Life throws up a few unexpected pleasures from time to time. If I hadn't checked Facebook this morning, I wouldn't have known Andrew Bartlett was broadcasting live on 4ZZZ Brisbane community radio at the time. if I hadn't listened in, I wouldn't have heard the interview he did about refugees with Kathi McCulloch, the coordinator of the Romero Centre. If I hadn't heard the interview I wouldn't have known that there was a Refugee Week film festival tonight at the wonderful Kangaroo Point building known as Yungaba. So on the spur of the moment, I went along and was treated to an evening of three films, discussion, food and drink, and good company.
The Romero Centre is a faith-based ecumenical social justice organisation. The centre is named for El Salvadorian Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated by his own government in 1980 for fighting human abuses. As part of the spiteful regime of the former Howard Government, the Romero Centre was ineligible for funding from the Department of Immigration because of its work with Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders. Now that is beginning to change and new funding possibilities are opening up along with the great ideas they can purchase.
The film festival about refugees is one such great idea and Yungaba is a perfect venue to host it. The heritage listed building was built as an immigration depot for Brisbane in 1885. For over a hundred years it became a local version of Ellis Island and was listed recently as a Queensland icon. But the building has now been sold to private developers who will probably turn it in to boutique apartments for the wealthy. In the meantime it was an honour to be among a hundred people at one of the final public gatherings in what McCulloch called this “joyous space”.
There were three films shown in the festival, all of which touched on the refugee experience. The first, and shortest, was “See Through Me” a collection of tough street experiences of ten young Somali-Australian immigrants made by the Refugee Health Research Centre of La Trobe University in Melbourne. The “fight or flight” mentality became easier to see from their perspective. As one Somali boy said when taunted by a gang, “I was outnumbered, I had to ignore them or I would have copped the damage”.
The second film was Freedom or Death. “Freedom or Death” was the slogan of the refugees held in Nauru detention centre for several shameful years during the height of John Howard’s notorious Pacific Solution. The mendicant state of Nauru was bought off by the Australian Government to house boatpeople in an environment that was excised from Australian law. The refugees became sick of living with no hope of release in an environment where phosphate got into the food and into the feet. They fought back with the only weapons they had: their bodies. Howard branded the Nauru 2003 hunger strike as “blackmail” and refused to negotiate with them. But as lawyer Julian Burnside said “they were playing the only card they had”.
Out of their midst emerged a born leader. Chaman Shah Nasiri (pictured seated next to Kathi McCulloch) was a young man whose dignity could not be repressed and it was he who got his fellow inmates to end the hunger strike before anyone died. Chaman, like most of the rest of them, is a Hazara, a Shia community which were heavily discriminated against in Sunni Taliban Afghanistan. He described the terror of trying to get to Australia in leaky, dangerous boats and pay $16,000 for the privilege. He was a natural spokesman for the group and he was in the delegation that spoke to the then-Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone’s office in 2003. Chaman is now happy to be settled in Australia where “he can breathe the air of freedom” and reminded the audience that Australia is a signatory of the UNHCR convention/protocol on refugees.
The final film was called “Pacific Solution: from Afghanistan to Aotearoa”. It tells the story of those rescued from the MV Tampa in 2001 who were taken in by New Zealand. While Australia and New Zealand share a common colonial heritage, they treated refugees radically differently in the early 2000s. While Howard banged on stridently about “us” deciding who could stay in Australia and under what conditions, the Helen Clark government took a more compassionate approach (often against the anger of many New Zealanders worried about immigration). New Zealand immediately accepted 131 of the 438 Tampa asylum seekers (including about 40 unaccompanied boys). The film took in the touching story of how the rest of the family joined one of these boys in Auckland, and the culture and language difficulties they found on arrival. This family was also Hazara and had to leave Afghanistan. As Julian Burnside said “when your own country wants to kill you…what choice do you have?”
While TPVs and Nauru are gone, the problem has not fully gone away. There is compassion fatigue within the industry. The media is always ready to play up fears about “border protection”, despite the reality that Australia is no danger of being “swamped” by refugees. The current Australian Government is worried about being wedged on the issue – they remember only too well that Howard had a 90 percent approval rating over Tampa. Yet they could also do well from learning how the Kiwis quietly and effectively dealt with the problem. Refugees need help and by international law and the covenants that Australia has signed, we must help them. Nights like tonight at Yungaba are a useful reminder of how that help can be sustained at an individual level.