By Cassandra Chilcott
Australia’s perception of those seeking asylum has been shaped via the scrounging of votes in political elections and the filtering of information through the media. Access to the places where asylum keepers are kept, such as the notorious Nauru detention centre, is near impossible to gain; the conditions of the centre kept secret from all, except those inside.
Peter Mares hosts ‘Seeking Asylum’ on the second evening of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival. In conversation with Mares is writer and adventurer Mark Isaacs, campaign coordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Pamela Curr, and Baqir Khan, adjunct lecturer at RMIT University and asylum seeker.
Isaacs, aged only 24, inexperienced and under-qualified, accepted the position of Recreation Manager at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. After working at Nauru Isaacs broke his confidentiality agreement and published, The Undesirables, a telling of the effects of the Australian government’s policies upon those left waiting in the state of oblivion more commonly known as Nauru Island.
After Isaacs reads aloud a chapter from his novel, you can understand why access to the Nauru detention centre is not easily granted (recently the fee for a journalist visa to Nauru was increased from $200 to $8000). Isaacs recounts the derogatory conditions and treatment of those in the camp, the lack of health services and the inadequate support. He confirms what an educated audience can only suspect, that the rumours of self-harm and attempted suicides are in reality much worse than the filtered versions we read via mainstream media. Isaacs’ voice remains steady while sharing the traumatic mental and physical demise of people he knew; perhaps he has become immune to the horrors. But when he finishes reading there is an audible gasp from the audience, or is it a sigh of relief?
Isaacs reveals that, for the men on Nauru, the waiting and the uncertainty are the worst aspects of their detention. They have no idea how long they will be held, no idea where they will go next, whether they will return home to find their families dead, or if they will be granted residency in the lucky country: "Day one becomes day two, day two becomes day 100... at least when you are in prison you have a sentence."
Isaacs’ gift for storytelling is shared by Khan. He speaks of a visit to one of Australia’s onshore detention centres. There an hysterical mother waits, with a sick baby in her arms, unable to take the child to a hospital. Her arms outstretched, she offers the child to Khan willingly, begging this stranger: "Please take my child to the hospital." The desperation in the voice of a mother is a memory that still haunts Khan, and now the audience as his voice lowers, "history will not remember us kindly."
We, the audience, can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for the inhuman treatment of those seeking asylum in Australia. While the murmurs of agreement, heard throughout this session, reveal the audience’s stance, there is still a sense of uneasy guilt, knowing that while we could do more for some reason we don't.
"Australia has to take on the responsibility of being global citizens," Curr insists. Too much applause; she is correct. Australia, as signatories to the Refugee Convention and Humanitarian Program, is required to protect and care for refugees. We have legally agreed to take responsibility for those seeking our assistance.
Curr's reasoned assertion prompts a comment from an audience member a comment that in the form of a metaphor ensures that this heavy conversation ends on a positive note: "While we may feel that one person is not enough to help those in need, one mosquito in a room makes a big difference."