Last Wednesday evening, Labor MPs Anna Burke and Melissa Parke condemned the Federal Government and the Opposition’s attitude towards asylum seekers in front of a large audience at the ANU. In a forum facilitated by the Refugee Action Committee, the Labor duo expressed their strong opposition towards the mandatory detention of asylum seekers who are sent to offshore processing centres after seeking asylum in Australia by boat. In June earlier this year, Burke and Parke took the bold step of standing against their own party’s stance by proposing a motion in caucus that called for Labor to cease their support of offshore processing and demand the closure of the detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island. While the motion was unsuccessful, it was seen as an important step by human rights advocates towards politicians finally beginning to challenge policies of arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers – a practise that has been in place since 1992.

Parke noted that Australia’s policy of placing asylum seekers who had broken no law in detention was contrary to international law and a significant breach of their basic human rights. The former UN Lawyer criticised the inhumane conditions of detention centres, restating Professor McGorry’s claim that they were akin to “factories for producing mental illness.”  Furthermore, she pointed to the recent speech made by the High Commissioner of the UN Humans Rights Council, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, as an example of Australia’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers causing international embarrassment. Al Hussein argued that Australia’s policy of turning back boats and processing asylum seeker claims in offshore facilities was “leading to a chain of human rights violations.”

In contending that politicians follow community sentiment rather than lead it, Burke sighted ignorance as the primary reason for the Australian public’s widespread support for offshore processing. The former Speaker of the House reasoned that the Coalition and Labor Party’s competition as to who could be “tougher” on asylum seekers was provoked by the the political desire of the major parties to win the support of the electorates in Western Sydney. Alarm and disdain amongst the largely pro-refugee rights audience grew when Burke made mention of the Abbott Government’s new agreement with the Cambodian Government to resettle refugees in Cambodia – a country that remains deeply troubled by corruption and in which one third of the population lives on less than one dollar a day. Burke concluded her speech by encouraging the audience to educate those in society who held misinformed and xenophobic views towards asylum seekers.

ANU student and prominent member of the Canberra-based Refugee Action Committee, Geraldine Fela, joined the Labor parliamentarians in their disapproval of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers but remained encouraged by the fact that a growing movement within Labor Party branches had begun to challenge the party’s stance towards asylum seekers. Fela cited the recent deaths of Iranian asylum seekers, Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazaei, in offshore detention centres as a clear sign that the Australian Government was failing their duty to protect those fleeing from persecution. At the end of the evening, the Refugee Action Committee encouraged audience members to attend the organisation’s ‘Walk for Justice’ on Saturday 25 October, starting at Reconciliation Place. For more information on the Refugee Action Committee, visit http://refugeeaction.org/.