by Kim Shaddick
Prominent human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside AO QC, spoke about his refugee advocacy work to members of the local Blue Mountains community, at the Royal Hotel in Springwood Sunday 26 September.
Local dignitaries including Blue Mountains MP, Trish Doyle, Ward 3 Independent Councillor, Shae Foenander and Blue Mountains Mayor, Mark Greenhill attended the event, a luncheon organised by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group (BMRSG).
Introducing Mr. Burnside, Ms. Doyle congratulated the BMRSG for organising the function and welcomed the ‘great honour of introducing a great man.’
‘Julian is one of Australia’s leading advocates in relation to asylum seekers and the protection of human rights’ said Ms. Doyle.
Ms. Doyle recognised the plight of those seeking refuge in Australia and called for a ‘more compassionate voice in the Australian dialogue.’
In his address, Mr. Burnside praised the Blue Mountains community for supporting refugees and also acknowledged the local families that have welcomed refugees into their homes.
Mr Burnside said it was wrong for the Australian government to send legitimate refugees back to harm.
‘We have forgotten that the things we are doing to refugees are considered barbarous acts that are an outrage to the conscience of mankind’ said Mr Burnside, referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that Australia ratified in 1958, which protects the right of people to escape persecution and flee to safety.
Australia is also a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which prohibits sending a person back to a place where they will be persecuted.
According to the UN, there are approximately 65.6 million people displaced across the globe. The responsibility of accommodating these people is unjustly borne by developing countries.
‘In signing the refugee convention we agreed to take a little bit of this burden of refugees both legally and out of a sense of decency for human kind’ said Mr Burnside.
Mr Burnside took successive Australian governments to task for calling boat people illegal.
‘It is a lie for our government to describe these people as illegals’ said Mr Burnside.
He described the term ‘border protection’ as similarly flawed, suggesting that the use of this term means Australian’s think they need to be protected from criminals.
In a damming portrayal of Australian government, Mr Burnside suggested that over 90% of people who have arrived by boat in Australia are legitimate refugees who will face persecution, incarceration and even death if they are returned to their country of origin.
Mr Burnside also condemned the policy of offshore or ‘regional’ processing introduced by then Prime Minister Rudd in 2013.
This policy permanently denies entry to Australia to any person who arrives by boat, regardless of refugee status, instead sending them offshore for processing. People arriving by boat are sent to either Nauru, a tiny island republic in the South Pacific or Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea. Nauru mainly accommodates families, unaccompanied women and children, while Manus Island houses unaccompanied men. The cost to taxpayers of the current policy of offshore detention is very high. Australia spends $654 000 per year for every refugee incarcerated on Manus Island or Nauru. The United Nations has condemned Australia’s treatment of refugees held in offshore detention.
This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Burnside, ‘We are destroying human beings in offshore detention prisons, including many children who are self harming and even attempting suicide because they have lost all hope’ he said.
A number of children, who have been on Nauru for over 5 years, are now critically unwell. Many have attempted hunger strikes, self-harm, immolation and suicide. Others have been diagnosed with ‘resignation syndrome’ withdrawing from life and refusing to engage, move, eat or drink.
According to UNICEF, children now make up almost half of all refugees across the globe.
Mr Burnside concluded by asking the audience to reflect on what kind of country we want to be.
While lunch was served, Blue Mountains Mayor, Mark Greenhill praised Mr Burnside and called on people with ‘the power of compassion and the power of articulation’ to advocate for refugees.
‘It’s up to us’ said Mr Greenhill, ‘to be their voice and be their witness.’
Also present were Marie Standen who started the BMRSG in response to the Tampa affair in 2001 and refugee advocate Graeme Swincer OAM. The member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman couldn’t attend the luncheon but met Mr Burnside earlier in the day.