Essay

Mobilising rural Australia

October 2003

Betty Dixon from Goulburn called this morning. She had some information about one of "her boys" in the Baxter detention centre, Ebrahim Sammaki, whose wife, Endong was killed in the Bali bombing. Ebrahim is to be allowed to go to Adelaide for a memorial service for the anniversary on the weekend. As the anniversary approaches I have been thinking of Ebrahim, struck by a double tragedy: the separation from family and imprisonment that is the fate of asylum seekers in Australia; and the appalling bad luck that saw his wife passing down a Kuta street on the night of the Bali bombing. Fate has stuck the knife into Ebrahim, and twisted it.

After Betty's phone call, I pulled out the card that Ebrahim sent to his Australian friends last year, after his wife's death, to thank them for their support. On the front is a family photo taken before the family's separation. Ebrahim is a strong-looking man with bushy eyebrows and a square jaw. Beside him, Endong is slight and beautiful with long black hair. Ebrahim holds their baby daughter, Sara. The little boy Safda stands solemnly in front of his mother.

At the time he sent the cards Ebrahim was in Woomera detention centre. (The cards were prepared and paid for by one of Betty's friends in Goulburn.) In his message, printed inside the card, Ebrahim said: "The desert has shown no mercy for our tears and heartache or the cry of the children for their papa. But you, my friends, we will never, never forget your kindness. God be with you."

Ebrahim is still in detention. His motherless children are still in Indonesia. The Government continues to refuse them visas to visit their father.

 

SOON AFTER I wrote this John Howard was photographed with the two children at a football game in Bali. He stood grinning with Sara's hand in his and Safda standing next to him. He didn't know their father was in detention. But within days the photograph was published in newspapers in Australia and the Government came under pressure to allow the children to visit their father. Questions were asked in Parliament, Simon Crean took up the call, and Natasha Stott Despoja said she would be a sponsor for the children. Two weeks later the Government issued Ebrahim with a permanent protection visa, allowing him to be released from detention and re-united with his children. The outcome was a win for refugee advocates who had fought a campaign of "email activism" to get the issue onto the floor of Parliament.

The pro-refugee network is in fact a vast mosaic of overlapping networks: lawyers, church people, human-rights advocates, welfare workers, political activists and ordinary people; from highly skilled professionals with specific expertise to the many thousands who have joined a grassroots movement to oppose the Government's treatment of asylum seekers. This is the story of one strand in this network – Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR).

 

FOR MOST OF her 73 years Betty Dixon has lived a quiet conservative life in Goulburn. She has five children, 13 grandchildren and, now, 12 refugee "sons". There are hundreds like Betty Dixon in rural Australia: older women, mothers and grandmothers, whose outrage has catapulted them into political activism, many of them for the first time in their lives. I think of Elaine Smith, up on the north coast of NSW, who is in touch with dozens and dozens of detainees on Nauru, and of Joc Stenson at Mudgee, helping the Afghan boys at the abattoir with their English lessons and visa applications. I think of my friend Marg, whom I've known for years and never known to be "political", but there she is at every RAR meeting.

RAR members have not shrunk from the challenge of confronting the Government wherever possible. In fact, I've been surprised by the readiness of normally unpolitical people to be politicised on this issue. When I first saw a horde of grey-haired grannies in their RAR T-shirts waving their banners outside Parliament House it occurred to me that I was witnessing something important – perhaps the beginning of a new social-justice movement in rural Australia. It showed that when the chips are down, when they really feel that fundamental freedoms are at stake, ordinary people can and will act.

RAR was born out of frustration. It began after the Tampa stand-off, when we were told that 85 per cent of Australians were behind the Government. Those of us who were not seemed to be cowered by this overwhelming majority, silenced. People who dared speak sympathetically about asylum seekers found themselves falling out with friends, family, neighbours. Public opinion was hardening.

In early October 2001, my partner, Susan Varga, our friend Helen McCue and I were sitting around at home wondering what we, as individuals, could do. This is the problem for people stirred up by our political leaders' actions or failure to act. Confronted with abuse of power, individual action seems futile. But it is exactly at such moments that it is imperative.

We knew there were a lot of people feeling the way we did. But how to mobilise them? Most Australians knew very little about the way asylum seekers were being treated, both in the privately run detention centres and by the bureaucracy that was processing their claims. People were not being honestly informed by the Government. We were convinced that many more would be sympathetic to asylum seekers if they were given the facts.

Thus Susan coined one of our first slogans: "When you know the facts you will open your heart." Susan is great at engaging with people. She knows how to make connections. I'm always full of ideas but not so good at making them happen. Helen is the sort who, if I say, "We could have a public meeting", will respond by pulling out her diary, naming a date and suggesting a venue. We discovered that the three of us made a good team.

We decided to hold a public meeting in our local town, Bowral, five days before the federal election in November 2001. We gathered a small group of like-minded supporters to help us organise. We did some research, prepared a fact sheet and also an open letter to be published in our local paper. We handed out flyers for the public meeting in the shopping centre on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons for a couple of weeks. We collected signatures for the open letter. We arranged an impressive line-up of speakers and invited local candidates to address the meeting. Nearly 500 people packed the Bowral Memorial Hall. It made an impact because it was one of the first public expressions of dissent by everyday Australians.

We coined the somewhat ambitious name "Rural Australians for Refugees" because we believed in what we were doing and its potential to grow, which is exactly what it did after that first meeting. As a result of coverage on radio and television and through the web, we were inundated with people wanting to help or be part of RAR. Within days, RAR groups were starting up in regional areas of Victoria and NSW. The growth was phenomenal – within three months there were close to 30 RAR groups across the country. Now there are more than 60.

Some RAR groups are located close to detention centres, such as those at Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Whyalla, while others are in parts of the country where they rarely see a refugee. So each group, and each individual RAR supporter, undertakes whatever work seems most appropriate. These are some of the ways that RAR people help: writing to detainees; working on submissions to have detainees released; visiting them and taking things they need – from medication to shoes to second-hand computers; finding legal help; writing to politicians and newspapers; lobbying for better treatment in detention; collecting household goods so newly released refugees can set up house; holding regular information nights and street stalls; organising events that raise community awareness; media work; lobbying councils to declare their towns "welcome towns"; organising holidays in the country for city-based refugees; and giving English and driving lessons.

The groups near the detention centres are in daily contact with detainees. In rural areas of NSW and Victoria, many people are involved in helping people on temporary protection visas. Some RAR members are battling to free particular families from detention – a fight that has taken over their lives. Others concentrate on public education and raising money for those working "at the coalface". Our group supports Port Pirie RAR's work and that of the House of Welcome in Sydney. Lismore RAR helps Port Augusta RAR and newly released refugees in Brisbane. Up in Bellingen, Walter Schwarz has co-ordinated a massive letter-writing campaign, linking up more than 1500 Australians with people behind the razor wire in need of friends.

As a network, we have worked on some common strategies, such as the "welcome books", which encourage ordinary citizens to write messages of welcome to refugees in detention and the "welcome towns" campaign, where local councils declare themselves refugee-friendly. Many towns have now passed resolutions to this effect. Last year we launched a nationwide campaign against temporary protection visas, with the theme "Refugees deserve a permanent future". In recent months there has developed a much better understanding in the community of the corroding effect of temporary visas and RAR has played a part in that.

The overall aim of RAR is nothing less than turning around public opinion. Our intent is highly political but RAR is non-party political. From the beginning our supporters have covered the political spectrum, from National Party to Green.

THE WORK THAT many RAR people do is an inspiration. On a trip through NSW, Victoria and South Australia, I stayed with some of them. The first was Joc Stenson in Mudgee. Joc, a retired social worker, has been a tower of strength to some of the young Afghan refugees working at the Mudgee abattoir, helping them with their visa applications and English lessons. She has a big heart and a kind of cheerful weariness, as if there's not much the world can throw at her that she hasn't seen.

 

May 2003

There are about a dozen Hazaras, all on temporary-protection visas, at the meatworks. This afternoon, two of them, Ari and Nassim (not their real names), came over to see Joc. Nassim's temporary visa expires soon and he desperately wants a permanent one. A permanent visa would allow his family to join him. Recently Nassim heard that his little son had died back in Afghanistan. He hadn't seen him for more than three years.

Nassim's story is a familiar one. In his village the fundamentalist Taliban were on a rampage. There was no escaping the fatwah. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, which the Taliban do not consider Muslim at all. He had three choices: to become a fundamentalist, to leave Afghanistan or die. So he fled.

Three years later, nothing has really changed. "The people whose hands are covered in Hazara blood are still there. The fatwah is still in place," he says. He misses his family terribly – "family is the most precious thing" – but is still too afraid to return.

I met Ari at the first RAR national conference held in Mudgee last December. At 18 he is one of the youngest of the Hazaras, but because his English is the best he is constantly called upon to act as translator. It is terrible to think of the horror stories this teenager has had to hear and translate in his role as go-between. But Ari has seen horror in his own right: "I have buried more than 20 bodies with my own hands." Yet he always seems cheerful. He looks even younger than his 18 years.

Ari translates Nassim's story fluently. He has an easy flow of colloquialisms that he drops into the conversation with a grin. His favourite is "I'm going to shoot through now". He laughs every time he says it.

Joc is very thorough as she works through Nassim's story with him. She is methodical and respectful. The chances of his being granted a permanent visa are slim. The Government has made it virtually impossible for boat people who have arrived in the past few years to ever gain permanent residency. But if Afghanistan is deemed dangerous enough, the Government may grant him another three-year temporary visa. He may spend the rest of his life on temporary visas, unable ever to be re-united with is wife and surviving children – "Family is the most precious thing".

But he smiles at us and appears cheerful. Joc says the men almost never show their pain.

 

BERNADETTE WAUCHOPE IS the powerhouse behind Port Pirie RAR. Port Pirie is one of the poorest towns in Australia but also one of the most generous. Committed people who don't have a lot themselves are spending precious time and money helping the detainees in Baxter detention centre. Every day people drive the 100 kilometres from Port Pirie to Baxter to visit the asylum seekers, offering friendship and practical support. When I was there the town was preparing to welcome two families on bridging visas. People on bridging visas get virtually no government support and are not allowed to work, so whoever sponsors them is taking on a big responsibility. Port Pirie and other RAR members are working up a support network to provide health care, housing and living allowances for newly released refugees.

A number of people in Port Pirie RAR, although by no means all, are part of the Catholic Church. When RAR first started making an impact, we heard that there was a rumour going around Federal Parliament that we were a Catholic front. Susan, who is a secular Jew, and I, an atheist, were highly amused by this. But it is true that quite a lot of RAR supporters are practising Christians. They put their Christianity into action.

 

I DON'T KNOW if Elaine Smith is religious or not – I've never asked her – just as I've never asked any RAR supporters their political affiliations. Elaine, who lives on the north coast of NSW, has taken up the cause of the detainees on Nauru. Dozens of them write to her, ask for help. She is swamped by the need. They write with their medical ailments, seeking her advice because the advice available to them on Nauru is rudimentary. Elaine emails out for help to others in the RAR network. People rally, do what they can. But how much can they do? The detainees are still stuck on Nauru, unable even to receive visitors.

When twenty-one detainees were released recently and flown to Brisbane, Elaine and husband, Geoff, drove up to see them. It was the first time she was able to give "her boys" a hug. These were boys and young men who had arrived on the Tampa. The ones who were "never to be allowed on our shores", the ones who were sent to Nauru, supposedly for just a couple of months. Two years later, after much pressure from refugee supporters, church organisations and Democrat leader Andrew Bartlett, they were released. But they were given only temporary visas – they are still in limbo.

August 2003

We have been meeting like this now for more than 18 months. The early meetings were crowded, every chair taken. There was a strange chemistry at work, whereby however many chairs we put out, that's how many were filled. We set up sub-groups to deal with various tasks – writing to politicians, lobbying the council to declare our shire a "welcome town", visiting Villawood detention centre, manning the Saturday morning stall with its welcome book for people to sign. People were motivated, angry, pleased to be doing something to show their anger at the Government.

But as time has gone on, meeting attendances have shrunk. There's still a band of stalwarts but many have drifted away. Because what can we do? This Government will not budge. There are still hundreds in detention; there's still the nightmare of temporary protection; deportations are happening. We've been able to make little real impact on policy. We're being worn down and the Government knows all it has to do is out-wait us, wait till this people's movement dissolves from weariness and disillusion and apathy takes over.

The other night I was on the phone – a RAR national steering group teleconference. I sat and listened through the litany of ideas and strategies. Good people. Good ideas. But they are not going to shift this Government. And the Opposition is not much better. Talk of a federal election, a double dissolution. How should we lobby? What should be our strategy during the election campaign? Futility overwhelms me. If this Government is re-elected what will it mean for the country? What awful measures may be ahead?

If the refugees cannot be freed, if the Government cannot be beaten on this issue, then what can be done?

I've been talking to Helen and Susan about this. Helen is very pragmatic, matter-of-fact: we must keep going because there is no alternative. We must keep doing what we can – lobbying the Labor Party, highlighting the plight of the people on Nauru through a photo exhibition and so on. Last night, at the local RAR meeting, Madge described what has been happening on Saturday mornings at the street stall. People still approach them all the time and some say how much they appreciate that they are keeping at it, there every week regardless of the cold or wind or rain. Their simple presence is a reminder that people are still being kept in detention. They still get people abusing them, but not a lot. Sometimes people driving down the street wave supportively.

There is no point in being disillusioned, no point, personally, in pulling back. Withdrawing doesn't help the spirit.

 

READING THROUGH THE archive of emails and other material from the early days of RAR, I am struck by the sense of relief that emanates from people who have suddenly found an outlet for their frustration. Time and again people write of their powerlessness and hopelessness after the November 2001 election. Then they heard about RAR. And suddenly there's energy, a sense of excitement almost, because they have found others who feel they same way, and they can do something.

And the way it criss-crossed the country. An email suggestion that started in Port Hedland might travel to someone in Castlemaine, then to us in southern NSW, then to Armidale or Bellingen. It is the nature of email. Certainly RAR could not have grown the way it did without it. We have become a virtual community par excellence.

And the intelligence and passion of people, their preparedness to go out on a limb. For example, Judy Brewer-Fischer (wife of Tim Fischer) wrote this to her local paper in Albury: "There comes a time when you can no longer sit back and watch a humanitarian crisis of the dimension that we are witnessing in Australia today and pretend that you are powerless – we are a group of concerned local citizens – we believe that the current policy of indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers, many of whom are clearly genuine refugees, is morally and economically indefensible." She and her two co-signatories then invited people to a public meeting. And so Albury-Wodonga RAR was born.

Dozens and dozens of letters in this vein were sent to regional newspapers around Australia. For a writer to put his or her name to such a letter was not a decision taken lightly in a small community. But time and again we heard back how they had then been contacted by one, or two, or 20 people – how they were meeting next week – how they hoped to organise a public event and could we recommend a speaker?

This is people empowering themselves, isolated people coming together, with passion, to try to make a difference. Within towns new networks of friendship and support developed. People found new allies – maybe someone they had seen in the street over the years but never spoken to. One of the truly significant things about RAR is that it has given a platform for political activism to many people who have never been active. It shows that if you are passionate enough about something then you can, and should, make your voice heard.

And maybe it is having an effect. One insider to the Liberal Party told me recently: "[Mandatory detention] is a policy that was never meant to do what it has done. It's become a weeping sore on the national psyche."

 

WE NEVER WANTED to run an organisation. So we refused to set one up. From the start people who contacted us from all over the country asked, "How can we join?" We told them there was no official membership, no constitution and no structure. "Just read our 10-point plan and if you agree with it and want to help – go for it." Some groups did set up their own structure but a lot of them also came to rather like the idea of no structure.

We were in contact with other groups that already existed in places like Armidale, Bellingen and Katherine. Most of these soon became RAR groups because we could all see that there was power in the name Rural Australians for Refugees. I think it was the unlikeliness of that concept that caught people's imaginations – particularly people in the cities. And it was a pretty scary concept for conservative politicians.

It simply confirmed to me what I already knew – that regional Australia is not the redneck, conservative monolith that most people think. The country has changed. Country people are far more diverse than city dwellers realise. Refugee supporters might still be in the minority in the bush but the fact that RAR groups are thriving from Mt Isa to Cootamundra is an indication that regional Australians can be as passionate about this issue as anyone else.

In the beginning, the three of us who had started RAR acted as the clearing house for the network – putting people in touch with one another, developing and passing on ideas for events and campaigns and acting as public spokespersons for the network. But we left it up to each RAR group to decide what sort of work it would do, how it would organise itself and promote what it was doing.

To get around the public liability problem some groups have put themselves under the umbrella of another local organisation that has insurance cover. Others hold their events and meetings in places that have insurance, for example, shire halls. And some of us just refuse to allow the danger of legal action to impinge on our freedom to dissent and to mobilise.

RAR COULD NEVER have grown into a movement as quickly or as geographically dispersed as it is without email. People can feel included in the work of the network regardless of where they are located. We can respond quickly to unfolding events – targeting politicians or sending out requests for help for specific detainees. The website has been invaluable and one of the main ways that new supporters find us.

By late 2002, when Mudgee RAR hosted our first national get-together, there were probably close to 5000 people who were, one way or another, in the RAR loop. Some of them were city-based sympathisers. By then, Susan, Helen and I were burnt out. At Mudgee, a national steering group was formed and the administration of the network transferred to a group in central Victoria.

When there is no structure, when there are no clear lines of responsibility and hierarchy, how do you transfer leadership? We thought it was as simple as handing over the database and email lists and saying, "go for it". But even non-organisations develop their own culture – and RAR's was, from the beginning, essentially anarchic. People will do what they want when they want. The RAR leadership was only ever able to offer information, ideas and – most importantly – the sense of being part of something. This is the essential ingredient in a network and it was particularly important for people feeling isolated in rural communities because of their non-conformist views.

The new leadership team took over co-ordination for RAR at a difficult time. By 2003, the early, angry days were over. The refugee issue was mostly off the front pages and it was hard to maintain the energy. The central Victorians got some good things happening in Victoria – a regional conference that helped change the mind of at least one federal politician, a lot of networking with refugee advocates in Melbourne, some excellent media stories. Many of the Victorian groups thrived. But the flow of information through to the national network dried up. And as a result people felt abandoned. Many of us kept 
on with our work but the network almost ceased to function. Or rather, people developed and relied on their own contacts both inside and outside of RAR.

RAR's experience during 2003 says a lot about the difficulty of keeping networks alive across this vast country of ours. But in genuine grassroots movements, when someone drops the ball someone else picks it up and runs with it. In October 2003 that's exactly what happened, when two of RAR's most effective operators, Anne and Rob Simpson from Bellingen, volunteered to take over co-ordinating the RAR national network. Within weeks the energy and sense of connectedness was thriving again. Anne Simpson is one of the most experienced of RAR's networkers with connections right across the movement.

From the beginning, RAR plugged into the wider refugee movement. The movement has brought together an amazing spectrum of people, from conservative church groups to radical left political groups, all working for a common cause. Some of these have been working in the field for years. Others, such as RAR and the highly effective group Chilout (Children Out of Detention), are more recent developments. Like RAR, Chilout is essentially a middle-class movement made up of people who have been roused to take action by their outrage at the Government's policy.

There have been numerous attempts to co-ordinate the refugee movement nationally but so far none has been very successful. A Just Australia, based in Sydney, has attempted to be a national umbrella organisation but has met some resistance. Justice for Asylum Seekers, in Melbourne, has undertaken a National Networking Project (NNP) to overcome the communication problems. It has made some significant steps but is still not widely known. The Australian Refugee Rights Alliance (ARRA), again based in Sydney, has been doing some groundbreaking work, primarily in lobbying foreign delegations at the United Nations in Geneva. But ARRA is hardly known in Victoria. The need for greater co-ordination is universally acknowledged yet so diverse and dispersed and busy are refugee advocates, most of them volunteers that it never seems to happen.

Mary O'Kane, co-ordinator of the NNP, says: "Everyone wants it but no one has the time and resources to do it." The NNP has made a couple of significant advances. For example, there is now a national network of welfare organisations and legal advocates with a single initial contact point in each state to help detainees released by court order. It sounds so simple but to make it happen the available agencies had to be identified in each state and decisions made as to which was the most appropriate point of first contact. The need for this arose after the landmark Al Masri (Habeas Corpus) decision that found that people could not be kept locked up indefinitely after their appeals had been exhausted. Immediately after, eight long-term asylum seekers were released without warning in Port Augusta, Port Hedland and Sydney. They had no work rights, no access to government services and no community support. They had been imprisoned for years and were traumatised. The men had literally been left on the street until refugee welfare workers swung into action.

 

IN THE ABSENCE of formal networking systems, connections tend to be ad hoc, made when there is a need. Anne Henderson, deputy director of The Sydney Institute, became involved in the refugee movement after being taken to visit a detainee at Villawood detention centre by writer Linda Jaivin. While there, Anne met a 17-year-old girl who had come to Australia from Ghana to avoid a forced marriage and circumcision. She had been taken to Villawood straight from the airport because authorities said her visa was not in order.

The young woman had come to the attention of Chilout and was being visited by members of the Manly Social Justice Network. A Chilout organiser persuaded the Member for North Sydney, Liberal Joe Hockey, to make a commitment that if any constituent of his were prepared to take a minor into his or her home he would go into bat for him or her to be released from detention. As it happens, Anne and Gerard Henderson live in his electorate.

Anne says she always knew she would be prepared to do that. She had already called on Gerard to write a letter in support of Linda Jaivin's detainee friend. The only way the Minister for Immigration will intervene in these cases, after they've been rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal, is if there are exceptional circumstances and new evidence. Then the minister may issue what is known in the trade as a "417" – in other words, if you get the minister's dispensation you get a visa. But to even get a letter read by the minister is a feat.

Other people were also called on to help. They included Judy Hunt from the Jesuit Refugee Service and a sympathetic Phillip Street barrister who does pro bono work on behalf of refugees. The young woman's cousin, who lives in Sydney, went back to Ghana to gather the necessary "new evidence".

After months of silence, Anne Henderson's young friend – now 18 – was released last August. She was lucky and received a permanent protection visa that will allow her to become a citizen in two years. She is living with the Hendersons and doing her HSC through TAFE.

The thing that keeps people going in the refugee movement is the personal contact with asylum seekers – meeting people behind the razor wire, hearing their stories, seeing their despair. We are involved in a struggle that is both political and humanitarian. The politics makes us angry; the people make us care. RAR and the rest of the movement will keep on going as long as there are people in detention and as long as Australia refuses haven to refugees who simply want the chance to rebuild their lives.

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