A little support instead of billions on toxic cruelty

Feb 29, 2024
Australian Flag as Background and Silhouettes of People

We must speak to people who require assistance and listen to their needs instead of speaking over them. In the case of Australia’s refugee policy, we wasted billions on toxic cruelty when we could have done much better by cooperating internationally and supporting people humanely.

One of the “greatest pre-resettlement programs in the world” for refugees began with “$200 and 50kg of books.”

That mantra neglects the key to the plan to educate refugee children stuck in limbo, of course, by focussing on the minimal outside support that enabled the endeavour. The driving force to educate refugee children came from the countless hours and endless energy dedicated by people trapped in refugee status themselves.

By labelling people refugees – or asylum seekers – in public discourse, we strip them of the hopes and dreams, the histories and experience, that make up the individual. Instead we impose upon them a permanent collective identity.

The politics made of the labels “refugee” and “asylum seekers” since the John Howard years in Australia have made for poisonous strategies to shape public discourse and venomous public policy that has wasted years and broken lives.

It has also cost us billions of dollars, this bigoted fearmongering generated by ambitious politicians and their strategist friends. The Refugee Council of Australia has calculated that from 2013 to 2022 alone, Coalition governments have spent $9.65 billion dollars on such policies. Australian governments have granted these billions to companies registered to a beach shack on Kangaroo Island; to donors with a company worth $8 dollars; to contractors suspected of drug smuggling and weapons trafficking; to corrupt foreign businessmen; to corrupt governments in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; even to people smugglers.

The result has been devastating harm: children dying of Resignation Syndrome as Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs fought their evacuation from Nauru, suicides, murder and abuse, not to mention families destroyed by long separation.

By contrast, the 5 learning centres currently educating 1200 refugee children in Indonesia continue to operate without government support. Thousands of children have been through these centres, and almost all have gone on to age-appropriate schooling levels on arrival in the new homes. Those children, displaced by war and genocidal armies, are now studying at university and committed to contributing to their beloved safe-haven homes.

In 2014, then immigration minister Scott Morrison said, in Holocaust-evoking dehumanisation, that Australia would stop taking refugees from Indonesia to take “the sugar off the table,” as if these people were insects. The decree that families would be trapped with glacial processing to places like Canada or Germany in – perhaps – a decade compounded the deep despair that pervaded the scared and isolated people trapped in Cisarua near Jakarta, desperate for a future that would save them from Taliban genocide.

The chance meeting of one of the most energised figures there, photographer Muzafar Ali, with an Australian documentary-maker, Jolyon Hoff, enabled the leasing of a two-room house that became the first learning centre that aimed not just to occupy children trapped in lodgings with increasingly despairing parents, but to prepare them for schooling in English-speaking countries.

Volunteer management and teachers took on the task of educating the community’s children, whether Hazara like the organising group or from other ethnicities finding a staging post in the town. These places became community hubs, teaching language and skills to parents as well as children, fostering hope.

The energy and excitement in the schools have always been palpable. The education now stretches from pre-school to GED qualifications which earn tertiary access. There are a karate club and futsal teams to promote physical health, sport enjoyment and confidence. The girls alone boast 10 futsal teams and ever more impressive skills.

The teachers too have gone on to grand achievements. University degrees including in teaching number amongst the opportunities embraced by these impressive figures in their resettled homes. Anyone who has worked to learn a foreign language, with a non-alphabet script, will grasp the scope of the effort required to gain university qualifications in it.

Muzafar and Jolyon made an exceptional documentary called The Staging Post around the initial project. Last year they released a second documentary recounting Muzafar’s efforts to find the legacy of the Afghan camel-men, who were central to Australian settlement. Now they are working to begin a sequel to The Staging Post where they plan to highlight the achievements of the people who have emerged from the Learning Centre project.

Meanwhile Clare O’Neil’s Home Affairs is only beginning to reckon with the harm done to the Australian record and budget by Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Michael Pezzullo, their chief public servant, recently removed in disgrace.

Australians ought to be angry, not only about the vast quantity of taxpayer money that should have been much better spent. We ought to be angry that enterprising people who could, with a little support, have achieved great accomplishments enabling a better future for them and the countries that would host them.

Above all, we ought to angry and ashamed at the harm done to people who fled persecution, genocide and oppression. Australia has been asked to host very few of the world’s displaced. Our response has been driven by populist politics of bigotry and grievance. We have a few young men remaining in PNG in 2024 from our Manus Island concentration camp, many of whom are barely functioning after years of Australian cruelty and Kafkaesque bureaucratic torment. What would these young men have become with just a little support instead of (expensive) torture?

Australians are beginning to learn what it means to be displaced by crises as the climate catastrophe displays that it is already underway.

We need to be taking lessons from the Cisarua project for Australians here as well as for the small percentage of the world’s displaced that have asked Australia for a safe future.

We must speak to the people who require assistance and listen to their needs instead of speaking over them. In the case of Australia’s refugee policy, we wasted billions on toxic cruelty when we could have done much better in ways that cooperated internationally and supported people humanely.

We must also steer clear of the disaster capitalists who would profit from every one of our catastrophes, with bonuses, growth, and profits as their goals, and apparently no care for their responsibility to the survivor or the taxpayer.

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