Category Archives: politics

Future decision makers

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.

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Small places, close to home

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world… unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”                                                                                                               Eleanor Roosevelt

I just love this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt as it captures the essence for me of what human rights are all about.

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, so it’s a good time to be thinking about those small places. Human Rights matter in our local communities, our neighbourhoods, at our work, during sport and when we are out socially. It’s in these places that we need to think about the equal dignity and worth of every person we meet or interact with as we go about our daily lives.

To mark the day, I’m heading off to the Centre for Stories in Perth to hear three very different speakers and to learn more.  My colleague at Curtin, Misty Farquhar, is one of the presenters. As well as facilitating LGBTIQ+ inclusion training and other projects to support the community, Misty is the founder of Bisexual+ Community Perth, is a TransFolk of WA Board member, and frequently presents on RTRFM’s All Things Queer program.

This year, International Human Rights Day marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

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As a writer I love that it is the most translated document in the world, available in more than 500 languages.

At this time, as we watch far right and populist governments take control in many countries around the world, I feel it is more important than ever to know what’s going on around us and to speak up.

My own country of Australia contravenes several articles in the Declaration in relation to asylum seekers and the protection of the children who are refugees. Each day I wonder how I can live in a country where this can be possible, but then I look around the world.

In the US Donald Trump separated refugee parents and children at the Mexican border and banned Muslim immigration. In Burma we saw the persecution of thousands of Rohingya people and more than five million children risk famine in war-torn Yemen as food and fuel prices soar.  Save the Children has warned that an entire generation may face death and “starvation on an unprecedented scale”.

Many of my Hazara friends from Afghanistan are watching in horror as the Taliban once again gain more power in their country and persecute the Hazara minority and other members of the community who do not support them. 2018 has seen a further increase in violence as the Taliban continue to make territorial gains and target the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces bases and outposts. Researchers point out that despite the effective destruction of Islamic State, the influence and scope of terror groups is greater now than it was in 2001.

It’s easy to feel powerless – just one person who can’t do anything. I used to feel like that. But these days I feel the absolute necessity to be informed so I can speak up, correct mis-information and call out discrimination and bad behaviour when I see it. Even in those small places. I hope you can too.

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The Day of the Imprisoned Writer

“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free” – Orhan Pamuk

Today is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an annual, international day intended to recognise and support writers who resist repression of the basic human right to freedom of expression and who stand up to attacks made against their right to impart information.

Globally writers are increasingly targeted and silenced by their governments as the climate for freedom of expression continues to deteriorate.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

“This is a day of solidarity and action. It’s a day in which PEN’s global community stands with those writers who are paying a heavy price for their commitment and belief that we all have a right to express ourselves freely and peacefully. It is a day on which we say, in one voice, that they are not alone. It is also a day on which we tell those governments who seek to silence writers that we will continue to stand with them and against any authority, system, or power that views the right to free expression as a threat.’

In Burma anyone outspoken against military rule has been routinely locked up in prisons for years. Currently there are 43 prisons and over 50 labour camps holding political activists. We know many are writers, but have no idea of the exact number. Most recently, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were jailed. These two journalists have been sentenced to seven years in prison on retaliatory charges of violating the government’s colonial-era Officials Secrets Act. Working for an international news organisation, they reported on a story of profound global significance a crisis: millions of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma.

In China more than 50 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives, according to the Independent PEN centre of Chinese writers.  Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, both died in 2017 from cancers that were left untreated while in detention. Under tougher internet regulations, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments on a news item that they post on a social network or messaging service, or even just for sharing content.

Closer to Australia, one of the most public figures in the current refugee crises illegally detained and kept in limbo on Manus Island is Kurdish journalist Behrouz Bouchani. Behrouz is one of many hundreds of people on Manus Island who are denied their human right to seeking asylum. I highly commend his book No Friend but the Mountains which was laboriously typed out on a mobile phone from detention.

Most of us don’t have to consider our freedom to write every day, but thousands of writers do. PEN Perth Patron, Peter Greste argues that we need to make freedom of expression a much bigger part of the public conversation. The problem, he says, is that press freedom around the world has been eroding since 9/11, because governments have been using national security as an excuse.

On 15 November I ask you to think about your own freedom of expression and sign up to join PEN International which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression world-wide. You can also join a local chapter of PEN wherever you are and receive newsletters and updates straight to your inbox.

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Speaking up

What a privilege and inspiration to hear Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, speak last night.

Professor Triggs is on the first leg of a book tour promoting her memoir Speaking Up. She spoke at the University of Western Australia to a packed theatre about her life and the many challenges she faced during her five-year tenure. She withstood relentless political pressure and media scrutiny as she and the Commission advocated for the disempowered, the disenfranchised and the marginalised.

I’m thrilled that I will be interviewing Professor Triggs myself at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in October. It will be a chance for us all to learn more about her global views and the lessons and insights she has taken from her time at the Human Rights Commission.

She left us in no doubt that as an Australian society we have failed to measure up to the human rights standards we hypocritically endorse. She worries about the decline in political leadership in Australia, and in her speech, highlighted some key issues in her book. She spoke passionately about Indigenous Australians and their human rights, freedom of speech, gender and marriage equality and the monitoring, treatment and law about asylum seekers.

She believes Australians can pull together and become a better society. She argued that the time is right for a legislated charter of human rights.

“We do not view social justice through the lens of human rights in Australia. Human rights law does not inform the legal or political discourse and is often ignored and expressly overridden by the parliament.

It is our responsibility as citizens in this democracy to become more informed and to speak up about injustices.”

I am looking forward to my interview with Professor Triggs and I’ll share some more of her thoughts on this blog.  In the meantime, I recommend the book Speaking Up to everyone.

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#WithRefugees

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Refugee Week is an annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees. It provides an opportunity for us all to recognise and better understand the courage and contribution of refugees.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week in Australia, which runs from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June. Refugee Week coincides with World Refugee Day on 20 June.

There will be events and celebrations everywhere so I encourage you to think about joining in.

The Refugee Council of Australia has chosen #WithRefugees as the theme for Refugee Week 2018. In Australia, it is the responsibility of our Government, as well as each one of us, to ensure people forced to flee their homes from persecution can live with dignity and with hope. Two of the ways “people power” has made a difference this year:

  1. People have been lobbying their local councils to set up refugee welcome zones to begin to connect with everyone in the community through cultural and information events there’s been great success in the areas of Margaret River, Lithgow, Scarborough, Joondalup and Gippsland. If your local council is yet to sign up as a refugee welcome zone, don’t give up.
  2. Thousands of people have helped amplify the voices of the people trapped in offshore detention — including Behrouz, Joinal, Aziz, and Imran— by sharing and liking their stories. Behrouz Boochani won the print/online and multimedia category in Amnesty’s media awards for his journalism from Manus. Please link up to their FB pages and follow what’s really happening in offshore detention facilities and settlement programs.

As the Refugee Council of Australia reminds us:

A ‘Refugee’ is a person; boy, girl, woman or man. Not a label, but a human being with a beating heart, just like you and me.  And the refugee experience can be prolonged. Today there are more refugees than ever, and only by standing together #WithRefugees can we begin to change this.

Respect and dignity

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My father, Colin Sayer

My late father was driven by a set of simple values all his life: that all people deserve respect and dignity whoever they are. He often said, ‘I don’t care if you are the Queen of England or a street sweeper – we’re all human and just the same.’

Those values were imprinted on me and today help define who I am. Every day as I continue my PhD studies in human rights and the writing of refugee stories I am reminded of my Dad’s values and by the common threads of humanity that bind us all.

I had the chance to reflect on this a few weeks ago at the Australian Academy of the Humanities two day symposium with its theme of humanitarianism and human rights. Academics, writers and thinkers discussed what it meant to be human and compassionate and what happens when we are not.

My dad would have laughed about the application of academic and social theories to something he saw as so straight forward. I can imagine my explanations of why I needed to study and research these issues as well as be an advocate for human rights. I think it would have baffled him.

However, he would have been horrified at the racist policies of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party and the election of Donald Trump with his nationalistic and divisive views. We would have talked about why people are frightened and how that fear has been shrouded in a security discussion that positions asylum seekers and refugees as potential terrorists… or someone different to us… someone seen as ‘other’. I’m sure he would have been concerned about security issues too, but we would have come back to our shared values of respect and dignity when we discussed the situation on Manus Island or the treatment of people by the Australian government who have been found to be refugees and still don’t have permanent residency and access to the services they need.

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Kim Scott, Author

If he’d been at the event he also would have loved writer Kim Scott’s moving and intimate portrait of his life as young Aboriginal boy searching for an identity and a sense of belonging. While my dad was never short of a word, and certainly had strong views on many issues in society, he loved meeting people from different backgrounds and went out of his way to do so. He loved a good story and he listened well. He was empathetic – although he would have told me not to use fancy words.

Like many writers and commentators, I have come to believe that this lack of empathy for others allows some in society to express more racist views and to see human rights violations as ‘not their concern.’ Without empathy, my dad’s values of dignity and respect for everyone seem a distant concept.

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Photograph by Barat Ali Batoor

Recommended reading

While I was on holidays recently I put together a list of some of the most interesting books about refugees that I have found, and added it the website. This reading list is not exhaustive, but it should have something for everyone. My recommended book list includes books about:

  • Personal stories,
  • The Australian situation,
  • The European situation,
  • Fiction, and
  • Other interesting reads.

Some of the books are very new and some were published a while ago. One published over 10 years ago is still a wonderful read – The rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif is likely to remain an Australian classic for many years to come. New publications such as The New Odyssey – the story of Europe’s refugee crisis are wonderfully researched, but give you a personal perspective on the current global situation.

I have also included some fiction, as book clubs contact me for recommendations. What is the what by Dave Eggers, for example, is heart breaking but rewarding at the same time. I’m not sure why some book clubs don’t feel comfortable taking on non-fiction – you couldn’t go wrong with Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit or City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence.

I’ll keep adding to the list and I would love to hear about other recommendations.