Journalism,  Political journalism

Interview with Sarah Ross from Refugee Rights Action Network, Feb 2015

Interview date: 9 February 2015

Full transcript below:

Marisa: Just tell me a little bit about the work that you do with the Refugee Rights Action Network.

Sarah: Yep. So I perform a number of roles within the Refugee Rights Action Network. One of those roles is visiting them in immigration centres in Australia, so visiting asylum seekers who are currently detained and sometimes doing advocacy so if people have certain issues, then connecting them with human rights bodies or connecting them with lawyers. In some cases if there is sort of a huge issues going on with human rights abuse then I link them with a journalist. And then my other role is talking with asylum seekers in the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru and similarly linking people with journalists who help to keep the public aware of what is going within these detention centres.

Marisa: Ok, so you are like the liaison between the two?

Sarah: Yeah.

Marisa: That must be interesting. Do people try to find out who is talking to who?

Sarah: Generally not. Because if it is the onshore detention centres, I can say I am a visitor and that is sufficient information for them. And similarly sometimes they will link up with asylum seekers themselves. So we will ask them “Do you actually want the contacts of the journalists so that you can do this yourself?” Otherwise usually they are happy with knowing that we are connected with people in the centres.

Marisa: You mentioned that you have both Tamil and Sinhalese people on bridging visas in the community waiting for claims to be processed. What is their experience of that at the moment and how has it changed over time?

Sarah: I think many people were excited just to get out of detention so one of my friends was detained for eighteen months in Nauru and then moved to the mainlands so there was initially excitement about finally being free.

Marisa: For how many months, sorry?

Sarah: Eighteen months.

Marisa: Eighteen months. Wow. Okay.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s a very long time. Initially they are happy to be outside but then if the situation were – well now the policy has changed slightly – but then they were unable to work, they were unable to study, they were given very little money from the government to basically survive on and they have been told that they will never be permanently settled in Australia so people have been stuck in a state of limbo. And this has a huge impact on people’s mental health because they are perpetually in fear that they will be sent back to Sri Lanka and perpetually in fear that they will be put back in detention for minor offenses.

I mean people have not had a ticket on public transport and then been put back in the detention centre and there have been mental health effects of not being able to do anything. I mean in Australia people generally, you know, have to work or study or do something to keep mentally healthy, but they are basically stuck not being able to do anything.

Marisa: And how has the Action Network tried to help them?

Sarah: We don’t have specific programs to help people on bridging visas but our role is to try and raise awareness in the community about how hard it actually is to be on a bridging visa and so you know, the problems that this causes – it’s not easy for people to be living outside if they have no rights to work or study and so they are still stuck in limbo – there is no resolution, they are not, they are still not safe. They are still essentially running, they are still in the refugee journey until they have permanent resettlement.

Marisa: Ok, and the Tamils have come because of persecution – is that the same reason for the Sinhalese?

Sarah: Generally, yes. I think many of the – a lot of the Sinhalese come from a village where the population is half – where the people are half Sinhalese, half Tamil – so where they have married between them. A lot of Sinhalese people have also for example been against the government as well so they have spoken out against the government and been persecuted because of that. Or they have openly supported the Tamils.

Marisa: So now that the government has changed in Sri Lanka, what are their thoughts? Are any of them excited about it? Do they think that there is going to be change? Do they want to go back?

Sarah: There was – I think they watched – my network of friends at least anyways, watched the election closely but I think they still incredibly cynical about the changes. They still fear going back. Personally, I still think it’s not safe for them to go back. People who have gone back before have been captured and tortured and I don’t think that there is any guarantee of safety at the moment. I mean they are still not letting in Human Rights Observers so we have no way of ensuring that when the people are going back that they are going to be safe.

But I know that the people that I am friends with at least, that they would go home if they could. Like my friends, they say, you know, “My dream is to take my Australian friends back to the village where I was born and show them my home, my culture.” so with people there is a willingness to go back and the fact that they don’t go back I think is indicative that they genuinely believe that it is not safe. I think that there has been substantial proof that it is not safe for asylum seekers from Sri Lanka to go back.

Marisa: What was their reaction to the Sri Lankan – the former Sri Lankan ambassador for Australia I should probably say – for Australia when the documentary was aired, I think on ABC there was a story aired about the torture that some of the victims went through and he denied it furiously after the story had aired in a live crossover segment. What was their reaction to that?

Sarah: I think generally just anger but perhaps not being surprised. I think it is – yeah – there has been a continuous denial from the Sri Lankan government and its representatives of the torture that has happened in Sri Lanka to refugees fromt here even though it has been really well documented like by independent human rights bodies so Amnesty International, a group called Stop Torture and people, you know, have the physical wounds of their torture that they can present as proof of what happened to them but it is still denied by the government consistently.

Marisa: I think he did say in that story that he considered the wounds to be self inflicted though it was very hard to imagine how exactly they could have been self inflicted. But right now Maithripala Sirisena, the current new President of Sri Lanka, is talking to Modi in India about possibly the repatriation of the refugees that are there. The 24,000 kids that have been born to the refugees there and all the refugees that have gone over there since the war started though some people have made the point that until you repatriate those in camps in Sri Lanka and make arrangements for land to be given back and all of that you can’t send refugees back from wherever else they are in the world to be repatriated. And we have also seen the First Dog On The Moon cartoon this weekend that came out about the refugees that were sent back and who ultimately went off to Nepal and were given refugee status so I mean – do they know of these developments? What do they think of them? Does that change anything? Do they see those steps that Maithripala Sirisena is taking as something positive?

Sarah: I think – we had a conversation the other night – and I think that their belief is that he has just won the election so he;s been quite conciliatory to the Tamils but when the next election comes around he may switch again to be quite critical and hard on the Tamils to win the Sinhalese voters but I think there just still is a huge amount of skepticism as much as he is declaring that it is safe for them to come back, I think that is not really a guarantee or else people – I think whilst he says publicly that they can come back and he is taking these steps I think when it comes down to it, there is still a huge military presence in the north, there have been people moved into where Tamils used to live so I think practically it still hasn’t been thought through. There is still no guarantee of safety. And it’s a question of what do the people have to go back to – if their houses are still even there, you know. So these practical questions have not been answered.

Marisa: And he does have a 100 day program that he came into power with so there is the question of the fact that he can kickstart some of these things but it may take longer to actually put these things in place and he may not win at the next parliamentary elections in April after all that so there is a question of if someone else does win, if someone else does come up, of whether they will continue that so yes, I can see why they might still be reluctant. What do you think the Australian government needs to do next?

Sarah: I think that the Australian government not just towards Sri Lankan refugees or any people who have been proven to be refugees in Australia is to give them permanent resettlement. I think what we are doing at the moment is incredibly inhumane and it’s just postponing the problem of dealing with it and I don’t think that, we should push people to go back when they are uncomfortable to do so. If we cannot guarantee people’s safety I think they should be given refugee status and the option of resettlement in Australia.

Marisa: Do you have trouble trying to get the concept through to the public in general that they are not illegal, that they have a right to seek to refuge, that we are contravening international law and that we are using taxpayers’ money to fund these centres that seemed to – you know – the other day we were looking at the UN definition for genocide and one of the points underneath it says that part of the definition of genocide is to put in place certain conditions that restrict people so much, a group of people so much, that it finds it to be basically denying them their rights and that seems to be from what we have heard like say what happens in the detention centres, that then taxpayers are somewhat complicit and culpable because it is their money that is used to fund these things.

Sarah: Yeah, I think it’s a huge struggle. I think the consciousness is slowly changing in the public with the recent rounds of events on Manus Island that people are starting to look into it a bit more but it is very hard to convince people when you consistently have government sort of reinforcing people’s misconceptions so people’s misconceptions have come straight from the media and the government using terms like “illegal boat arrivals” or “illegals” and perpetuating this myth when you don’t hear the other side of the story that even before we have offshore centres it is about one tenth of the cost to process people within the community so it is more economically efficient and it saves people’s – taxpayers’ – dollars and it’s more humane.

One of the guys I visited said that when he was in the detention centre and asking for something, an officer was quite rude with him and said “You know, this my taxpayer dollars, I am paying for this.” and he said “Well, if you let me out of detention I would be able to work and contribute taxes. Give me your job, I would be happy to work.” and this idea that people are willingly being in detention and having everything paid for them, but people want to be outside. They want to be free, they want to work and they want to contribute. So this hypocrisy to accuse them, of you know, of costing us money when it is us putting them in that position and definitely this idea that we punish a certain group of people to deter another group of people is abhorrent. It’s a human rights abuse.

Marisa: It’s not likely to change though if the Labour government comes in, the general policy direction is not likely to change.

Sarah: I think it’s very hard to tell but I mean Labour was the one who re-introduced offshore processing and there is little difference now between the major parties but I would hope that there would be some difference at least in dealing with the issue of people being in the community with bridging visas.

Marisa: Is there anything I have forgotten to ask you? That you would want to tell me?

Sarah: Just that from my personal experience of visiting people who have come here as refugees from Sri Lanka – most people come with horrific stories of being tortured, of trying to seek asylum in other places and Australia has been their last resort so I think there really needs to be a push to let the public know that people have genuine refugee claims and the conditions that they are fleeing from.

Marisa: Thank you.

Sarah: No worries.

Marisa: Thank you so much.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

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