By Alfred Pek
On the 15th of June 2004, it was the day that I first migrated to Australia. I remembered having many first moments in my life as a 10-year-old who could barely speak English. Upon breathing the cold, fresh dry air of Sydney, my asthma was gone! I was astounded by how quiet, spacious, clean and organised the streets and the neighbourhoods were. It was also the first time in my life where I was truly at peace. I’ve always thought I’d face racism everywhere I go as a Chinese Indonesian. But my concerns were unfounded.
No one really bats an eye for me as an Asian. I no longer have to justify my existence for being a mixed ethnic or a multi-faith child. None of these things mattered anymore in Australia. My family didn’t even mind starting from the bottom again when we moved here. Having overcome the hardships of poverty and social discriminations in Indonesia, and knowing that this country guarantees protections and welfare of its citizens and population, this was a huge blessing for us all and we can really work hard to better our lives as a result.
But perhaps the biggest culture shock for me when I moved to Australia was its egalitarian values being practiced on the day-to-day life as well as its culture of accountability. I’m not painting a dark picture of the rest of the world, but there’s not many places where a lot of us can actually feel we can have certainty with our future and trajectory once we put our hard work into it. I’m not saying nepotism doesn’t exist here, but it is far less than the rest of the world. The Meritocracy idea is well and truly alive here. But it wasn’t all rosy and sweet when we first moved here.
My family’s qualifications weren’t recognised upon moving to Australia. All of us have to work in many labour-intensive jobs to make ends meet. I couldn’t do much as a high school kid besides helping around the house and learning English and following the school curriculum. I too eventually also work in labour intensive service jobs during my studies to help the family. Learning English wasn’t exactly easy to pick up for my mother. Both my sister and eventually I had to become the translator of the family. I had no choice but to help my mum’s legal documentations and her TAFE courses and assignments. And we had to make sure we did everything right to become good citizens, proving to our fellow local Australians of our values to society. It took us some time to get settled, and after around seven years we did just that. We were able to call ourselves Australians and we became fully adjusted to where we are now.
However, whilst pursuing a media degree at university, I was eventually exposed to the cruel politics and the reality of how Australians treat its refugees in its detention centres on the mainland, Manus Island, Nauru, and arguably Indonesia. It took me a while to even grasp a concept of it because I would have thought people seeking refuge would come by plane. How would they even be able to come by boat? At first, I really feel like we as immigrants were betrayed that people like them who “skipped” the immigration process. Why couldn’t they go and join the process like everyone else?
Of course, then I was enlightened that there were no processes for these people to even seek protection in the region in the first place. Those fleeing persecution often come from places that are difficult to obtain any sort of visa to safe countries. And if money isn’t the issue, they can actually afford people smugglers. Because, unfortunately, these very exploitative smugglers are the only saviours that these people can rely on, much like Oskar Schindler smuggling the Jews from the Nazis. And for some they don’t even have citizenship anywhere to begin with. Where can they even be deported? How could these ever seek protection in any legal sort of way?
The very institutions that process these refugees rely on for protection (UNHCR, IOM and other NGOs) are not only severely underfunded and stretched to the brink by the fact that the world is currently facing the largest number of displaced people around the world in history. Furthermore, it is also being neglected by the resettlement countries who are increasingly nowadays are closing their borders prior to the pandemic.
Australian governments used to uphold its international standing and obligation and help resettle refugees seeking protection in our region (the Vietnamese and the Cambodians) during the 1970s until the 1990s. Along with other allied nations, Australia used to share resources and cooperate with the Southeast Asian nations like my home country Indonesia to create reception centres to humanely process and fly the refugees into our shores and help resettle the refugees who are seeking protection in our regions.
“(Politicians) used to create town hall meetings, gather constituents and educate the public about who actually are coming to our shores, and emphasise on why Australia must act on upholding our integrity in the international standings of the rules based order,” said Dr. Amy Nethery, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Policy Studies at Deakin University who is featured in Freedom Street.
Yet we started to turn our backs against those who are genuinely seeking asylum, beginning from the 1990s until today. If Australian politicians want to save lives for those who are seeking asylum, then how come they don’t maintain safe and humane reception centres for refugees and asylum seekers across South East Asia? If saving lives means stopping the boats, then why remove the reception centre’s infrastructure that prevents it? Nobody wants to ever venture by boats unless they genuinely do not have any other alternative.
The backdrop of the cold war and the conflict in the South East Asia region might have subdued (notwithstanding the Rohingyan Refugee Crisis). And the number of refugees heading towards Australasia have never reached the peak during the Indochinese Crisis. Yet, the offshore and mainland processing expenditure that goes towards processing the case and screening refugees in Manus, Nauru, Kangaroo Point, Mantra Hotel and countless detention centres across the country have ballooned to more than $12 billion dollars of our tax money since 2013. But these detention centres and the thousands who have been detained, abused, tortured, and deprived of their basic agency, rights, and dignity are only one half of Australia’s cruel border protection policies.
The other half (arguably larger) comes from Australia’s influence on Indonesia to detain around 14000 refugees since 2013. This was all an attempt to stop the people-filled boats departing from Indonesia towards Australia. Despite having nowhere near the numbers of boat crossings that refugees and immigrants went through comparatively in the Mediterranean and South East Asia, Australia, along with Indonesia and other countries in the region during the 2000s created the Bali Process, the regional cooperation framework that manages and irregular trafficking and migration along with Indonesia and other countries in its vicinity. It funds IOM in Indonesia and does further incentives to strengthen Indonesia’s own military, police, and immigration essentially to halt these very processes.
The consequence, of course, is that Indonesia has become the last outpost for refugees living in protracted transit with little hope of any resettlement in the Asia-Pacific Region. Refugees in Indonesia don’t have any human rights such as work, schooling, or to participate in its civil and social society. It really only ever had a definition and a guideline on what is and how to manage “Foreign Refugee” in 2016. The only reason Indonesia ever cared about this issue in the first place is precisely due to its political and economical reliance it has on Australia. Indonesia with a population of over 270 million people will not have the incentive to care for the tens of thousands of refugees if it wasn’t for Australia’s externalisation of it’s border protection policy.
As an Indonesian, I understand Indonesia’s challenges for its own citizens. The government there doesn’t even necessarily always have the capacity to help millions of its own citizens, a lot of us including my own family have to help ourselves. Welfare programs are miniscule to non-existent. As an Australian citizen, I am furious that Australia has incentivised my home country to cooperate on this cruel inhumane border protection exercise. As both, along with the thousands of advocates across Australia, Indonesia and the region, we feel the moral responsibility to tell and educate the truth to all. Thus the creation of the currently in development documentary called “Freedom Street”. Below is the synopsis of the project:
14000 Refugees are trapped in limbo; caught in the crossfire of Australia’s border policy and Indonesia’s indifference.
Freedom Street is the harrowing story of Joniad, Ashfaq and Azizah, three refugees who are affected by the consequence of Australia’s policies. This feature-length documentary tells their moving stories while deconstructing Australian policy in a series of conversations with various experts who contextualise and illuminate the issue.
My journey of almost 3 years of working in this documentary and more than 5 years as an accidental advocate have culminated towards the development of this film. The challenges were immense. Amongst advocates, most are already exhausted dealing with the man-made crises this government created with Manus, Nauru and the various hotels and mainland detention centres, and so has been difficult to pitch to local production companies. As a result, the project has been mostly self-funded, and the directing, filming and producing has largely been done by myself and a small team of colleagues who volunteer and advocate in their very limited time and capacity.
As an Australian, an Indonesian, a pragmatist, and as a human being with logic and conscience who has been exposed to this, I cannot stand by and let it slide. I have to use my privilege that me and my family earned to do what is right, alongside with the tens of thousands of advocates and refugees in the region fighting for their freedom every day. As a nation we spend money on committing crimes instead of taking care of our own citizens. The fact is that it will be cheaper to be humane to refugees in our region. The fact that alongside the Indigenous issues, we have neglected the rights, dignity, health, and the humanity for those who are genuinely seeking asylum is the absolute worst. And this is coming from me, an Immigrant who has full gratitude to what Australia has brought the opportunity for me and my family.
How can a country I am proud to call home commit to such heinous crimes and especially involving my home country in the process? Knowing these truths, I am more than ever driven to create a tool that can empower the voiceless and enlighten the full context of this entire situation, as well as creating an effective platform for change that many of us in the region desperately need. Many advocates are weary and tired of being dragged around in this nightmare. It’s not just the refugees stories we need to hear the truth from, it is time we hear the experts and changemakers that will finally fully contextualise this entire issue once and for all and create and uncover the fundamentals of Australia’s darkest secrets.
Freedom Street is currently in production and raising funds to complete the film. Tax-deductible donations can be made at the Documentary Australia Foundation website.
Freedom Street is an ongoing project, funded primarily through donations. Should you wish to donate, you can do so through the Documentary Australia Foundation (tax-deductible). Why have our tax money being used to oppress refugees? Why not instead get tax deductions by supporting the project that challenges the cruelty that our government has done for them?
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