A Deficit Of Decency


As Australia’s sloganeering Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, declares the country "open for business", millions of marginalised Australians shrug their shoulders, knowing it doesn't have any relevance for them.

For these people, who never feel even a drip from the supposed trickle-down effect of the free market, it’s business as usual.

I speak of the two million living below the poverty line who have no choice but to accept their lives on skid row; the thousands of single mothers who had their subsistence level benefits cut to the bone by Julia Gillard on the same day she made the famous misogyny speech that so pleased her middle-class defenders.

I also talk of the Indigenous people long accustomed to their babies dying at 19th century rates in a country that boasts of leading the world in 21st century medicine, and, who must suffer the unbearable pain of watching those kids who survive infancy end up in jail or an early grave.

Then there are those with the most to lose in the short-term: the 30,000 asylum seekers on bridging visas nervously awaiting their fate at the hands of a government that, like its predecessor, pays little heed to its obligations under the Refugee Convention to protect these people from harm.

Worse, this is a government that appears to rub its hands at the prospect of deporting thousands back to the torture and persecution from which they fled, hoping that a rich democracy such as Australia might see fit to give them a helping hand.

As depressing as it sounds, it is also uplifting to know that scattered around the nation, there are small groups of people quietly and anonymously doing their best to try to counteract the growing international view of Australia as a big country with a small heart.

Friends of Refugees is one of those groups, a small band of Melbourne volunteers co-ordinated by an Australian of Indian Tamil origin, Sri Samy, who spends most of her waking hours helping asylum seekers; either feeding them, teaching them English, or delivering beds, fridges and household goods to those trapped in poverty by the previous government's policy that prevents them from working.

This week I spoke to a group of 30 asylum seekers who, under Samy’s guidance, come together to jaw-bone over lunch, and let their kids play together, each Monday in Dandenong in south-east Melbourne.

It is usually a relaxed social gathering of mostly Afghan, Iranian and Tamil men, women and children. However, on this occasion, the mood was very different. I had come to explain the Abbott Government's policies, and how they may be affected. Even before I spoke, the fear in the audience was palpable.

The absence of one of their group, a young Tamil man with a ready smile, gave them good reason to feel this way. A week ago, he was joining in the fun. Today he is locked away in Maribyrnong Detention Centre after being snatched off the streets last week by the Immigration Department when his bridging visa expired. He now faces deportation.

This is the fear they all have. They asked me if the Immigration Department would come door-knocking at dawn to round them up, as they saw happen to many families deported from Christmas Island. Would they be separated from their partners or kids? A pregnant woman, with tears in her eyes, asked if they would take away her baby, due next month.

Then they told me, individually, of what they faced if and when they are deported. The Hazaras from Afghanistan spoke of the Taliban coming for them in the middle of the night, the Tamils of their torture and harassment by the Sri Lankan military, and of brothers and fathers suffering in jail at home at the moment.

They asked that Australians be told of these things, in the hope that someone in power will be listening and have the heart to stop it from happening.

Trying hard with their new-found skills in English, they also expressed many times over, their gratitude for the help they get from the community. They say this proves to them that Australians, in general, are not as callous, cynical and mean-spirited as their government.

Towards the end of the session, a young Hazara woman, who fears for her life if sent back home, stood and asked the one question that keeps them all awake at night: “Do you think there is any hope for us?”

I told her I could not answer. What I couldn’t bring myself to say is that I fear not; not under a government that might be open for business but cares not a hoot about our burgeoning deficit of decency.

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