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Speech: Refugee Week and 'Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea'

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Jun 2012

Adjournment Speech - Monday 18th June 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:07): Refugee week, under the theme 'Restoring Hope' is being marked by a number of events. Once Refugee Week consisted of events celebrating the enormous contribution refugees have made to Australia. These days, while we continue to celebrate and recognise the work of refugees during this special week, criticism of the politicisation of refugee rights also dominates debate. The way the coalition and the Labor Party attempt to outdo each other with divisive policies on so-called 'boat people' and 'border security' represents a dark time in Australia's history. These policies are destroying lives, and a film I recently saw illustrates this in a most distressing way.

The cruelty embodied in the policies that the government and opposition impose on refugees, who have a right to seek asylum in our country, was brought home to me when I attended a preview of the film Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. This very powerful film asks the question: what leads someone to become a boat person?

This is an outstanding documentary that I highly recommend. It has won international awards, including Honourable Mention Winner, Los Angeles Movie Awards; official selection, Gasparilla International Film Festival; UK Film Festival; official selection, Thin Line Film Festival; official selection, 60N Film Festival, Norway; winner Best Documentary, European Independent Film Festival; and winner, Accolade Award, Honolulu Film Festival Awards.

Despite winning these awards, the producers have not been able to secure screening for broadcast in Australia. I find that concerning. This film deserves to be widely viewed.

The official launch of this 52-minute documentary will occur in Melbourne tomorrow, at the Astor Theatre. More information on the film, which is a collaboration between Amnesty International, the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and Mission Travel, can be found at www.deepblueseafilm.com.

The award-winning documentary was written and produced by Jessie Taylor and David Schmidt. Jessie Taylor is a remarkably brave young woman. She is a lawyer and refugee advocate who has been fighting for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees for many years now. At the age of 27 she fostered a 14-yearold refugee she had met at an Indonesian detention jail years earlier.

In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Jessie travels with Ali Reza Sadiqi, her translator, across Indonesia to meet with 250 asylum seekers in jails, detention centres and hostels. They use hidden cameras and secret interviews to take us into the desperate and distressing world of asylum seekers, telling us their stories firsthand to explain why so many decide to leave everything behind to become boat people. As I watched the film, I felt I more clearly understood why these people left their home and their country and set out on what too often is such a dangerous trip. The film introduced us to many people. Viewers come to know these people, and I found that I started to share their hope that, despite current government policy, eventually they would be able to settle in Australia. However, the reality is very different. The final minutes of the film are deeply sad. It is so moving when we learn of the fate of the people we have come to know. So many are missing, feared drowned— families, children, young men travelling alone. Some of the people featured in the film have settled in Australia and, like the overwhelming majority of refugees, are leading productive lives that enrich our life.

Despite these few success stories, the overwhelming impact of the film is one of immense sadness and immense shame that Australia is associated with such cruel policies. Most of us at the preview screening were in tears by the time the film ended. It was hard to feel any sense of hope when we learnt the terrible fate of so many. Australia's inhumanity towards men, women and children who are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries to try and seek refuge in our great land must not continue. I strongly urge the ABC and SBS to screen this documentary. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is part of Australian life. It should not be censored from viewing on our public broadcasters.

I had the pleasure of meeting two young refugees at a Refugee Week event held at Blacktown and organised by the Greens New South Wales Refugee Working Group. Juma Abraham is from South Sudan. He now works as a case manager at Break Thru People Solutions in Blacktown, helping clients with mental health conditions to find employment. He was eight years old when his village was destroyed in the second Sudanese civil war. He lost contact with his father and ended up walking through vast areas of Africa. Six years later, after experiencing years of hardship and deprivation on the road and in refugee camps, he found his father in Australia. Juma's story of his early Australian experiences are a further reminder of the challenges refugees face even once they find a home in our community. Juma explained that he could not speak or understand English. Juma said: 'Initially when I arrived in Australia, the feelings and emotions that were
experienced in the refugee camps were still present.  Although there was no fear of danger or war, there were still the feelings of isolation, trying to fit in and connect with people and a slight fear of the unknown.'

Now, 10 years on, Juma has completed his high school education and is studying a Bachelor of Psychology and working full time as a case manager at Break Thru People Solutions.  Juma now helps clients with mental health conditions to find employment.

Masihullah Mobin, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, also spoke at the Blacktown Refugee Week event. His parents had arranged for some relatives to take him out of Afghanistan when he was 15 years old, as the whole family feared for their lives. He was fortunate to survive when a boat he was travelling in capsized, but nine of his companions, including his uncle, died. He was then on his own, away from all his family. He was beaten and imprisoned by Indonesian police. In 2009, the UNHCR accepted him as a refugee but they left him in an Indonesian jail. Masi was in that jail for two years because he did not have any money. Others who did have money got out after two or three days. When one of his friends eventually paid $1,000, he was released. Masi is now at Marrickville High School studying hard.

There must be an alternative to the leaky boat route and it needs to be one that recognises the human rights of these people and the economic benefits orderly settlement entails. It was an absolute delight to meet Masi and Juma, and see how they are now part of Australian society and are looking forward to a safe and happy future, having suffered so much in their home countries. It was moving to hear how thankful they are for the opportunities they have been given by being allowed to stay in Australia. Had these two young men not left their countries, Sudan and Afghanistan, they may not even be alive now.

I would encourage everyone to watch this film and again I urge either SBS or ABC to revisit their decision, as this is definitely a very important film to show. Once again, I congratulate and thank Jessie, David and Ali for making a very important film. I really do hope that people take the time to watch it. It is critical that Australia returns to a bipartisan approach to refugees.

Recently, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser spoke about refugee settlement when he gave the annual 2012 Whitlam Oration. Mr Fraser reflected on a time when Australia's political leaders did not use refugees as a way to muster votes.

Mr Fraser stated: At the end of the Vietnam War, tens upon tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese sought to flee to safety. Initially the Whitlam Government decision was to have limited numbers of people from Vietnam. My Government made the decision to take large numbers of people. Gough Whitlam did not play politics with this. It would have been easy to do. Instead he led his party to fully accept the convention of the post war years. Bipartisanship on issues of immigration was maintained. This bipartisanship was fundamentally important. It shows that political conflict can live alongside the sustaining of a shared, deep respect for people regardless of colour, race or religion, a belief that people should be respected for who they are. The capacity to engage in conflict and maintain such a respect depends on a degree of consensus between political leaders. Gough Whitlam and I participated in this consensus.

Mr Fraser further stated: Our treatment of refugees, and the poisonous debate engaged in by our major political parties has done Australia much harm throughout our region. If Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, after the momentous events of 1975, can agree on refugee policy, current political leaders can bury their differences and bad policies, and show compassion, humanity and leadership on refugee settlement. That would be the way to truly celebrate Refugee Week.

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