Perth, prisons and perseverance

Mostly in politics, I prefer to rely on substantial evidence to verify the positions I take. However, sometimes you have to accept that some things cannot be measured and you just have to go with what you feel. One of the things I feel very strongly at the moment is that there is a momentum for positive change in the way the federal Government deals with refugee and asylum seeker issues, even though the substantive evidence might seem fairly thin and somewhat contradictory.

I believe this opportunity for change is only there because of the multitude of community groups and many thousands of people who are still working so hard at a community level to achieve a fairer go for asylum seekers and refugees. I have built a history and experience of action and involvement in refugee issues that is not matched by many other people in the Parliament. Because I do believe there is a real chance for significant positive change, and because there are still many thousands of people whose suffering can and must be addressed, I can’t just toss away the knowledge I have built up and focus on other things. I can and will continue to play a role in encouraging them to keep going in the face of what can be the very disheartening reality of witnessing extreme and pointless suffering being inflicted by a Government who are still unwilling to fully acknowledge it, let alone act to end it.

So despite my intent to focus more on Queensland and the many issues there, I spent Wednesday in Perth, catching up with as many people as I could about refugee issues – from the individual case to the whole policy area.

The day started with a 7am drive out to Acacia prison, where a Vietnamese man, Tol Tran, is in jail for people smuggling for his role in helping refugees and asylum seekers (some still imprisoned on Christmas Island nearly 2 years later) to escape from Vietnam. This man was helping his family escape and received no payment for his actions. However, in an example of why mandatory sentencing is such a bad thing on principle, the judge had no discretion but to give him a 3 year jail term, despite the fact that his actions were of the Oscar Schindler variety, rather than the modern day exploitative people smuggler. I remember the relevant piece of legislation going through the Senate, and I even recall a Labor Senator expressing concern about the problem of mandatory sentencing, but they passed it anyway, and at least two people are paying the price (there is a second man in the same circumstance being kept in a different WA prison, but he is an Australian citizen).

From that jail, I went to the Perth detention centre, which thousands of people drive past every day, most probably without realising it is there. It is a tiny building in the grounds of the domestic airport. It was set up to house people for a few days whilst they are awaiting a deportation flight, but it also often houses asylum seekers for long periods (occasionally for years). I met with some people who have also been on Christmas Island, but are currently in Perth – a young couple with the wife about to have her first child, plus a 74 year old woman here for medical treatment who in effect is the ‘matriarch’ of the extended family grouping locked up on the Island. I mentioned her towards the end of this speech. She is very frail and was very sad – she looked far less healthy than when I saw her in November.

There were also two other men there, previously found to be refugees, but now threatened with deportation due to having received prison sentences for offences, despite the fact this would separate them from their children who would remain in Australia. They have both been in the detention centre for over two years after completing their prison sentences.

After the morning of prison and detention centres, I had other meetings throughout the day with community legal and migration workers who work with a range of different people and situations as well as with a man who was released after 5 years in detention but only on a Bridging Visa which does not allow him to work, while he continues to wait for an outcome to his claim.

I also met with some men whose wives and children were drowned in the sinking of the SIEV X in October 2001. They still only have temporary visas and have had their claim for ‘renewal’ of their refugee visa rejected. The trial of a man alleged to have been involved in the SIEV X vessel is starting in Brisbane next month, which is bringing back memories for them, but they were considering whether it may help them to go and witness the trial.

From there it was back to the airport for an overnight flight to Melbourne, where today I participate in an interesting project exploring the importance of housing as a basic human right. The lack of political priority given to something as fundamental as housing has always frustrated me, but there are many highly effective community groups working on the issue at ground level. The project is a Housing Rights Tribunal which aims to provide a mechanism for exploring the real world situations of people whose rights to basic, secure affordable housing is being compromised, what the effects are of that and what should be done about it. Apart from being a little tired, I’m looking forward to it and hopefully will write some more on it afterwards.

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