People Power – be a part of it


Are you a “quiet Australian” with concerns about refugee policy? If that policy is to be changed then those concerns need to be turned into action

By Betty Lee, retired, 81, a lucky Australian with capacity to share it

If you are a compassionate person, with one iota of empathy, and with some knowledge of the situation for the various cohorts of boat people – you may well be outraged, or despairing. It’s logical, but not useful unless you turn it into action.

I think I was invited to write this article because I have been active, and maybe can inspire others. Many times I have thought my efforts to be futile, it is hard to shame a government that is shameless. At a personal level, I know I have made a difference for one person. At a broader level I really do not know but I reckon I have contributed to a few small victories. Anyway, this is my story.

From 2001 (Tampa, children overboard, Twin Towers and consequent phobias) I have been uneasy about our attitude to asylum seekers, so I wrote a few letters, went to talks, informed myself, and had friends who would listen. The more I learnt the more troubled I became. Then the big influx of boat people of 2012/13 put huge pressure on Red Cross to find cheap housing as the “legacy caseload” was released from Christmas Island into the community with government financial support (Status Resolution Support Services [SRSS], which is 89% of Newstart). Rents in Perth were high then.

 I realized that my puny previous efforts had not actually helped a single asylum seeker, so offered accommodation via Red Cross. Within days I had a young Iranian professional man living in the other half of my house. 

I could not have imagined how helpful it was for him. X arrived in a state of shock, a middle class man suddenly destitute in a strange land, with only a few words of English. Bridging visa conditions prohibited work, and study required full foreign student fees. Idle days and uncertain future are a recipe for depression. My street was wonderful, welcoming him in so many practical ways, and keeping him occupied socially and e.g. making firebreaks on the hobby farm, minding pets and gardens when they went for holidays – at one time he had keys to half the houses in my street! The trust and inclusion were huge factors for his mental health.

When I had announced my intention to neighbours, all were positive bar one “Okay Betty, it’s your house, but No Fxxxing Muslims”. On day two X was invited to this guy’s Christmas party! (Actually X is an atheist, but we did not know that then.)

Stereotypes often include lack of integration; integration is a two-way process. And I should add, I live in Liberal heartland!

X has now been with me for six years, has progressed from volunteer work to casual employment to a permanent job ‒ and proudly pays tax. He is still frustrated by the temporary visa (he is now recognized as a genuine refugee and has a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa [SHEV]), but considers himself a lucky refugee.

He says “Refugees don’t need money. We need someone listen to us and imagine how we are suffering about everything you lost – family, friends, your language, your people, your situation, everything…if someone in 2013 gave me $1million, it can’t help me like Betty helped me.”

For me it has been so rewarding; I have provided stability and respect, fostering dignity and self-worth for a good person. I can’t solve the big problems but I know I have made a difference to one life. Also he is stimulating company and helps me a lot (I am elderly).

If you have the will there are lots of ways to help individuals. Many refugees are so alone, they need someone to be there with heart, to establish contact and offer a listening ear, friendly support, help with English, maybe pay for dental care (not on Medicare), etc. There are many support groups who can advise, e.g. Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, CARAD (WA). Also they are desperate for donations as some families have their SRSS benefit removed. And yes if you have an empty guest suite …

I know someone who dropped the rent on their investment property by 33% so that three asylum seekers could then afford it.

Acting to try to change the policies and cruel treatment is hard – where to start?

I believe that the government has a mandate to exercise control over our borders and stop the boats, but the means are inhumane. The policy is harsh and the implementation often smacks of gratuitous cruelty, especially offshore. Most people do not know about the treatment of these vulnerable people, nor of the many changes of law that made it legal. The government has been very successful in keeping it secret. Misinformation abounds (I have seen letters to the editor claiming that they are given free houses, a car…). I believe if people knew more, most would not approve of our policies.

Therefore all my actions have two objectives:

  • Let the pollies know that we know, we care and we vote.
  • Inform others, disseminate the facts, counter the dehumanising and secrecy.

Essentially there are three major cohorts of boat people:

  • Those in PNG and Nauru, now down to c.560 (632 have been resettled in USA)
  • Those in detention (e.g. Villawood, Yongah Hill) c.400. (average 500 days; one man 9 years)
  • Those on temporary visas in the community, c.30,000 (in January 2019, 6,837 still on SRSS government benefit, fewer now).

All have had their future stolen and are in various stages of despair. 

It is hard to know where to start and what might be effective. This is what I have done.

Federally, I write letters to my MP, my WA Senators, the Ministers and the Prime Minister, as seems appropriate given current issues. Always polite with irrefutable facts, and a request. Also to others, especially cross benchers who have such power re legislation in the Upper House ‒ often with appreciation and encouragement. I recently met a retired politician who said how such letters would reinvigorate her on dark days. Phone calls produce variable reactions from communication staffers, and definitely have informed some.

I actually believe that there are some good people in the Coalition who are working to change things, but will be loyal to the party publically. And lots in the ALP, but alas they remain in Opposition.

For years I have lobbied the State Government re child access to public schools (only recently permitted in W.A.), transport concessions, SHEV problems, the unfairness of foreign student fees… I have talked with bureaucrats on some issues, it is interesting what they know and sometimes do not know.

I also write to the right leaning newspapers, especially to refute misinformation, with some success though I am yet to crack The Australian.

I meet weekly with two other prolific letter writers and we ginger each other up as we draft letters to politicians and the press. We have been very successful with items for our local papers, e.g. I got a double spread in my freeby (goes to 50,000 households) for Refugee Week 2018, with eye-catching image re Kids off Nauru.

I have another 30 compassionistas on email to whom I provide information, updates and encouragement. I know some write to politicians as a result. Some have met once or twice, some I have never met. All a bit sporadic.

I had a visit with my Liberal MP, pre-election, and with my new MP, as a candidate, and post-election with a SHEV holder friend. Excellent meetings, but unknown effect!

I work on stalls, sign petitions and attend rallies (very poorly attended in WA). It is an opportunity to engage with others; I am often amazed at how little they know. In June last year I was soliciting for signatures with Freo RRAN re Kids Off Nauru at a market venue, it was hard work – oh I’m in a rush, oh I‘ll come back later, there are no children on Nauru (there were 100 plus at the time), etc.

Then Kerryn Phelps stood as candidate for Turnbull’s seat, and spoke out, and Nauru kicked out Medecins Sans Frontieres. Both got lots of media coverage. On the day of the by-election in October I was at the same venue and people were sometimes queueing to sign our petition. The power of information – and the media.

I recommend Behrouz Boochani’s remarkable book, written from Manus, to book clubs, and have spoken at a few of their meetings. My claim to fame is that I am the only person to give a refugee talk under a gum tree on the Great Central Road!

So please add your voice to help these vulnerable and innocent people. If you are silent you are complicit, as the government will count you as one of the much lauded “quiet Australians” who supposedly blindly agree with all their policies.

If you fancy outrage there is much to be outraged about:

  • Medevac repeal, this goes to the Senate in November.
  • Bomana, all men are now off Manus, transferred to Port Moresby. 47 are in the Bomana immigration detention facility (built by Australia); some have been approved for medevac under Australian law but their phones have been taken so no contact with their lawyers, doctors nor indeed their families; they may not leave their room.
  • Not accepting the NZ offer – what do they plan for the “failed” asylum seekers.
  • Paladin contract for $423m let without tender, for services on Manus Island. In June extended to December for $110m, now no-one on Manus. This is our money.
  • Same sex relationships are criminal in PNG and Nauru, where are the gay guys who were on Nauru?

Write to your local member, whatever party, and do not accept a generic answer, follow up, telephone, ask for a meeting…

There are many heroes in this battle for humanity – Behrouz Boochani in PNG, Senator McKim, Rebekkah Sharkey of Mayo, Cathy McGowan ex-MP of Indi, Tim Costello, Catholic Bishops of PNG, most of the churches, Andrew Wilkie… and I have met so many champions in WA who are lobbying at various levels. They never give up.

You can support them. At the very least inform yourself and spread the facts. There are some excellent websites with fact sheets, the latest news, etc. I use these all the time:

  • Kaldor Centre (UNSW) has an invaluable weekly update, easy to subscribe to it
  • Refugee Council of Australia, essentially the national umbrella group
  • Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
  • Rural Australians for Refugees

There are hundreds of local groups as well as e.g. grandmothers for refugees, doctors for refugees, academics for refugees…

So that’s what one old lady can do! I feel quite tired thinking about it and sometimes it seems overwhelming, but becoming one of Morrison’s “quiet Australians” is not an option for me. What about you?

Header photo: A place to call home

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]