Human Rights Day asylum seekers
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in November 1949. (Image: WikiCommons)

On this day in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, on the 70th anniversary of Human Rights Day, I couldn’t think of anything more pertinent to discuss.

When it comes to people seeking asylum in Australia, we have lost our way: we have lost the checks and balances that we expect from a system of democratic governance based on a separation of powers. We have not only entered, but are well advanced into the frightening realm of authoritarianism.

Fundamentally, the problem lies in that Australia is now one of the few countries in the Western world that does not have a bill of rights either in its constitution or its national laws. It therefore makes it harder to use the courts to explicitly defend the human rights of people seeking asylum, leaving them directly exposed to almost unchecked executive power.  

I am seeing the most compelling humanitarian circumstances imaginable routinely refused or not even referred to the Minister for consideration under these powers. I am seeing people whose lives are hanging in the balance being arbitrarily cast off without remedy and sent back to countries and situations which the Minister knows they are unlikely to survive.

I find it is so shameful and grating to be a citizen of a wealthy and democratic country like Australia that has shown that it can, if it chooses, be a world leader in refugee resettlement processes, but has instead become such a blatant (and even proud) abuser of rights of people seeking asylum. 

We see mind-boggling sums of taxpayers’ money continuously pumped in to prop up the domestic and regional system of detention that offends basic human rights of people seeking asylum and dignity. We see a government willing to routinely make decisions that put lives at risk, claiming to the public that these policies are necessary to save lives.

Many days I wake up feeling that I must be mad or in a bad dream — how did it come to this? I find it so difficult to explain this to my children, who have lived with me overseas for much of the last 16 years in poor countries, such as Jordan, with very limited resources who have still managed to absorb great numbers of refugees, often over long periods of time.

Now back in Australia, I’m fighting against this injustice. It is often a dirty fight. When politicians fail us, we must go to the courts, and we must go time and time again. This is what we, as a community of lawyers (of which I’m so proud to be a part) are doing. We recognise that the struggle for the rights of people seeking asylum is not only a struggle for the thousands of people already harmed or those who will be harmed in the future, but is in fact one of those defining struggles for the soul of our nation.

So where does this leave us? We clearly need to be doing much more. Every time there’s a change, which is invariably negative, I think to myself “we must be at rock bottom now”, but somehow there’s always still a lower point to which we descend. We need strategies on multiple levels (legal, social, political, economic) and we need to involve as many different levels of society as possible in our struggle. We must fight in the courts, in the parliament and most importantly, demand that every community and person across the land ask themselves “am I okay with this?”

Dr. Carolyn Graydon is Principal Solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. She was not paid for this piece. You can donate now to the ASRC appeal to help people seeking asylum fight against injustice. 

Peter Fray

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