People seeking asylum in Australia shouldn’t have to trade danger for degradation

Asylum Seekers Centre CEO Frances Rush reflects on how the recent politicking over people seeking asylum doesn’t reflect the humanity we see in the community. March 07, 2024

It would be easy, reading the political reaction to the news that more than 40 people seeking asylum have been taken to offshore detention in Nauru after arriving in Western Australia, to forget that we are talking about real people who have faced unimaginable circumstances.

The lives of people fleeing danger in their home countries were instantly politicised. The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, invoked Operation Sovereign Borders; the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, hit back in an attempt to score political points; and commentators marked the political war of words, which often neglect the fact that it is a human right to seek asylum.

Politicians and fearmongering headlines often dominate the discourse around these events. But their politicking and dangerous rhetoric fails to reflect that we are talking about real people who are forced to flee danger, violence and persecution in any way they can, be it by sea or plane.

It is a human right to seek asylum, regardless of how people arrive in Australia. People seeking asylum risk their lives to enter a system which is purposely designed to isolate and neglect them. By leaving their homes, families and communities to make a treacherous and often fatal journey, these people demonstrate untold resilience and strength.

No one chooses this course of action. It is forced upon them.

Our country is honouring the letter of this right, but not the spirit. Human Rights Watch’s annual World Report recently found Australia’s reputation on human rights has been “tarnished” by its “cruel treatment” of refugees and people seeking asylum. We must not further impair our already damaged position.

The demonising narrative and negative language being pedalled by our political class does not tell the whole story, and fails to reflect the humanity and compassion that is woven throughout Australia.

I have seen individuals and families arrive from all over the world, from all manner of conflicts and circumstances, with all manner of needs and challenges. What has remained constant is the empathy, kindness and humanity of the community in extending support and a warm welcome, despite the reality of the injustice faced by people seeking asylum due to the lack of basic government support.

Even after three decades, it is humbling to see this response every day. It is a source of hope, even in the most fervent of political and media environments.

We must translate the hope and humanity woven through our communities to demand change at the highest levels. Our politicians must no longer lag behind the attitudes and expectations of the people they serve.

We can’t sell ourselves short as a nation, with the richness of our multicultural makeup and the incredible good within every corner of it. Instead, we must demand change to our discourse and systems.

This can start with something small such as the language we use, the voices we elevate, and the stories we focus on.

We must centre the voices of those with lived experience so we hear from them, not a politician vying for votes. This changes sentiment and changes lives.

As refugee, advocate and Asylum Seekers Centre board member Abang Anade Othow said: “As someone who has personally experienced the impact of war and displacement, having escaped my home country as a refugee, I understand that the global landscape is marked by immense suffering and increasing division within communities, both in Australia and beyond. In such trying times, our politicians must focus on cohesion, inclusion and safety for all.”

We must see people seeking asylum as family and fellow humans. We must no longer accept a landscape where people must trade danger for degradation. We must respect and honour the strength and resilience people seeking asylum show, not use them as a political football in appealing to the lowest common denominator. We must build our immigration system on fairness and clarity, and root out the fearmongering, demonising and the harmful narrative currently infecting it.

We must demand our leaders mirror the best of our communities. The lives of people seeking asylum, our political debate and our country would be all the better for it.

This article by Asylum Seekers Centre CEO Frances Rush first appeared in the Guardian here.

A safe haven for those fleeing danger Celebrating women in the Asylum Seekers Centre community