of the world, we stand together as one people in a free land.

For the ten family groups currently on hunger strike in Leonora detention centre, the promise of Australia – it’s safety, it’s stability, it’s liberty – has similarly been replaced with the most wrenching & abject human misery: 10 months and counting of utter powerlessness, locked in glorified human cages, trapped behind razor wire.

Their first plea for asylum has already been rejected, and faced with terminal uncertainty as to their fate, they are so powerless that literally the only option they have left is to slowly starve themselves to death, in the desperate hope that we will heed their call of distress. As has been the case for so many others forced into such desperate actions, the silence must be deafening.

And still, our body-politic refuses to answer, refuses to help, refuses to admit that a problem even exists. First we were told that the over 700 children in immigration facilities were not being held in detention, rather ‘detention like environments’. Despite the myopic and flagrantly dishonest rhetoric of the Rudd & Gillard governments, who seek to defer vociferous domestic & international criticism, this is more than even under the Howard government.

Even the latest decree from the minister this week, whist superficially reasonable, is nothing more than a capricious political bait-and-switch. Chris Bowen assures us that even he agrees that children should not be held in mandatory detention, and that his department will move to alter their circumstances…

In June 2011!

How’s that for a rallying cry? ‘What do we want? A small improvement! When do we want it? By an arbitrary, non-binding date sometime next year!’

In return for this tiny improvement, which still would not guarantee the removal of all refugee children from immigration detention (in fact, the government has already ordered a new facility in the Adelaide Hills that will house 400) the Gillard government is hoping we don’t notice it’s other hand pouring yet more tax-payer money into a rapid expansion of Australia’s most infamous collective punishment facility, Curtain detention centre; and the construction of another 1500 bed prison in Northam, WA.

This is all of course on top of the huge diplomatic pressure currently being applied to East Timor; a nation battling profound disadvantage, poverty & the lingering scars of it’s own immense human tragedy; to step in and whisk the problem out of sigh & out of mind. After all, as a prosperous first-world nation ‘with boundless plains to share’, we are clearly not equipped to even offer the chance of a new life to those forcibly displaced by war, tyranny & manifest suffering.

If this despicable indifference, the willful ignorance, the perpetual divide-and-conquer racism is what it means to be an Australian, then I stand here today and proudly renounce my nationality. The inhumanity of mandatory detention, of offshore processing, of callous disregard for the rights of our fellow human beings is happening in our name, on our watch, and brothers & sisters the time has come to say enough.

We need political leaders with the courage to empathise, not demonise. We need institutions that serve a nobler purpose than the enriching of private misery-profiteer corporations. We need a government that is willing to acknowledge the blood 353 of our brothers & sisters that remains on our hands, and is willing to heed the lessons of such a disgraceful moment in our history.

If we are so free, if we are so fair, if we are so great; we need to acknowledge that mandatory detention dehumanises us all. Until the last lock breaks, none of us are free.

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