Reality rebel with a cause

Merlin Luck speaking at last Friday’s ChilOut event.

Photograph by Jessica Perini.Since 24 year old Merlin Luck made his ‘free the refugees’ protest on reality tv show Big Brother in June, he has travelled the country addressing diverse audiences and speaking on panels with human rights lawyers and politicians. In scores of media interviews he has sought to increase the public’s awareness of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention.

Merlin’s public profile and ability to engage an audience – – he is the emcee in a hip hop band, and is a natural performer – has been put to use by refugee advocates. In particular, he has promoted the cause of ChilOut “ Children Out of Detention “ by speaking at our public events. The Merlin-curious come along, and get a refugee teenager or Julian Burnside QC into the bargain! Merlin surprises people who assume some kid who upset a reality television show has little to say. Merlin has helped ChilOut reach a new audience, in particular 18-24 year olds.

Last Friday, ChilOut held a public event in Sydney. That day marked three months since the Human Rights Commissioner’s deadline for the release of all children, yet there are still 81 children locked up in Australia and Nauru.

Lunchtime shoppers saw Merlin on stage, stopped, picked up a ChilOut leaflet, signed a ‘Free Them’ condolence book, and listened to speakers. Merlin “ with a little help from John Valder – broadcast this fact to passersby.

Merlin has visited Baxter and Villawood detention centres. He has met refugees his age who have told him what life is like behind razor wire. He says:

‘The deeper you delve, the more you start to gauge the human cost of this policy. Holding a four-month old baby in your arms with razor wire glistening in every direction, your heart sinks.

‘Meeting four year old Reza in Adelaide was a powerful experience. Reza’s family sought refuge in Australia in early 2001. They were sent to Woomera. By September, Reza was one of 456 children there. In January this year, after 33 months’ imprisonment, Reza’s family was finally released into the community, on bridging visas.

‘My brother is four too. Hanging out with Reza reminded me so much of my brother, just the way we joked around, the way he laughed. Then talking to his mother about some of the things this child has endured made me imagine how I would react if someone took my mother and my little brother and locked them in a desert cage for 33 months. I know I would do a lot more than hold up a sign and put some masking tape on my mouth.’

Not everyone agrees with Merlin’s views. At a Sydney high school recently, a Year Ten girl who disagreed with Merlin said to 150 of her peers:

‘If I got home, and a child had broken into my house to escape a dog that was chasing it, of course I’d kick the kid out. I mean it’s not your kid “ it’s not your responsibility. And besides, this kid has just broken into your house.’

Debating with students is essential in educating them about human rights, in a way that makes them learn and not tune out. So many Australians have swallowed the ‘queue jumper’, ‘illegal immigrant’ line. Many simply don’t care and don’t want to know. As a spokesman for his generation, Merlin has a crucial role to play encouraging his peers to join him in standing up for human rights.

Standing in Pitt Street mall, you’d be excused for confusing us with David Jones’ employees. Dressed in black, ChilOut volunteers mark the fact that 81 children are still held by Australia in immigration detention.

Merlin Luck opens the event by reminding us ‘there are no ifs or buts, children don’t belong in detention’.

Our first guest, country and folk lyricist Pat Drummond, sings to the passersby a song about three famous refugees 2000 years ago a baby, his mother and father fleeing Herod’s persecution.

John Valder, former Liberal party president, steps up to the microphone and yells out to the people passing by: ‘Wherever you are, just stop!’ Some keep walking and shopping, but some stop to hear what he has to say. He speaks about a time 20 years ago when he and John Howard were friends. Now, as Valder runs his campaign to oust the Prime Minister from his own seat in Bennelong, they are friends no longer.

Reese Malcolm from Meg Lees’ Australian Progressive Alliance reminds us that children on average spend 18 months in detention. This puts Australia in breach of the human rights treaties it signed and ratified over the past four decades.

Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway speaks of the shame he feels when he hears the government say that letting children out of detention is encouraging people smugglers. With mounting anger, he speaks of a similar shame when New Zealand welcomes people from the Tampa crisis, refugees rejected by Australia. He roars at the gathering crowd: ‘Close detention centres open the gates and tear down the fences!’

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle speaks to us about Peter Qasim, now Australia’s longest serving immigration detainee. She describes a day in July 2004 when she first met Peter at Baxter, and the anger she felt when she read Senator Vanstone’s press release this morning, defending the Howard government’s right to imprison him for as long as it pleases. Peter started his seventh year in detention yesterday.

Dr Carmen Lawrence, national president of the Labor Party, reminds us of the special responsibility we have to children.

And with that, the crowd disperses. Several young girls whisper and between them gather up the guts to talk to Merlin.

People sign ChilOut’s ‘Free Them’ books and talk to volunteers. If only one person learns about the truth of children in detention it will have been worthwhile.

We’ll keep going until the Migration Act is changed and the children are free.

Jessica Perini, ChilOut, 12 September 2004

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