In discussion with experts

In our world of ‘alternative fact tweets’ and the 20 second media grab, it has been a real pleasure for me to immerse myself in reading a wide range of books as I prepare to facilitate a number of sessions at the Perth Writers Festival. Held from 23-26 February at the University of Western Australia the festival, as the program states, will be a time of ‘big bold ideas’.

I will be involved with these three panels:

I am particularly looking forward to Borderline with William Maley, Peter Mares and Ben Rawlence. All three writers have released new books about migration and refugee issues. We’ve seen an unprecedented movement of people around the globe in the last decade. There’s been an alarming reaction by western governments to limit the flow of refugees into their countries, while at the same time some have increased temporary migration and short term work or student visas. We’ll be discussing what the long term effect of these policies is and what has happened to our humanity.

Writers festivals are a chance to meet some great writers and thinkers in both non- fiction and fiction. They allow us to take time out from our usual routine, to listen and reflect more deeply. They also provide opportunities to make new friends and to buy or learn about new books… that’s why I love them. I hope to see you there.


Australia’s Death by Numbers

While spending some time overseas for Christmas and New Year, I was touched by a powerful article I read in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, a journalist who has worked for over 15 international media outlets.  It is helpful to be away from your own country sometimes to “look back in from the outside.”

While I don’t always agree with Cohen’s views, this opinion piece written after a five day visit to Manus island struck a chord with me.  Cohen makes the point “Despite being a signatory of all major international human rights treaties, Australia has instituted an indefensible policy of cruelty as deterrence.” He also describes Australia’s detention system as a process where “human beings have been left to fester, crack up and die.”

While it is too late for Faysal Ishak Ahmed, there is  at least a little comfort that his death will be examined by the legal and constitutional affairs references committee, which is already inquiring into allegations of abuse of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.  I am not sure there is much hope of change with this review, but at least it, and articles like Roger Cohen’s, continue to shine a light on the appalling situation on Manus and Nauru.

You can read the full article here.

Faisal Ishak Ahmed

2016 in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on 2016 in relation to refugees, asylum seekers and the importance of stories to help us understand what is happening in the world.  There were many low points, but also some inspiring highlights that made me marvel at the strength and humanity of others. I hope you’ll take time to read this longer post from me.

It was a challenging year in Australia and the international community. The conflict in Syria worsened but I am hopeful that the tentative peace deal brokered by the Russians may help.   syrian-refugeesThe escalating violence and insecurity continued in South Sudan and Yemen.   We saw an amazing welcome initially from Angela Merkel and Germany in welcoming thousands of fleeing refugees as the crisis of displaced people had a dramatic impact in Europe. Populist groups in the UK, USA, Austria, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands used the world’s biggest refugee crisis to spread fear and hate, inflaming tensions about people who may be different to us. In Australia where I live, the re-emergence of the One Nation party led by Pauline Hanson, has reflected these sentiments.

Walls, both physical and metaphorical, have been built in countries around the world to stop many of the people most in need from seeking help. According to the UNHCR, 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.

As a writer and former journalist, I followed with fascination and often despair the twitter postings of Bana al-Abed, a young seven-year-old girl whose postings offered the world a glimpse into the deprivation and violence in the besieged city of Aleppo. Bana and her family were recently evacuated to the Turkish capital.

I worried about writer and journalist friends in some of the world’s trouble spots. I could only be thankful that people like my friend Karl Schembri were able to post on the ground reports from tragic situations in Yemen and Syria. Ben Doherty and the team from nauru-filesGuardian Australia continued to lead the way with the most in-depth updates on the refugee and asylum seeker situation as it related to Australia. In a global exclusive, the Nauru files which included over 2,000 documents showing the despair and horror of Australia’s offshore detention, were leaked to the Guardian. This was followed by graphic reports on the ABC’s 4 Corners that also screened around the world.

I know, as someone who worked in news for many years, a picture can tell a story “better than a thousand words” In 2015 it was the image of Aylan, the two-year-old Syrian refugee, lying face down on a Turkish beach that seemed to galvanise western countries into responding to the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. Australia increased its refugee intake by 12,000 to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  After a very slow start (why did it take nearly a year?) 2016 finally saw some of these refugees arrive in Australia.

In 2016 it was the image of young Oman in the back of the ambulance, which I am sure will show up in all your news feeds, as one of the photos of the year. oman-in-ambulanceThis photograph and video seemed particularly poignant and tragic to me. Oman was wearing shorts and a t-shirt featuring a cartoon character. His hands were in his lap. In a moment of pure horror, he lifted his left hand to his face, ran his fingers through his hair and then back down the side of his face before putting his hands back in his lap. He looked at the palm of his hand covered in blood and, unsure what to do, turns it over and wipes it on the seat. In that moment, he could have been our son, our grandson, our brother or our nephew, trying to get something off his hand. He looked straight at the camera, from a bright orange seat in the back of an ambulance where medics were rescuing people amidst the violence and chaos, towards the voices. He blinked and looked away… but I couldn’t look away from Oman.

yusra-mardiniOn a brighter note there was the uplifting news of a refugee team being selected for the Rio Olympics. I was drawn to 17 year old Yusra Mardini who saw terror in the eyes of her fellow passengers as the inflatable dinghy she was in trying to cross the Mediterranean began taking on water. Most of the people in the boat could not swim, but 17-year-old Yusra could, and she dragged them to safety.

The year ended with good news in Australia with a landmark decision in the Federal Court of Australia that ruled against the Minister of Immigration on the question of citizenship for people of refugee background. The case, brought by the Refugee Council of Australia with pro bono legal support, provides hope for 10,231 people that the department confirmed were in similar situations. This group of people from a refugee background have had their citizenship applications ‘put in the bottom drawer’, as the Department has dragged its feet in offering this large group of new Australians citizenship.

Personally, it was an amazing year with my book More to the story –conversations with refugees published by Margaret River Press selling very well. There are a small number of copies left that can be purchased online. I participated in writers festivals- the highlights being Big Sky in Geraldton and the Perth Writers Festival. I was a guest at community events, such as the Katanning Harmony Festival, where I gave the address on Australia Day. I gave library talks and attended book clubs throughout the year to help raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers. Throughout the year I met hundreds of people, many of whom told me they were inspired to volunteer for organisations working with people from a refugee background including CARAD, Refugee Rights Action Network and Joining the Dots’ Welcome Dinner Project. More of you have signed up to receive information or made donations to organisations like the Refugee Council of Australia,  Australian Red Cross, Amnesty International and Edmund Rice Centre WA where I am proud to serve on the board. I truly believe that hundreds of people who have read the personal stories featured in the book have taken time to reflect on what is happening around the world and in their own lives.

MYAN group 2016One of the year’s highlights for me was my involvement with Shout Out, a public speaking program for young people from a refugee and migrant background run by the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network. I feel very privileged to have been a part of helping some fabulous young people to develop their personal stories and public speaking skills.

Perhaps the most satisfying experiences in 2016 came in schools where I spoke. I started the year on a high with the Margaret River Senior High School Social Justice group – why don’t more schools have a group like this?  I visited schools in the Geraldton region and elsewhere around Western Australia, and ended my engagements at Churchlands Senior High School with a day full of talks to different classes. We know that many schools around Australia now have More to the Story in their school libraries or are studying it as part of the curriculum.

I continued to be inspired by my close friends – Paul and Naw Bi from Burma; John, Farid and Fauzia from Afghanistan; Piok and Akech from South Sudan. We made more new friends as our lives became more involved with people from a refugee background – some of whom I hope will feature in my next book. We celebrated Karen New Year, Eid and other festivals with people of different cultural backgrounds. We heard sad stories, tragic stories and inspirational and happy stories

And finally I made good progress on my doctoral studies about life writing and human rights in relation to refugees. I am approaching the half way mark of a four year course and I hope my research and writing might make a small difference. As 2016 drew to a close I like to believe that hope can shine a bright light in darkness.  There are some thoughts on this from World Vision that you might like to read.

I hope you’ll keep following this website in 2017. You can sign up to follow it and receive information as I post – just click the button on the right.  Sometimes it is helpful to have useful information about an issue in one place and don’t forget you can contact me via the website or join in the conversation via the More to the Story facebook page.

I wish everyone peace in the coming year.

Landmark Win Provides Hope

I’m pleased to report that last week after a long fought case, The Federal Court ruled against the Minister for Immigration on the question of citizenship for people of refugee background.

The Court found the Minister had ‘unreasonably delayed’ making decisions on citizenship applications, depriving eligible former refugees from having their full rights as Australian citizens.

The case, brought by the Refugee Council of Australia with pro bono legal support, provides renewed hope for 10,231 people that the department confirmed were in the same situation. This large group, although eligible for citizenship, have had their applications ‘put in the bottom drawer’, as the Department dragged its feet in completing this simple but important task.

Lawyers for the former refugees argued that these delays have been unreasonable and appear discriminatory.

The Court heard that the excessive delays have caused significant anxiety for the many thousands affected, as they have been unable to reunite with their families while their citizenship remains in limbo.

Tim O’Connor, acting CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, said “this decision is a landmark ruling, providing hope for over 10,000 people around Australia who have been denied justice by the Immigration Department. Our government has denied them basic rights to stability and importantly, family reunion, through slow and targeted decision-making. Today’s ruling recognises this injustice and represents a first step towards a resolution for thousands and a chance for them to start to rebuild their lives.”

The Refugee Council of Australia do terrific work in promoting the development of humane, lawful and constructive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers. Find out how you can support its work and get involved here.



A perverse punishment

The Refugee Council of Australia has labelled the proposed draconian laws, aimed at banning people who arrived seeking asylum in Australia by boat from ever setting foot on Australian soil, as ill-targeted, perverse punishment for people who came to us seeking safety.

In their recent newsletter, Refugee Council of Australia acting CEO Tim O’Connor said “The Minister and the Prime Minister have gone to some lengths to suggest these proposed laws are targeted at the people smuggling trade, yet it is both perverse and cruel that the people who will be ill-targeted are those that have sought our safety and protection.” You can read the full article here.

If, like me, you are horrified at this latest development, I urge you to sign the Refugee Council of Australia’s online petition.


Refugees Welcome Here

Refugees not welcome in Australia? NO WAY.  

Placard at a recent Refugee Week event

The Federal Government’s announcement to ban refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru from ever coming to Australia applies to 1,300 people who currently live there.

Seventy-two per cent of those who have been through the camps have been assessed as being refugees, according to the latest information issued by the government. I have no words for this latest cruelty inflicted by my government. What is the point of this when its ‘turn back’ policy is supposedly working?  Fear, confusion of language and violation of international human rights continues in my country.

Malcolm Turnbull is sounding more and more like the previous PM John Howard who said in 2001: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” as he fought against the rising support for Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party.

Can we really be returning to this low point in our history?

There is so much misunderstanding about why and how people seek protection and what happens when they arrive here.   Why as a community are we prepared to accept the lack of information about what is happening in our detention centres?   Asylum seekers are not only the most vulnerable group of people in Australia, but also one of the most marginalised.

Pauline Hansen went further yesterday that “all refugees are not welcome here.”   It’s time that the millions of people who have come to Australia as refugees stood up with people like me and you to loudly say NO.   Refugees ARE welcome here and have contributed positively to our community for decades.

I was please to share the stage at a community event with members of the Australian Red Cross last week. It was heartening to be reminded that they have been working with people impacted by migration – including people seeking protection – for almost 100 years.

There is a lot of great information on the Australian Red Cross website and it’s an interesting experience to take their quiz on asylum seekers and refugees… It reminded me how we have been misled on the facts. I encourage you to take the quiz and see how you go.

Meeting the lovely Natasha Venebles from the Australian Red Cross

The Forgotten Children

The human face of Australia’s tough border policies can be seen through the eyes of more than 100 refugee children living on Nauru – some for more than 2 years.


Four Corners spoke to children and young people recognised as refugees, released from detention, but trapped in limbo. The recently aired program included footage filmed for Four Corners and smuggled out of the country, that showed children talking of their experiences over the last three years. It was hard to watch.

One of the more telling quotes came from a teacher who had worked with them “You could see the light drain out of their eyes. You could see them go flat.”

What are we doing? Who are we as a country?

If you didn’t see the program please follow this link.

Finally, some welcome news

Some welcome news has come out of Malcolm Turnbull’s attendance at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York this week. Australia has announced it will increase its humanitarian intake of refugees to 18,750.

However that was the limit of any good news. It was extremely disappointing that Prime Minister Turnbull did not mention the 2,000 asylum seekers stuck for months, even years, in limbo on Manus and Nauru. Phil Glendenning, President of Refugee Council of Australia, referred to the omission as the “elephant in the room in the form of our offshore detention system”.  Most of these people have been assessed as refugees and need to be treated as such. And was I the only person horrified as our PM lectured the member nations of the United Nations about border security? Surely not.

The wonderful Tim Costello wrote a thoughtful blog recently published in the Huffington Post Australia called Looking the Other Way is no Longer an Option. It ends with these powerful words:

“Conscience doesn’t always win, and it rarely wins quickly. Most often those who stand up in the public square on matters of conscience face long and lonely battles, even if ultimately vindicated.

But it is nonetheless to be treasured and promoted because it remains one of the major engines of change for good in the world, and in our own country.

There has never been a better time for an earnest and honest national conversation about where our collective conscience is pointing.

You can read the full blog here.


The Sanctuary Movement

There was a great article in the Guardian Australia on Monday on the growing Sanctuary Movement. How interesting it is to hear of hundreds of people from different religions gathering at their churches to learn how to engage in civil disobedience in order to help protect asylum seekers from border force officials.

“We’re not here today to be arrested. We’re here today to demonstrate what respect looks like. This is about a respectful way to challenge the current policy framework”.

The policy framework that those gathered have come to challenge is the federal government’s hardline stance on asylum seekers, which has left 267 asylum seekers currently in Australia facing deportation to offshore processing centres on Nauru or Manus Island. They could be removed at any time and there are 37 babies among them.

As a result, hundreds of people gathered at churches around the country on Sunday, including at Wesley Uniting church, to learn how to engage in civil disobedience and protect asylum seekers should border force officials try to forcibly detain them and send them to offshore detention centres.

You can read the full article here.

let them stay
Misha Coleman from the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and Shen Narayanasamy from GetUp address the crowd at sanctuary training at Wesley Uniting Church, Melbourne. Photograph by Melissa Davey for the Guardian


How has it come to this?

There is a terrific article in the Monthly by Robert Manne that sums up the current situation on Australia’s asylum seeking policy and procedures. Robert Manne is an Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University.

“Now that the High Court has decided that the offshore detention of asylum seekers is lawful, reports suggest that the Turnbull Government is considering returning 234 asylum seekers to Nauru along with the 33 babies of these asylum seekers born in Australia. Given what everyone knows about the spiritual, psychological and bodily ruin that accompanies indefinite detention on Nauru, if the reports turn out to be true this will be a genuinely monstrous act which will outrage millions of decent citizens.

Outrage and acts of protest, however, are not enough. If things are to change, if the decision is to be reversed, what we need is to try to get the prime minister to acknowledge and to reject the thinking that has brought us to a place where it is now possible that a decision of this kind can be taken by the responsible minister of an important department of the Australian Commonwealth Government.”

You can read the full article here.