Immigration and border protection in election spotlight

The plight of refugees has struck a chord with Sunshine Coast locals

The plight of refugees has struck a chord with Sunshine Coast locals

There’s no doubt that the issue of refugees and asylum seekers has become one of the most controversial and divisive topics among Australian voters. Leading up to the 2019 Federal election, immigration and border protection are once again in the spotlight as the major political parties outline their plans. One of the most contentious aspects is the treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia, who have been reduced to being used as political pawns for parties trying to round up votes.

The United Nations has condemned Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, who are detained in indefinite detention, often denied basic rights such as adequate health care, and many spend years in limbo while their refugee claims are processed. On the Sunshine Coast, residents are taking action and showing politicians they won’t stand for this mistreatment and they are ready to support and welcome refugees into the community.

Amnesty International Sunshine Coast, Welcome to Maleny, Noosa Welcomes Refugees, and Buddies Refugee Support Group are just some of the organisations working to raise awareness, educate the community, and provide support and services to refugees on the Sunshine Coast and Southeast Queensland. Buddies Board of Directors member Lesley Willcoxson says they provide refugees with hospitality, support, advice, and access to professional services. They also educate the community, lobby politicians, and raise money to provide direct financial aid to refugees. “It’s not a one-way street, the refugees who are new to the country shouldn’t be the ones doing all the reaching out, and if we can create a different atmosphere where the reaching out is on both sides that will make a large difference,” she says.

Buddies has raised support through advocacy, community awareness and donations, but Ms Willcoxson says it’s almost impossible to get funding. “We fall between the cracks for most everything, and certainly Federal funding is nothing we’ve ever had.”

One program that hasn’t fallen through the cracks is Nambour Community Centre’s Sista 4 Sista program, which has the support of Member for Fairfax Ted O’Brien, who announced it had received $45,369 in federal funding. “I think Linda [Dennis] and her crew at the Nambour Community Centre do it well, and sort of, hand on heart, they care, and that really counts,” he says. “They’re not just service providers at arm’s length, they really care. And for me, put all that together, that was worth really swinging behind and trying to support them, trying to get them some funding.”

The program has two streams. The first is ‘Cashed Up Sista’ which focuses on equipping migrant and refugee women with the tools and education they need to open bank accounts, control their finances, and start their own businesses. The second is ‘Social Sista’, which encourages social connections between the women.

“I like the sort of dual focus, there’s a social aspect to it and I think that’s vitally important because it’s easy for people to feel lonely and isolated when they’re in unfamiliar surrounds,” Mr O’Brien says. “The more we can have new Australians connect, not just with other new Australians, but with people who’ve been here for a longer period of time, the faster we’re going to have them integrate, and the happier, more confident and secure they are going to feel.”

The funding falls under the Federal Government’s $9.3 million Fostering Integration Grants program, which supports groups that facilitate social unity and assist in integration. While programs like this that provide refugees with social and financial skills are extremely valuable, there is a distinctive lack of medical research, services and support groups aimed specifically at refugees.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) founder and CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis says the process of seeking asylum and becoming a refugee has a harmful effect. “It has a devastating impact on people seeking asylum; the limbo, enforced poverty, isolation, lack of certainty or security drives people seeking asylum to poor mental health, high levels of PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” he says. “The refugee determination process has left, as of March 1st, 9836 people still waiting for an initial asylum claim eight years after arrival, with profound rates of homelessness, ill health, and despair.”

A study by The World Health Organisation says refugees and migrants suffer from depression at a rate of 5-44% compared to a prevalence of 8-12% in the general population, and for anxiety disorders prevalence ranged from 4-40% compared to 5% in the general population. Post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent in 9-36% of refugees compared to 1-2% in host populations. The study also shows there is substantial evidence that refugees who have been settled in a host country for more than five years tend to exhibit higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders, and this higher prevalence of disorders can be linked to unemployment and a lack of social integration.

Ms Willcoxson says the process asylum seekers go through to become recognised as genuine refugee is “vicious and cruel”. “They’ve been in a state of perpetual anxiety, most of them because of the temporary nature of their visas, and also the persistent and absolutely deliberate delay in processing their visas,” she says.

This, combined with loss of family and support systems, language barriers, a lack of acknowledgement of professional skills, a drop in socioeconomic status, isolation, and trauma after settlement contribute to mental illness in many refugees and asylum seekers. Since 2001, there have been at least 34 known suicides committed by refugees, asylum seekers or people on temporary protection visas in both on and off-shore detention.

Mr Karapanagiotidis says people need to stop demonising refugees and submitting them to “racist” policies. “[Provide] them with a robust safety net when they arrive, support them to find work and access education, and ensure they have a fair and efficient legal process and access to needed torture and trauma services and settlement support,” he says. “It’s more than just that we have a legal duty to do so as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it is because it’s the moral, decent and right thing to do. We have a duty as human beings to provide sanctuary and protect people fleeing for their lives.”

                                                                                         By Jamaica Lipson
Fairfax MP Ted O’Brien says “the more we can have new Australians connect … the faster we’re going to have them integrate”.

Mr O’Brien says he would support further refugee mental health research and facilities based on the recommendations of doctors and professionals in the field. “Where the experts suggest there is a specialised need, I would support it,” he said. “While mental health is something I care deeply about it’s not an area I pretend to be an expert on, which is why it’s important we rely on those who work in the field.”

However, Mr O’Brien, with his party, voted against the Medevac Bill, which allows the temporary transfer of patients in off-shore detention to Australia, based on the recommendation of least two medical professionals.

He also voted for stopping people who arrive by boat from ever entering Australia, and voted against implementing refugee and protection conventions, or allowing independent access to detention centres and the release of information about the management of asylum seekers under government policy.

One of the reasons services for refugees and asylum seekers are lacking is because they are not supported by the public. This is because of misconceptions Australians have of refugees, and the fear instilled in them through comments from politicians and the media, Mr Karapanagiotidis and Ms Willcoxson say. In turn, this can lead to a lack of empathy and support for refugees when people take into account immigration and borer security policies when voting.

Ms Willcoxson says politicians and major media corporations are guilty of fabricating and perpetuating stories that portray refugees and asylum seekers negatively. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in March that refugees or asylum seekers who come to Australia through the Medevac Bill “may be a paedophile, they may be a rapist, they may be a murderer”.

Ms Willcoxson says messages like this from politicians are the reason voters are doubtful or fearful of refugees. “The easiest thing to do if you want to get votes from a group who feel disenfranchised or who feel that they should have more is to create fear of ‘the other’,” she says. “In this case, the vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in on and off-shore detention.

“The really vile commentary of ‘there might be murderers, rapists and child sex offenders’? There’s no evidence for it. The media should be ashamed of itself that it hasn’t, well very little of the media, has chosen to analyse those claims, the veracity of those claims, why they’re being made. If our politics had integrity those sorts of slanders wouldn’t be allowed.”

Mr Karapanagiotidis also says the Australian media has been a driving force in shaping the way we think and feel towards refugees. “[The media has a] huge role, especially the Murdoch media has had a profoundly damaging impact on people seeking asylum by feeding and helping create a culture of fear, xenophobia, and Islamophobia towards people seeking asylum, and helping create a culture of mythology that reduces compassion and welcome for people seeking refuge,” he says.

Ms Willcoxson says unbiased, analytical media coverage, and more diversity in Parliament is key to reducing misunderstandings and false claims. “On one side of politics we now have nearly 50% who are female which is fairly remarkable, and we have some whose parents were born overseas,” she says. “But the majority are from Anglo backgrounds, and the majority are men. Tell me how that’s representative? If we had representative democracy we wouldn’t be having this, we might still have the debate and we might still have some of the false claims, but we’d have a lot less, if people [politicians] had come from migrant backgrounds.”

Residents across the Sunshine Coast are banding together to show that they are ready to accept refugees and provide then with necessary services and support. There has been an effort to name Maroochydore as a Refugee Welcome Zone, and while Mr O’Brien says he will back practical efforts to support refugees, this proposal is something he doesn’t see the point in.

“This is a debate that’s been going on for some years,” he says. “It’s an issue that’s dealt with at the local Council level, it’s not one in which I personally engage, I don’t plan to engage. I am more interested in how we can practically help individuals integrate into Australia. I’ll be supporting refugees settling anywhere in Australia, including here on the Sunshine Coast.

“We are a country of very different ethnic backgrounds, but there’s one thing that unites us, as a country and that is a shared set of values … there is no more important value than the value of freedom, and within freedom is the freedom to express oneself, the freedom of language, the freedom of religion, the freedom of association, the freedom of opportunity, and with all of those rights of freedom come a degree of responsibilities of understanding the inclusiveness and tolerance and that ultimately should dictate how we design public policy.”

It remains to be seen if policies and attitudes regarding refugees and asylum seekers will change with the results of the Federal election, but it’s clear that Sunshine Coast residents and activists are fighting to stop these injustices and welcome refugees into the community.