Respect and dignity

Rosemarys Dad (1)
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.

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.

human rights conference
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.

State of the Nation

The Refugee Council of Australia has just released its first ever State of the Nation report, a comprehensive investigation into the experiences of those seeking safety and settling in Australia within the broader context of the global crisis of human displacement.

A non-profit, non-government organisation, the Refugee Council of Australia is the national umbrella body for refugees as well as the organisations and individuals who support them. They play an important role in promoting the development of humane, lawful and constructive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers.

At a time when displacement is at its highest levels since World War II, this report critiques our government’s insular and often punitive fixation on closing Australia’s borders. It also examines the challenges faced by those who have arrived in Australia and are seeking to build new lives.

State of the Nation tells us what is happening to real people, here in our community, to their loved ones and their families.  It presents the voices and views, the ideas and expertise, of people who are seeking safety and settling in Australia, and of the many committed people who are working hard to help them.

This is an important report and one well worth reading. There is a short summary of State of the Nation on the Refugee Council of Australia’s website here, as well as the link to the full report.



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

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 Politics of Hate

As I sat listening to Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in the parliament I was, like many Australians, appalled at what I heard.

Few people get the chance to make a first speech to Parliament, even less manage to deliver two. But Pauline Hanson’s political comeback puts her in this unique club. She returned to Canberra railing against another minority group. In the 1990s it was Indigenous Australians and Asians she targeted, in 2016 Hanson has singled out Muslims.

In the introduction to my book More to the Story –conversations with refugees I said the following:

I left Australia with my husband at the end of 1996 to work in Hong Kong, just as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party began its popular rise, with a focus on race and anti-immigration messages. This increased xenophobia seemed magnified to us as expatriate Australians watching and reading about it from afar. Our Chinese friends started asking us why Australians hated them so much. My standard reply was to deny that Australians hated anyone or were racist. I talked about our long multicultural history of welcoming new arrivals from all over the world, as well as helping those in need. Over the following years, however, I began to worry that this position no longer did reflect Australia.

Yesterday, and today as I listened to callers on talkback radio, my worst fears have been confirmed. Hanson’s election seems to have given permission to the voices of racism in our society to speak more openly. It is hard to understand how a Senator can say we are being “swamped by Muslims” when according to the last census the Muslim community is less than 2% of our total population.

Yes, I accept we live in a free democratic society with the right to free speech, but I don’t believe we live in a society that should tolerate hate speech. I hope everyone I know will stand with the Muslim community against those like Senator Hanson who make wide ranging, factually incorrect assertions about minority groups in Australia. Surely the least we can demand is a fair and factual debate.

There are links below to some thoughtful articles in the Guardian Australia which present a more balanced view. And true to my belief that everyone’s voice deserves to be heard, (something Pauline Hanson is clearly against) here is the link to her speech.