An open letter to Scott Morrison MP
Dear Mr Morrison,
I have read on several occasions that you identify William Wilberforce as one of your heroes. Wilberforce is also one of my heroes. Not least among the reasons for this, is his persistence in letter writing to government officials, to call for the humane treatment of people who were oppressed. He wrote letters for twenty years before slavery was abolished in England. I have been writing to you regarding your cruel and inhumane asylum seeker policies and operations for almost five months now. I hope you are prepared for the next nineteen-and-a-half years of letters you will receive from me, should you remain in office that long.
I have appealed to you on matters of language.
Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention says that, while it is usually illegal to enter a country without a valid visa, it is not to be considered as illegal, if it is for the purpose of seeking asylum. Yet, you continue to use the words “illegal maritime arrivals” and “entering illegally” in reference to people who are seeking asylum.
The Coalition’s use of phrases such as ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, ‘border protection’, ‘matter of national emergency’, ‘military response’ and even ‘war’, conjures up the idea in the national psyche that Australia is somehow being invaded by aliens who will destroy life as we know it. It breeds fear and hatred among average Australians in the same way that the language of Joseph Goebbels spread fear and hatred in Nazi Germany. However, this does not appear to bother you.
I have appealed to you on matters of international law.
As a UN Refugee Convention signatory, Australia is prohibited from imposing penalties on people entering for asylum if they are coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. The UNHCR defines ‘coming directly’ as arriving without having been offered protection and security in another country first (UN High Commission on Refugees Guidelines on Detention of Asylum Seekers). Yet the penalty of off-shore detention is being imposed on those who arrive by boat in order to seek asylum. Anyone who arrives by plane, or anyone who overstays their visa, is not sent to Nauru or Manus Island. Not one person has had their claim for asylum heard since Manus Island re-opened in 2012. People are not merely waiting in immigration detention for security clearances and ‘processing’; they are being gaoled for having arrived by boat. Along with this, asylum seekers living in the community in Australia have been denied permanent protection, subjected to codes of conduct and made the lowest priority for family reunification, only if they have arrived by boat. These are penalties that are being imposed for attempting to enter Australia without authorisation, even though it is unlawful to impose such penalties.
I have appealed to you on matters of human rights.
In the two letters I have received from your office, I have been told that “The Government of Australia takes its international human rights obligations seriously and will continue to adhere to those obligations.”. Yet one letter also stated:
“Those seeking to come on boats will not achieve what they have come for, but will be met by a broad chain of measures, end to end, that are designed to deter, to disrupt, to prevent their entry from Australia and certainly to ensure that they are not settled in Australia.”
These two statements are diametrically opposed.
People seeking protection must not be prevented from entering a UN Convention signatory country. They must not be returned to a country where their life or freedom is threatened (The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, UNHCR, page 5). Yet your department turns back boats from Indonesia, and returns asylum seekers in Australian Government funded lifeboats, without hearing their claims for asylum. Your government paid for Navy ships to patrol the Sri Lankan coast to prevent Tamils from escaping persecution to seek asylum elsewhere, and returns people to the countries from which they have fled.
Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights says this:
“Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.”
“Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.”
However, your department persists with punitive, indefinite, arbitrary detention for those who have committed no crime. Some asylum seekers have been waiting in detention for over four years without having their cases heard. According to Nauru’s foreign minister, people are likely to be kept in detention there for more than five years.
Your response to my letters has been to assure me that “Australia is working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”. However, in its press briefing notes on February 21, the UNHCR stated:
“We stress the obligation of Australia, PNG and Nauru to ensure that the human rights of asylum seekers are protected in accordance with international standards. The practice of detaining migrants and asylum seekers arriving by boat on a mandatory, prolonged and potentially indefinite basis, without individual assessment, is inherently arbitrary. Moreover, alternatives to immigration detention should always be considered.
We encourage Australia, PNG and Nauru to review their Regional Resettlement Arrangements urgently to find principled solutions that are fully consistent with international human rights standards, including the right to seek asylum, the right to freedom from arbitrary detention, and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
In a condemning judgment last year, the United Nations found Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees to be cruel, inhumane and in breach of UN conventions, and ordered refugees detained by ASIO be released and paid compensation. Yet the Australian Government has made no moves to do so.
And so I now appeal to you on matters of personal values and of faith.
I read the transcript of your maiden speech to Parliament with great interest. In this speech, you declared that your values and principles are derived from your Christian faith and Scripture. You quoted Jeremiah 9:24 and said this:
“From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family.”
Justice and righteousness would welcome transparency instead of secrecy. They would be honest and open, rather than avoiding questions and withholding information about ‘on water operational matters’. Justice and righteousness would welcome inquiries in order to demonstrate integrity.
Respect for rule of law would adhere carefully to international human rights laws, instead of using doublespeak and loopholes to ignore them. Respect for rule of law would be less concerned with people’s mode of arrival, and more concerned with the fulfilling of human rights obligations now that they have attempted to arrive.
Compassion and loving-kindness would not need to clarify a question about a man who took his own life in immigration detention. Compassion and loving-kindness would automatically understand that the question, “Could this have been prevented?”, related to what could have been done to prevent the man’s death, not whether or not he could have prevented overstaying his visa.
Compassion and loving-kindness would not have implied that the young man, brutally killed while under the Australian Government’s supervision and care on Manus Island, brought the violence upon himself. Compassion and loving-kindness would have said something like, “Tragically, a man who was being held in one of Australia’s off-shore immigration detention centres has been killed. There will be a thorough investigation into how this could have possibly happened, to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. In the meantime, I extend my sincere sympathy to his family and assure them that everything will be done to give them the answers they need.”.
Fighting for the opportunity for everyone to fulfil their human potential would not include returning people to homelands to face persecution, beatings, torture and execution. It would not include causing a severe, negative impact to people’s mental health through ongoing uncertainty and indefinite detention. Fighting for the opportunity for everyone to fulfil their human potential would not cry, ‘saving lives at sea’ only to have people killed in detention or take their own lives due to the depression and despair brought about by Immigration Department policy.
In your speech, you went on to talk about your vision for Australia being a nation grounded in generosity of spirit. You echoed the words of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy when you said, “As global citizens, we must also recognise that our freedom will always be diminished by the denial of those same freedoms elsewhere, whether in Australia or overseas.”
Generosity of spirit and the offering of freedom would not translate into locking up children indefinitely on Nauru, in conditions which have been condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations. Generosity of spirit and the offering of freedom would not insist that people seeking asylum must join a mythical, world-wide queue for protection, which is anywhere other than here.
An understanding of the concept of ‘global citizens’ would work with world leaders to find humane solutions to the global humanitarian issue of people fleeing war and persecution.
I cannot help but wonder what happened to the man who so eloquently espoused his values, and principles of Christian faith, in a maiden Parliament speech. Perhaps he never existed at all, and they were just meaningless words read from a piece of paper. Perhaps he was sincere at the time, but he lost himself somewhere beneath ambition and a lust for power. I’m not sure which scenario I find more disturbing. What I do know, is that the Bible says that the way we treat “the least of these brothers and sisters” is the way we treat God (Matthew 25:31-46).
You have said that, for you, “faith is personal, but the implications are social.” I can see no evidence of the implications of faith in Jesus in the cruel, harsh and inhumane asylum seeker policies you have put in place. Your speech mentioned that Lincoln said, “Our task is not to claim whether God is on our side, but to pray earnestly that we are on His.”
While you might be able to avoid the questions in my letters, it is not so easy to avoid God’s questions. I sincerely hope you have thought through your answers.
Linda Cusworth is a freelance writer with a background in community services work and government roles. She is member of the Combined Refugee Action Group based in Geelong.