When will we treat asylum seekers with the compassion, respect and dignity they deserve? This disgusting competition by ZOO Weekly only serves to highlight a bigger problem. For as long as we continue to dehumanize asylum seekers by the various dissociative labels we ascribe to them in the public sphere – labels like ‘boat people’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘terrorists’ – we will never engage with their personal stories or extend to them their undeniable human rights.
Asylum seekers have names beyond what we call them. They also have families, livelihoods and communities that they wished they could return to. No one chooses to be any asylum seeker. I know this because over the last several years I have lived alongside a growing number of African families (25 at last count) who have found themselves connected into the church I attend, The Grainery Christian Network in Newcastle. Together with my wife and family, we have shared numerous meals with them around our tables, taught them to swim at the beach, attended the weddings of their children and at hard times mourned with them.
All of these families at one stage fled their countries in East Africa as asylum seekers and were fortunate enough to be settled in Australia. However, as easy as we might think life in the ‘lucky country’ is for these families once they reach our shores, we are wrong. Many of the families arrived missing family members, including children, but mostly husbands and fathers who were murdered by militias, often in front of their very own eyes. One New Year’s Eve, soon after one family had arrived, my mother-in-law took them to see the fireworks at the harbour foreshore. The loud colorful explosions, whilst bringing delight to most onlookers, caused one Congolese female refugee to rush for cover between nearby exhibition tents, and was found later shaking and in a state of shock. When asked about the incident she replied that despite being aware that she was in Australia, a country not at war, she instinctively reverted to a survival mentality because, “When we heard that sound in the Congo it meant the rebels were coming.” Flashbacks like this along with nightmares and other associated health problems are typical hallmarks of post-traumatic stress, a condition most asylum seekers are likely to suffer.
The competition by ZOO Weekly jokes that, “if you’ve swapped persecution for sexiness, we want to shoot you (with a camera – relax). Send your pics and a story about your tragic past to email@example.com’. This makes a mockery of the tragic circumstances and trauma that female asylum seekers, including my friends continue to experience. In some ways asylum seekers are trading one form of persecution for the next when they arrive in Australia and we need to do better.
It’s also not fair to the Australian public to have our perceptions of asylum seekers shaped by the vitriolic rhetoric used by the negative elements of the media, politicians and key opinion leaders. For the men who read this magazine you can quickly see how negative and derogatory perceptions of asylum seekers so easily take root in our nation.
The noble ideal behind human rights is that they belong to us not because of our race, gender, age or nationality but simply because we are born ‘human’. The way we treat asylum seekers is perhaps the ultimate betrayal of this ideal in Western liberal states like our own. We talk much of ‘human rights’ and claim them when we seek to protect our own citizens wrongfully treated overseas, but our treatment of the ‘stateless’ asylum seeker who we encounter desperately trying to reach our shores, makes it clear that even in this country ‘human rights’ have their limits at the border.
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By Matthew Darvas