“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Martin Luther King, Jr)
Justice, human rights and dignity matter to me.
I became compelled to find my voice amid the anguish that was screaming out from behind the high detention centre fences. In order to learn about the real people behind the enforced silence, I went inside a detention centre to work as a counsellor under contract with International Health and Medical Services (IHMS).
The courageous people seeking asylum are locked away for unnecessarily lengthy periods. They are sent to remote locations and offshore centres and their voices disappear. Access, support and meaningful human connection are denied. They languish with a fragile hope that they will not be forgotten, that their life and story will matter to someone and that their voices will be heard.
I worked at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre, an all-male centre which is now closed. This centre accommodated asylum seekers mainly from Somalia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Burma, Iran, Iraq, India, Sudan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka as well as the Indonesian boat crews. My role involved individual counselling sessions and facilitating health and well-being groups for the men.
During my work in the detention centre, I too was silenced because of contractual obligations. However I was determined not to be dictated to by a system of imposed silence. At the end of my contract, I felt that I could not turn my back on what I witnessed and believe is wrong.
It is wrong to deliberately inflict pain and suffering on anyone, but to inflict cruelty and suffering on already very vulnerable men, women and children is an outrageous act of inhumanity. To detain innocent children indefinitely and deprive them of hope, an education, a safe future and good medical care is a travesty.
To force children to witness the deterioration of their parents’ mental and physical health because of the harsh and cruel life of detention and the spirit-breaking policies of immigration is nothing but abuse. Their physical, psychological and emotional needs as children are largely neglected.
“My privileged middle class life paled into insignificance in the presence of the asylum seekers. They reinforced for me what was important.”
The asylum seekers I worked with and got to know in the detention centre are important to me. These men were and still are my inspiration. Their courage, faith and determination touched my heart and soul. I had the privilege of hearing their stories, listening to their wisdom and witnessing their courage.
My life opened to a world of multicultural diversity and has been enriched in many ways. It always seemed wrong and unfair that I benefit so greatly from the presence of these men in my life while they remain suffering in detention. We connected through our shared humanity; the joy and suffering, the courage and despair, the faith and doubt, the acceptance and anger, the hope and hopelessness.
When I look at the asylum seekers, I see their pain and hear their suffering and I know that Australia has caused this. It is a source of deep sadness and great shame. It is a source of anger that motivates my quest for justice. Their suffering is now my suffering.
My privileged middle class life paled into insignificance in the presence of the asylum seekers. They reinforced for me what was important. They taught me so much about kindness, love, loyalty, courage and forgiveness.
Being in their presence provided me with rich connections I would never have experienced in my white middle class world. It opened my eyes to how much we need asylum seekers in our communities. Their cultures, experiences, wisdom, determination and their hunger for life can enrich us all.
I witnessed the suffering and the violation of human rights and I saw first-hand the great contribution the asylum seekers would make to our country. This is why I cannot rest and remain silent.
Walk for the Silent Many
This is why I, along with my friend Gayle, organised and embarked on the Walk for the Silent Many – a 9 day walk in silence from Sydney to Canberra to highlight the plight of asylum seekers and to seek justice for them.
I needed to do something significant, because what is happening to asylum seekers is so significantly wrong in its cruelty and injustice. I wanted to do something to let them know they are not forgotten, that they are valued and important and that many people in the community are advocating for them and against the inhumane government policies.
“Asylum seekers need us to be their voice and seek justice for them.”
The walk was a journey of a group of strangers bonded by a common cause. Our personal journeys bought us together and together we created a small community passionate and determined in our quest. We walked in silence to honour the silent voices of asylum seekers and highlight the imposed silence that hides the violations of their human rights. We walked in silence to allow us to reflect on the impact of these inhumane policies, now and into the future.
We trudged through rain-sodden muddy tracks and negotiated busy highways. We soaked up the beauty and peace of isolated country roads. We slept on the floors of school and church halls and experienced the amazing hospitality and generosity of strangers wanting to support us and our cause.
This hospitality reflected the goodwill of an Australia that asylum seekers deserve to experience. We laughed and cried, urged each other on, shared stories and supported each other. We were exposed to the elements and experienced discomfort and uncertainty. During our journey all of us were very conscious that none of our experiences were any match for the horror asylum seekers experience on their journey to Australia to seek our protection.
We experienced the euphoria and satisfaction of an amazing accomplishment when we walked into Canberra and broke our silence. Our journey was celebrated and admired.
But asylum seekers escaping the dangers of their life at home endure untold discomfort, uncertainty, fear and a perilous sea journey. They achieve much grander accomplishments by surviving and arriving safely.
Their accomplishments, however, are not celebrated. They are not welcomed and greeted as heroes for their determination and courage. Instead they are locked up and another journey more perilous than their boat journey begins – their journey within the unjust, inhumane system of Australian immigration where the violation of their human rights remains shrouded in silence.
Anne Hilton has many years of experience working in the community sector. She has worked as a teacher, counsellor and advocate for many marginalised members of the community including those affected by disabilities, domestic violence, homelessness, sexual abuse and asylum seekers living with mental health and addiction issues.
Feature image: DIBP via Flickr.