As part of National Refugee Week (Sunday, 19 June to Saturday, 25 June), we will share some inspiring stories from our refugee communities here in Victoria. This story is written by Phil Hudson from Brunswick Baptist Church.
About a week ago my friend Don, a refugee released following almost 9 years’ detention by the Australian Government, invited me to dinner at his home. Sharing food and stories and seeing him doing so well – working part time and starting to heal after so much trauma – was a beautiful expererience. A week earlier, at my former church, Westgate Baptist Community, I reflected on my journey that has brought me to this place of friendship with refugees. I share some of that journey in this article to shine a light on the stories of these amazing people.
I became a Christian in my teens and was heavily influenced by the conservative evangelical theology of my home church. Being a sensitive person, this ‘fear based’ approach to faith led to a battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and anxiety in early adulthood. While at first debilitating, the slowing down and reflection when ill became a springboard to a new exploration of faith and life. I learnt that compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’ and that we are to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom 12:15).
In 1996, I began voluntary work with asylum seekers from East Timor through the Uniting Church’s Asylum Seeker Project. At that time, asylum seekers were not really in the public consciousness, but as I learned more about their situation my passion grew – and the project became my paid employment for two years. Over a decade later, 2014, The Gift of Refuge campaign brought me back to regular advocacy with asylum seekers. Tri Nguyen, pastor of Brunswick Baptist Church and a refugee from Vietnam, walked a replica boat from Melbourne to Canberra with three Persian asylum seekers to raise public awareness and to point to a ‘better way’. In 2015, I followed up this experience by training in Christian non-violent action with ‘Love Makes a Way’ (LMAW), a movement protesting offshore detention and children in detention.
The training inspired me to join the LMAW group in Melbourne and I was involved in peaceful sit-ins in the offices of Members of Parliament. While at first attracting media attention the public impact of these types of actions gradually decreased, however, and by 2016 the LMAW movement had dwindled and our government’s hard-line refugee policies showed no signs of abating. This caused us to re-imagine our actions while still holding onto prayerfulness and the principles of non-violence. We retained our focus on those stuck in offshore detention, while acknowledging the challenging situation facing asylum seekers within Australia. We engaged in silent protests, creative prayer vigils, local letter-writing and calling MPs among other actions. We did loud and colourful flash mob dances and sang Christmas carols with altered lyrics at Flinders St Station.
In the last four years there have been some significant changes in the asylum seeker space, brought about by the implementation and subsequent cancellation of the ‘Medevac’ legislation and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Medevac bill was passed (despite government opposition) in early 2019 to allow refugees in off-shore detention with significant medical needs to be brought to the mainland for treatment. Until its repeal in December 2019, an estimated 192 people were transferred to Australia. The vast majority of those evacuated for urgent treatment were remained detained in hotels until recently and few received medical treatment. We visited some of the men in the Mantra Hotel Preston and shifted focus to advocating for this group. Getting to know some of them reframed our work from ‘standing with refugees’ to ‘standing with our friends’.
In December 2020, the refugees held at Mantra were forcibly transferred to the Park Hotel in Carlton. In January 2021, two of these men I had befriended were among the 46 released – one of the greatest joys of my life. For those left behind, we joined LMAW friends and other advocates at daily protests outside the Park Hotel, where we sang songs of freedom and beauty to remind them they were not forgotten. We would wave to the men who sometimes stood at their windows to watch or have phone conversations through locked doors and tinted windows. During lockdown we made videos and called and messaged those we knew. While many of us have struggled through COVID lockdowns, we cannot imagine how they have survived through an almost decade-long lockdown and denial of their most basic freedoms.
One of the men I met last year via phone is my beautiful friend Don. With his permission, I share some of his story. As a Rohingya Muslim young man, he was persecuted by the Myanmar military. In 2013, at just 17 years of age, Don fled Myanmar and came to Australia by boat. He was taken to offshore detention on Manus Island. He went through the refugee determination process and received his refugee status in 2016. Despite this, the Government kept him in detention. Due to ongoing anxiety and depression, he was brought to Australia in 2019 through the Medevac process. However, instead of receiving medical treatment and care, he again was kept detained, this time imprisoned inside a hotel building. Visitors needed to go through a complicated, time-consuming process to get a permit for each visit, when these were allowed. In mid 2021, I met Don in person. Two guards remained in the room.
Despite his own suffering, Don was most concerned about me, apologising for the lack of privacy and wanting me to be comfortable; the cup of tea we shared was a special moment of ‘normality.’ He shared his experience of anxiety and depression, feelings of hopelessness, loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Day by day Don and the other 40 refugees detained there were worn down further mentally and physically. The wellbeing of his parents and sister, still living in an oppressive and volatile situation in Myanmar, was an additional source of worry. Don could not (and cannot) understand why the government continued to detain him five years after validating his refugee status.
One part of the answer to Don’s question lies in the sad reality that asylum seekers like him have become ‘political footballs’ since the infamous 2001 ‘Tampa’ controversy and election win for John Howard’s Coalition Government. Australia had previously led the way in its bipartisan compassionate approach, welcoming thousands of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s. Under Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, signatories cannot punish refugees for entering or living in the country without permission, or unnecessarily restrict their freedom of movement. Unfortunately, successive Governments since the 1990s have consistently failed to uphold the international treaties Australia has signed and have often sought to dehumanise asylum seekers by amplifying negative stereotypes and hence stoking the (often racist) fears of some voters for electoral gain.
In the last year dozens more refugees have been released from detention the Park Hotel in Carlton and other detention centres. Don was finally free after being detained for one third of his life! Having lunch with him by the Maribyrnong River. These hard-fought releases were the result of dovetailing factors: the work of brave refugees, incredible lawyers, committed activists and an increase in media stories and public awareness. The final ‘clearing out’ of the Park Hotel of Medevac refugees in May 2021 was an act of a government desperate to clear any issues they feared may damage their re-election chances.
Can this harmful narrative about refugees be changed? I believe a slow turning of the tide towards a more compassionate view can begin if we honestly reflect on our own stories, both national and personal. It is only just over 200 years ago that some boat people from a foreign country settled on a land not their own. The very recent change of government and the challenge to the two party system and has also fuelled hope for change and that democracy is being revitalised. I welcome the change of language coming from the new government and some parts of its policy platform on refugees are more humane, most notably the much needed ending of Temporary Protection Visas. The return this week of the Tamil Nadesalingam family at the centre of a four-year immigration battle to the central Queensland town of Biloela is heartening. But there is still much work to do and so many people in need of hope and healing.
One such example is the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees who remain in detention without hope of freedom or resettlement after nearly a decade. Fourteen have died on Australia’s watch since 2013, some victims of violence, others driven to suicide. Currently, 1,384 people are still stuck in the offshore processing system on Nauru or Papua New Guinea and some remain in detention in Australia. Even assuming the resettlement arrangements with the US, Canada and New Zealand are fully taken up there will still beat least 500 refugees left in limbo.
Walking with and advocating for the rights of refugees over a long period is challenging and it is easy to feel powerless. The Melbourne LMAW group, a bunch of ordinary Christians, has only been able to keep going because we have had the practical and prayerful support of two Brunswick churches – Brunswick Uniting Church, which has devoted a lot of time and resources to our campaign and my faith community, Brunswick Baptist, which has a long history of support for refugees and asylum seekers. We have also maintained our commitment to monthly meetings and reflected on the small gains and wins along the way.
A young man named Naser is among those who have not been released. He is in detention at MITA Broadmeadows. In late May a small number of us from LMAW went into the city and recorded a video of songs and friendship for him. It is a seemingly insignificant act – but collectively such small acts help to keep hope alive. Naser knows he is not forgotten. As Jesus unrelentingly railed against injustice, we too must speak up with a prophetic voice – to continue to raise awareness, shine a light on systemic injustices and ensure there is ongoing and increasing political pressure to find a lasting, humane solution for these courageous young men. They too, are children of God.
Phil Hudson is a singer-songwriter, choir leader and community musician. He leads worship at Brunswick Baptist Church and is co-facilitator of Love Makes a Way Melbourne.
This is an updated version of an article first published in Zadok Perspectives, Summer 2021. With thanks to Michaela Dedek and Christine Morris for editing assistance.
Love Makes a Way: facebook.com/LoveMakesAWayForAsylumSeekers.
Refugee-led organisation: refugeevoices.org.au.
For more information on National Refugee Week, please visit their website here. Please visit the buv.com.au/advocacy page which includes tools to help discussion, inform awareness, prompt action and enhance connections to empower Baptist Leaders to lead local mission. We are regularly updating the resources and adding new issues so check in regularly!