It was a full house at the Blue Mountains Theatre in Springwood last week to hear Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The sold-out event was organised by Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group (BMRSG), with the support of council and the Blue Mountains Theatre and Community Hub.
The tone of the evening from set from the beginning, when Aunty Sharon (giving the welcome to country with Aunty Val) reminded people not to forget the original inhabitants of Australia when they were seeking justice for refugees and asylum seekers.
Mayor Mark Greenhill reminded the audience that the Mountains was declared a Refugee Welcome Zone in 2004 and condemned Federal Labor politicians for their lock-step approach with the government to asylum seeker detention policy.
The MC, former Federal Court judge and Leura resident, Murray Wilcox, added that the boats had been stopped by naval turnbacks, not the policy of “deterrence” by cruel and degrading treatment of asylum seekers and indefinite detention.
Professor Triggs, who has stood up to many a politician in recent years, was given a standing ovation when she came on stage.
She noted Australia’s generally successful history as a multicultural and multi-faith society, settling waves of migrants and refugees with few major problems. The turning point came with the Tampa crisis in 2001 and John Howard’s introduction of the Pacific Solution, she said.
Nowadays, the government and the media in general are no longer interested in the facts of the treatment of asylum seekers as revealed in reports such as The Forgotten Children, the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in immigration detention. Instead, refugees are used as political pawns by the major parties to win votes.
Professor Triggs’ presentation included many facts and statistics, including the fact that Australia only accepts a tiny proportion of refugees compared to some of the poorer countries, such as Jordan.
She highlighted that up to 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia are in limbo, waiting to have their claim to refugee status heard.
As an example of cruel treatment meted out to asylum seekers, she cited the ban in detention centres of mobile phones, the only link these people have with family, and a vital tool for their mental health.
Professor Triggs expressed the hope that the recent New York Declaration on refugee rights would bring greater international cooperation.
She then presented “Pathways to Protection”, a human rights-based response by the Commission to unauthorised boat arrivals. It was possible, she said, to protect our borders and to treat asylum seekers with dignity, and to foster a culture of welcome, as the Blue Mountains community has done.
She praised people like Marie Standen, who started BMRSG as a response to the Tampa affair. And she ended by calling for a Bill of Rights to protect the human rights of all Australians, as well as people fleeing persecution who seek our help.
New Zealand, she noted, has had one for 21 years.
The evening ended on a note of hope from lawyer Madeline Gleeson, author of Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru.
She encouraged Mountains residents to “keep doing what you’re doing” to assist asylum seekers and refugees, and bring about the necessary policy changes that respect human rights.