By Kim Shaddick
Members of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group combined with the Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children to hold a vigil outside the Federal Member for Lindsay Emma Hussar’s offices in Penrith on Thursday.
The gathering was part of a national day of vigils held around Australia to mark the deaths of 12 young male asylum seekers in permanent offshore detention centres created by the Australian government on Manus Island and Nauru. The vigils, named ‘Five Years Too Many’ also marked the fifth consecutive year of refugees and asylum seekers being incarcerated in these centres, established on July 19, 2013.
Twelve empty chairs and 12 pairs of shoes were placed outside Ms Hussar’s offices to represent the death of each of the young men. Many of the men, aged between 23 and 34 years old, died from suicide, including overdose and self-immolation. Others died from drowning, untreated illness or were murdered.
In a haunting vigil, the attendees acknowledged those who had died, reading aloud their names and cause of death. A minute silence was held in commemoration for each of the dead men.
Joy Connor from BMRSG praised Penrith Council as ‘a welcome refugee council’, saying ‘they are working on how they can be more helpful to refugees in their area’.
Ms Connor emphasised the importance of the vigil for the broader Penrith and Blue Mountains community. Sharing the stories of the young men who have died helps to correct misinformation for ‘when you don’t know, you make decisions about people which can be very hurtful’, Ms Connor said.
Ms Connor spoke of ‘5 years of Australian history of which none of us are proud’. She described the vigil as a way to ‘acknowledge and show respect for the young men who died in seeking safety’.
‘The only way for these 12 men to escape ever present danger’, she said, ‘was by boat, and so they lost their lives in offshore prison islands’.
Ms Connor suggested ‘that there is a better way to manage the flow of refugees, who at the moment are flooding the planet due to wars, famine and persecution’.
‘We can’t take everyone,’ she said, ‘but we can do what we do better’.
Kathie Herbert, also from the BMRSG, presented an alternative policy platform from Rural Australian for Refugees. Ms Herbert read RAR’s statement on people seeking refuge and asylum, calling for an end to the current policy of deterrence, ending existing policies of offshore detention and deportation, and offering policy alternatives.
Vigils were held outside the offices of many MP’s across Australia today. BMRSG members held a vigil outside Susan Templeman’s office in Windsor earlier in the day. Each MP received a copy of the RAR’s statement on people seeking refuge and asylum. MP’s also received an open letter from both the BMRSG and RAR highlighting their concern for the current policy of deterrence but also questioning the way in which refugees and asylum seekers being held in Australia are treated. This included recent decisions by the Federal government to cut benefits to those currently living in Australia while applying for refugee status.
Offshore or ‘regional’ processing was first introduced by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2013. The policy permanently denied entry to Australia to any person who arrived by boat, regardless of refugee status, instead sending them offshore for processing to centres in 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.
Approximately 1500 people, including 158 children are still being held on Nauru and Manus Island. Over 1400 of these have been recognised as refugees.