People fleeing war, bigotry, prejudice, oppression and chaos in their countries of origin, under the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating To The Status Of Refugees, are allowed to seek protection in other countries.

Not only are refugees to be afforded most of the same rights as citizens; freedom to seek employment, housing, education, travel and legal services within the territory of the signatory country, they also have the right not to be punished even if they enter the contracting state illegally. Another fundamental protection is the right that they will not suffer refoulement; expulsion, return or deportation to a country where they may be subject to threats to life or freedom.

Australia was an early signatory to the 1951 convention, and indeed worked closely with the UN to help establish the convention. In 1973 Australia ratified the 1967 Protocol which expanded the parameters of the convention to cover conflicts around the world, and not just the refugee crisis caused by WWII.

Unfortunately in more recent times Australian political parties have attempted to leverage voter support in some sections of the community through appeals to racism and xenophobia, and have established a series of oppressive policies and processes in contravention to the laws the nation agreed to abide by under the UNHCR.

One of these policies is a system of offshore processing, in which those seeking asylum are left in a kind of legal limbo in prison camps in neighbouring third world countries. The quasi-status this creates means that refugees have none of the rights to the legal protections and freedoms Australia is obliged to provide. Not only has the Australian government abrogated their responsibilities, they have compounded the crisis by farming out the construction and management of theses prisons to corporations, for profit. While the cost to the Australian people skyrockets, and corporate friends of political parties rake in billions, men, women and children fleeing terror from places like Syria and Somalia and Sri Lanka are kept in cages, dehumanized, subject to violence and abuse from warders and conflict caused by the conditions in which they are imprisoned. Despite successive governments continuing such policies, they are not popular with the majority of Australians.

Manus Island, off the north eastern coast of Papua New Guinea imprisons over 1000 souls. In 2013, Janet Galbraith, who early in her life discovered writing as a way to overcome illness and trauma, began the Writing Through Fences group, a writing group on Facebook in which writers and poets, refugees and asylum seekers, suffering under Australia’s oppressive detention regime could find some connection, some outlet, by sharing their work.

Janet has reported that the private security forces running the camps have violently cracked down against protests and communication by the imprisoned, at the behest of a government trying to silence negative publicity.

“The past weeks have been extremely traumatic on Manus, with many of the writers arrested and sent to Lorengau Prison – along with others who have also been peacefully protesting.  Communications have been largely shut down with Wilson Security and PNG police conducting comprehensive searches in the camps in order to find mobile phones and any other communication devices.  These have then been confiscated/stolen.  Asylum seekers’ journals and letters have also been amongst the property taken and/or read by guards.  All of this of course has made communications in and out of the camp extremely difficult. However, some of the writers are managing to get some messages through.”

Janet has called on Australian poets to submit Poems In Solidarity with the asylum seekers on Manus Island, and received a huge response from Australian poets. Despite the restrictions, the poems have gotten through. In conjunction with two poets who are also asylum seekers, Janet will be considering all poems for inclusion in an anthology to be published later.

“The poems have been an important element of strength and solace to many in the camps. The fact that you have thought of these people and spent time writing to and for them is much appreciated and has built a sense of connection and some hope.”

Janet Galbraith is the founder of Writing Through Fences and Editor of Refugee Writing Mascara Literary Review

To submit a poem, to offer hope, connection, compassion and support to those who have fled oppression only to find themselves further oppressed, you can send a poem to [email protected] Submissions for the anthology are open until the 30th March, 2015. Your words of solidarity are undoubtedly welcome at any time.

8 Responses

  1. Jasmine

    People fleeing their home countries for a variety of reasons is increasing all the time. While it is important to ensure that people in genuine need are given the help they need, there is also the impact of huge numbers on the countries where they land.

    In Europe currently, Italy is being engulfed in a tide of refugees fleeing Africa. They are arriving in their thousands every week. Recently the people traffickers have been buying up old merchant ships, sailing them close to the shore then abandoning them with their cargo of people to be rescued by the Italian authorities. Malta, a tiny island in the Med, is also a target for boat people. The situation has been made worse since the fall of Gaddafi as Libya is the new embarkation point.

    The UK is also a target for inward illegal migration – currently there are hundreds, if not thousands, camped illegally around Calais waiting for an opportunity to get across the Channel. The UK is a small island and its population is now approaching 62 million.

    While it cannot be denied that European countries are wealthy, it is not just a question of having the means to support vast numbers of illegal immigrants, regard has to be paid to the increase in social tension caused by the impact of numbers. There has been a rise in Europe of political parties with far-right tendencies and this is often linked to the inward migration of hundreds of thousands of people who have no cultural ties to Europe.

    This situation will get worse if global warming reaches a tipping point, because people from sub-Saharan Africa will be forced north as the climate changes. Ultimately global warming will affect the European countries along the Med, so that their populations will also want to move north.

    It is a tremendous problem but I do not think that the nettle has been fully grasped by any government. For the moment, I cannot see a way forward.

    • Olga Hughes

      Asylum seeking is not illegal though Jasmine. Seeking asylum is a human right. Despite attempts by our government to brand asylum seekers ‘illegals’ and their ‘stop the boats’ campaign – well most asylum seekers arrive by plane in Australia.
      The issue is how asylum seekers are being treated in detention, including the horrific physical and mental abuse of children as well as adults. Currently there are 200 children being held in detention.
      Immigration is a separate issue entirely, but we certainly don’t have a population issue here – on the other side of the earth 😉

  2. C S Hughes

    The narrative of illegal immigration is one governments like to dwell on, but its largely false, Australia can easily afford and accommodate asylum seekers, the notion that they are a financial burden or cause social tensions in an already multi-cultural society is really only a story that governments use to appeal to a fearful, xenophobic section of society. Time and again it has been shown that new immigrants are industrious and are more patriotic and grateful for their new land of opportunity.
    I have only heard a little about the situation in the UK and Europe. I expect, as usual, politicians exaggerate the issue for their own purposes.
    Here, the biggest group of illegal immigrants are UK and New Zealand citizens that work illegally and over stay their holiday visas. They of course arrive by air, not by boat.
    But here we are talking about asylum seekers and refugees, our fellow human beings, fleeing problems often exacerbated by our governments, people who deserve our compassion and help, not further oppression.

    • Jasmine

      Strangely, just after I had posted my original comment, I looked at the day’s news and Italy has a rising new political party – far-right leaning – which has illegal immigration at the heart of its policies.

      Australia is in a different position to Europe in that it has a large land area and a small population. However, Europe is being swamped by people trafficked from a wide variety of places, Africa, as I mentioned earlier, but also Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places caught up in the fighting between various factions. The majority of these people destroy their travel documentation, so it is impossible for them to be deported. In two months this year, Italy had upwards of 300,000 people arriving on its doorstep.

      There is little doubt that statistics like these play into the hands of particular political parties which fuel social tensions. Add to that the fact that we now have Jhadists going to and returning from the Middle East, many of whom advocate violence in their European ‘homeland’, and you have a very toxic mix. Who would have thought that 70 years on from a fascist-inspired conflict, that once again Europe would see a significant rise in the far-right?

  3. C S Hughes

    We should perhaps remember the people fleeing trouble in their countries of origin are simply doing what any one of us would do, seeking a safe life for our families. Being trafficked is one of those loaded terms, which makes the victims of war sound like they are doing something wrong. The numbers arriving in Italy make the few arriving here seem paltry.
    The Jihadi issue again is something blown out of all proportion by politicians, for their own purposes.
    I guess the key is to make sure that the economic and social conditions in people’s home countries are equitable. Given the amount of wealth and resources in Africa, exploited by international corporations, probably not that difficult to achieve.

    • Jasmine

      I agree – anyone would seek security for themselves and their families. However, one cannot deny the impact of huge movements of people from one area to another, especially where there is limited accommodation.

      As for the word trafficker – what do you call organisations which take large sums of money off people and offer to smuggle them into another country without going through the legal channels? What would you call groups of men who acquire old cargo ships, fill them to overflowing with refugees, sail towards the coast of Italy, then abandon ship, leaving it to drift until boarded by Italian coastguards? What do you call groups which take leaky old boats, fill them up with people limited food, little water and attempt to sail hundreds or thousands of miles from Africa to Europe for money? It might have connotations, but it is an apt description for people who make money out of exploiting people’s natural desires to find a place of safety.

      In Europe, there are clear procedures for people wishing to claim asylum and they have legal protection and what they are entitled to is specified. What is happening now, and has been for some time, is hundreds of thousands of people are not going through the proper channels, but are being trafficked into Europe, often at great cost to themselves and leaving the governments of a variety of countries with the problem of coping with them – not in easily managed numbers, but in groups of hundreds at the same time. And, of course, hundreds of these refugees die in the attempt.

  4. C S Hughes

    Of course the notion of ‘proper channels’ is quite ridiculous to someone trying to make a safe life for their family, and is an excuse used by politicians the world over, who fail to make those channels available for purposes of political expediency.

    • Jasmine

      You say that you are not familiar with the situation in Europe, so you probably don’t realise that a large majority of the refugees now pitching up here are young, single men. They are not families, but individuals, many of whom are seeking work.

      Whatever one feels about the personal situation of many of the refugees, there is no escaping the fact that the sheer numbers now arriving in Europe are affecting people’s perceptions of genuine asylum seekers and leading to the rise of far-right political parties which are gaining significant support. You have only to look at France, where the FN candidate is likely to gain aconsiderable number of votes in the presidential elections (some are predicting she will out perform the traditional right wing candidate), something which 20 years ago would have been thought impossible. Add to that the support given to similar parties in Holland, Denmark, Austria, the rise of the anti-islamist group in Germany, the rise of UKIP in the UK, as well as the party I mentioned earlier in Italy and a worrying picture begins to emerge. In the UK, where we have a general election in a few weeks, illegal immigration is top of voters’ concerns and governments both past and present are blamed for allowing the numbers already in the country.

      It is interesting that here in the UK, fifteen years ago when a mainstream politician tried to raise the question of immigration during a general election campaign, he was howled down and accused of being racist. Today, illegal immigration and the numbers of immigrants coming or wishing to come to the UK is openly talked about, is high on the agenda of all political parties and is, as I said, a top priority for voters.


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