Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Interview with a boy

Yesterday, an eleven year old lad got in touch from a school in Brisbane to ask for some help with a school project he had chosen to do on asylum seekers. I thought I'd share my answers here - mainly because I thought his questions were really insightful. Bear in mind these are my opinions and not necessarily those of my employer. Having said that, you can see I have been purposefully careful with some answers - we are a non political organisation and the answers were coming from my work email address.

1. Why do you think we should help asylum seekers?
We have a responsibility towards one another as people. My view is that if we are fortunate to be born into a safe, secure environment with abundant resources and the means to assist others, we should. It is luck, not choice, that dictates where we are born.
We are all human and we have a responsibility that comes with that. It is not illegal to seek asylum – no matter how you arrive here. These people have not broken any laws and, as such, should be supported in their right to claim asylum.
2. How do you think I can make a difference?
There are hundreds of ways you can make a difference. Even just talking about the facts at the dinner table with your family and friends can have an impact.
Join a local organisation which supports asylum seekers. Volunteer your time.
Speak with asylum seekers directly; help them to understand that people welcome them here.
Organise a charity event at your school or college which not only raises money to support asylum seekers but also raises awareness of the facts.
Find an educational movie such as ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ which gives a real insight into the reasons why people risk their lives on boats coming to Australia and show it in class. There are lots of good resources on the SBS ‘Go Back’ site which can help you to educate people.
It needs to be understood that asylum seekers are people, hoping to make a life for themselves. They have a great deal to offer in terms of work ethic, art and culture, food, languages, diversity.
3. Do you think the government is going to is going to deal with the asylum seekers in a humane way?
Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, which means that we are bound by law to treat asylum seekers with humanity and fairness.
4. Do you like the idea of offshore processing?
I think we have to look at what the Government will give, versus what refugee advocates want, in an ideal world. With an improvement in current facilities (in particular mental health support) and guarantee of strict controls and inspections to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to and people are looked after in a compassionate, attentive way, maybe it could work. Organisations that work on behalf of asylum seekers need to give the message that conditions in detention centres, whether on or offshore, need to be improved and conditions met with diligence.
Personally, I think that off shore processing isn’t the ideal for a few reasons. It gives the wrong message to the general public. Putting asylum seekers in (what amounts to) jail in a far off land is immediately saying to the public ‘These people are dangerous, they need to be taken away and locked up for the good of society’ – when in fact, thus far, they have been found to be nothing of the sort.
I think offshore processing could also mean that the detention centres are perhaps not kept in the best condition – there is no one to ensure that minimum standards of care are being maintained and that clients receive the correct legal assistance, medical care etc. It concerns me that it will promote ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Remember that it will only be boat arrivals who will be ‘processed’ offshore. Most asylum seekers arrive by plane and are living and sometimes working in the community whilst their claims are being heard.
5. Have you ever met an asylum seeker or have been one if so what was his/her impressions on being an asylum seeker, and what were their feelings on the boat or plane?
I work with asylum seekers daily and also worked with asylum seekers and refugees in the UK for many years. All have different experiences and outlooks. No two situations are the same.
Some have work rights, some do not, some have family support, many do not. Some have mental health issues caused by either the issues they had to face at home or through their time in detention. Some have physical health needs, some are elderly, some are children.
Some left a successful business behind. I’ve met teachers, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, journalists, carpenters, professional musicians, students, nurses, politicians – you name it. All will have different perspectives.
In fact it might be easier to answer this question if I had only ever met one asylum seeker!
I think the main thing to remember is that nobody wants to be an asylum seeker – nobody asks to be uprooted from their home and family and flung into the unknown, reliant on strangers to assist them. The people who arrive here by any means do not set out to be deceitful or ‘queue jump’ – they simply need to get out – and quickly. They are proud people who have found themselves in an unfortunate situation.
One of the things that I have come to learn is that it is all too easy to ‘project’ our thoughts and way of life onto other people. It’s convenient for us to sit in our armchair shaking our head at the newspaper as we learn of the ‘Latest Asylum Seeker Invasion’ but we can't – and hopefully never will - know how it truly feels to be in the position where we are forced to make the decision to leave everything we know behind.
People who are fleeing their country don’t always have the luxury of choosing when or how they leave. Some don’t even know where they are headed when they get on the plane.
6. Why did you choose to work for your organisation?
I started off teaching ESL in order to live and work in Italy, and when I returned to my native UK, I picked up from where I left off and started working in a local FE college (TAFE), teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Moving to Australia meant another fresh start and I was pretty undecided about what I really wanted to do – I only knew it needed to be in education or community development, in administration. When the position here came up, I jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back.
I guess I have quite a strong sense of what is ‘fair’ and what is not and it angers me that some people are born into a safe, supportive country with opportunities for employment, freedom of speech and peace, whilst others are born into war, famine, or are persecuted for just being who they are. Yes, it’s chance, yes it’s luck – but then I would say those who have (by happy accident) been born into and raised in a safe, rich environment should help out those who haven’t. But this is only my opinion!
I am also a big supporter of education - I believe it changes things. If I can go some way towards facilitating that through my work, then great.
7. Do you personally believe your organisation is making a difference?
Absolutely. We have been established for 18 years and are just about to assess our 5000th client.
You only have to spend time here for one afternoon to realise the impact we have on peoples’ lives – be that providing a bag of food to take home, or providing emergency accommodation or counselling which will assist someone in moving forward with their life in a less stressful, more positive way.
Aside from the obvious support we provide (hot lunches, an employment service, GP clinic, English lessons and more), the social interaction that clients receive from staff , volunteers and from one another can be the difference between somebody feeling completely isolated, and feeling respected and wanted.
I’m incredibly proud of what we achieve, with so little in terms of money and resources.
8. What do you think the asylum seeker issues will be like in 20 years’ time?
It’s an issue which is cyclical, I suppose. Whenever there is a major war or disaster, there are displaced people. People will keep moving because they have no choice. Australia was built by ‘boat people’ – the issue here is nothing new.

Often, people fear what that they don’t understand. Many resent supporting people who they feel don’t belong in their country. They are concerned that their culture, jobs and laws will be affected.

I don’t think that will ever really change (it’s human nature), but I do think that the more we have the conversation and present the facts - through seminars, dinner table conversations, workshops, social media – whatever - the more people we will be able to educate and the less contentious and less frightening (or threatening) the term ‘asylum seeker’ will become.

There are some passionate people – individuals and organisations – out there doing some fantastic work both directly with asylum seekers and refugees and in advocacy (awareness raising). I’m hopeful.

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