Rock the boat – Become a pen-pal with an asylum seeker

By Chloe Potvin

[Editor’s note: For those interested in writing letters to asylum seekers in offshore processing, Julian Burnside has set up a new campaign. For instructions on how to take part, follow this link:]

It was not so long ago that it was common to have a pen-pal. Remember receiving an envelope via snail mail stamped from a foreign country and filled with handwritten words? Think of reaching for your scented stationary set and chewing over each phrase before setting it in ink on a fresh piece of lavender paper.

These treasured friendships have dwindled in the digital era. In a world of email, texting, instant messaging, social media, blogging and video chat we have replaced the letter with a range of cyber relationships.

“We need to make sure that people in all detention facilities know that they are not forgotten.”

But the non-government organisation ‘Asylum Seekers Christmas Island’ (ASCI) is bringing back this printed pastime while engaging with the current political climate surrounding Australia’s mandatory immigration detention policy. ASCI have developed a letter writing project to help connect Australians and asylum seekers in offshore and onshore detention centres.

There are around 5,000 people currently being held in Australia’s immigration detention centres and while they all have diverse backgrounds and stories to be told each is uncertain about their future.

Lisa Hartley from ASCI oversees the letter writing project. She said: “We need to make sure that people in all detention facilities know that they are not forgotten.”

According to studies by Amnesty International Australia, long-term detention has been shown to affect the psychological and physical welfare of asylum seekers.   Recent riots at Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre highlight the deteriorating conditions in detention and the frustration felt by detainees.

In April, images filled television screens nationally as flames and black smoke cloaked the centre’s facilities while detainees stood on the rooftops pleading for freedom.

Depression is a real problem for those detainees, said Coalition for Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Detainees (CARAD) spokesperson Melissa Goh.

“Visits and contact from the ‘outside’ world definitely makes a difference to those held in detention, as it shows that someone cares about them, among other things,” she said.

While society is becoming increasingly time poor, writing letters or visiting someone in detention are simple and inexpensive ways to help asylum seekers and refugees.

“once you recognise their humanity, it is more difficult to ignore their suffering”

Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister and refugee human rights advocate who has been a loud voice in the long debate on the government’s refugee policy and in recent months the Malaysia Solution.

He supports the project and explained that writing to a person in detention not only provides them with a friend but can be beneficial to changing how individuals view ‘boat people’.

“Receiving letters from a person, reading about their past and present troubles, is a powerful way of recognising their humanity; once you recognise their humanity, it is more difficult to ignore their suffering,” he said.

The question remains, can these letters and friendships help pave the way to a more tolerant society? As a stand-alone movement, probably not. But there are hundreds of groups in Australia working to change preconceived opinions about refugees.

The Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) has been fighting to end mandatory detention and while they acknowledge that they have the support of many people it is the rest of the population they are hoping to get on side.

Flotillas of red and white “Free the Refugees” posters fill the skyline at their numerous rallies and marches. Chants reverberate through the street as they give a voice to those kept on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and behind barbed wire fences guarded by Serco staff.

Media spokesperson Benjamin Solah said that visiting or writing a letter to someone in detention helps them maintain a more positive outlook but believes that it has been public campaigns on the streets that have helped refugees on a mass scale and which have altered people’s perspectives.

“The kind of people that tend to visit refugees are people already sympathetic to refugees, and it is generally pretty rare to convince someone to see it for themselves if they’re hostile, but shows like Go Back on SBS can change people’s attitudes…In the end we need to get rid of mandatory detention to help people.”

Aerial photo of Christmas Island

Detention Centre at Christmas Island

The television series ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’, featured on SBS in June, put six ‘ordinary’ Australians in the shoes of refugees and gave the Australian community insight into the journeys some refugees undertake.

The show became a worldwide sensation prompting trends on Twitter and an encore presentation. It showed that there is no easy way to change what people think of refugees.

Many things need to done to help Australia improve its relationship with the people risking their lives at sea to find a better future.

Linda Bartolomei is the deputy director at the Centre for Refugee Research within the University of New South Wales. She agrees that writing or visiting someone in detention lets individuals know that people care but this alone is not enough.

“I think we need to do many things simultaneously – continue to advocate for an end to detention drawing on the very good work of the IDC [International Detention Coalition] about alternatives and challenge xenophobia through community education.”

Today the clouds over the Pacific may spell a firm ‘Do Not Enter’ but the power of individuals to improve Australia’s relationship with refugees could simply begin by licking an envelope.

Chloe Potvin is a Journalism and International Studies student at the University of Technology, Sydney.