One of the enjoyable aspects about being a writer is that I sometimes have the opportunity to visit schools and talk to students. More to the Story – conversations with refugees has been out in the market for over three years now but it is still being used in a number of high schools around Australia for English, social sciences and several other subjects. The response from students and teachers continues to be heartening.
Recently I visited Churchlands Senior High School in Perth and was so impressed with how the teaching staff were approaching the topic. Apart from reading chapters of my book (which was lovely to see), some had examined speeches by Julian Burnside QC, others had examined different writers on refugee issues, or the work of a refugee rapper from South Sudan. Students spent time looking at different media reports to understand the power of language and how it is used to empower and disempower.
The overwhelming message from students about how Australia treats asylum seekers is one of astonishment and outrage. As one young student said to me: ‘I just can’t understand why we treat people like this – it is a fundamental human right to be able to seek asylum. How does this happen?’
The students wanted to know about Operation Sovereign Borders and what I thought would be a reasonable intake of refugees each year. I explained the average of 13,000 people wasn’t enough for a large, rich country like Australia and, for me, 100,000 – a similar number to Canada – would be more appropriate. I also reminded students that they didn’t have to agree with me, and they could build their own positions supported by facts. The students are examining all the positions that people take on refugees and asylum seekers in Australia and will be working on their own persuasive essays in the coming weeks.
Perhaps the most interesting question was whether I thought attitudes were better now compared to when I returned to Australia ten years ago. Sadly, I don’t think they are. Australia remains a contradiction to me. It is a great multicultural country where people from all over the world live and work happily, but there are pockets that can sometimes become loud and spiteful. I think our obsession with refugees who come by boat and how we treat asylum seekers has hardened over the years.
In fact, I think Australia’s position is dehumanising and mean and violates Australia’s obligations under international law.
That said, one class asked me if I was optimistic about future changes to the legislation and attitudes. I am, because the decision makers will be young people like my classes. They are respectful and welcoming to many different nationalities and backgrounds in their classroom. The future is theirs to shape.