This country is sorely in need of loud and prominent voices forging an opposition to the brutal way our government continues to treat asylum seekers and refugees. Writers for Refugees aims to convince writers in Australia to speak out against the treatment of refugees.
The situation for asylum seekers facing Australian immigration policy is worse than ever. Even before the election of the Abbott government late last year, the reintroduction of offshore processing, the excision of the mainland from the immigration zone and, basically, any asylum seeker being denied entry into Australia, spelled disaster for many people fleeing persecution and trying to get to Australia to find safety. Beyond the election of the Abbott government, reports from offshore processing detention centres paints a grim and distressing picture. Asylum seekers will potentially wait for years on Manus Island and Nauru in excruciating heat, while their health and wellbeing is deliberately neglected in order to force them to go back to the situations that threatened their lives in the first place.
The support for these human rights abuses – indeed, support for crueller policies – indicated in some polls has sent many refugee supporters into despair about the possibilities for change. There is a dire need to speak out for a different way to approach the question of refugees, an alternative obscured last year by the Labor government’s policies pushed on the basis of saving deaths at sea, which occupied the space of the so-called pro-refugee side of the argument.
People like me hope that the open and vicious rhetoric that the Liberal government have returned to will inspire more open and determined opposition to Abbott’s policies, in the same way the terms of the debate changed in the later part of Howard’s reign as Prime-Minster.
Many of today’s activists, including me, were thrown into opposition to mandatory detention and offshore processing by Howard’s provocative style of demonising refugees and sending a dog-whistle to racists in Australia. Stranger, though, was how I was inspired to first take action in support of refugees. It was because of Big Brother. Season two evictee, Merlin Luck, shocked many when, in 2004, he was evicted from the Big Brother house, and taped black gaffer tape across his mouth and held up a sign saying ‘Free the refugees’. He refused to speak for the whole of the eviction show, much to the chagrin of host Gretel Killeen. I was eighteen at the time, and my mind was blown by his actions. He looked clearly anxious and nervous, with his legs bouncing up and down, but he stuck to his guns. Out of that, I was inspired to attend a World Refugee Day demonstration later that month, which paved my way to becoming an activist and socialist today.
That’s an illustration of the important of alternative voices criticising the government for driving asylum seekers to suicide, deporting refugees back to life-threatening situations, and incarcerating even children in concentration camps.
Recent comments by novelist Alex Miller, and the release of A Country Too Far, provide promising signs that writers can become one of those groups that help to grow opposition to Abbott’s policies of the next couple of years.
Writers for Refugees was set up late last year with the release of a statement calling on all writers, whether prominent or emerging, to sign on and lend their names to a call for a massive change to how our government treats some of the world’s most venerable people. Authors such as Alex Miller, Antony Loewenstein and recent winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, Maxine Beneba Clarke have added their names. Maxine Beneba Clarke has also pledged to add the logo of Writers for Refugees to the back of her forthcoming collection of short stories, Foreign Soil, which is set to be a major release in 2014.
Established writers are often given large audiences at festivals, libraries, schools and other venues, and hopefully they, with the growing layer of aspiring writers coming through growing creative writing courses at university and elsewhere, can help to spark other groups into action to challenge the dominant narrative in mainstream politics and the media.
Sign on to the Writers for Refugees statement.