As I sat on that boat on that hot morning of March 23, 1991, I looked to our destination and wondered if I would ever make it. Our boat was overcrowded and not fit for the purpose. And if we reached the Guinean shores, I had no idea what would await me. It was a risk I had no choice but to take, after my home village in Sierra Leone was razed to the ground by violent rebels.
My journey is not unique: every day, thousands of people flee their homes in search of safety by whatever means available to them. Today, like millions of other Australian citizens, I am safe in the knowledge that I will probably never have to flee again.
One thing I have noticed about my fellow Australians is that people, regardless of their political opinion, are humane and want to care for those around them. When I was living in the refugee camps, aged 14, I had little hope for my future. For fourteen years, I lived from one desperate experience to the next. My only hope of survival depended on the generosity of others and the United Nations. When I was finally granted asylum in Australia, I was given a reason to believe that there was hope in my new found home. I was helped and I am still being helped by the people of Australia. I think if we give people the opportunity to stand in, they can stand out. I am a living example of that.
Australians believe in giving people a fair go. That is why they rightly don't want people to risk their lives on leaky boats. Until now, the policies of our successive governments have been popular because we were led to believe that stopping the boats meant saving lives at sea. Now, though, this has changed as we have gradually become aware that instead of people dying at sea, they are now dying on the land. The Government's announcement, that any adult who has sought asylum by boat may face a permanent ban from entering Australia, fails to recognise that the views of the Australian people have shifted.
This year, thousands of Australians took a stand and successfully prevented the deportation of hundreds of people seeking asylum to offshore detention camps. Polling by Save the Children and The Australian Institute showed that most Australians want those people who are currently detained offshore to be brought to Australia and processed here. Since the release of the Nauru files, the systematic pattern of torture and abuse in our offshore detention centres is common knowledge.
To some extent, the government recognise that they have lost popular support for their offshore prisons: their closure seems eminent. However, in a desperate attempt to close the widening gap in the opinion polls, the government latest move has missed the mark. The Australian people don't support the punishment of people seeking asylum.
Of course, the situation that we are in today is not just the fault of the current government. Successive governments have taken their turn, each one desperate to prove that they be crueller than their predecessor. Migration policy has always been a fertile battleground for political point-scoring. This announcement indicates the desperation of a government that has lost it credibility and the trust of the Australian people. Shifting the blame about refugees and people seeking asylum onto desperate people who need our help is not going to help us as a country. We should be looking at finding solutions, rather than using refugees and asylum seekers to score cheap political points.
As a former refugee myself, I am enraged by this decision. I struggle to see what could possibly be gained from it. It is well known that migration has been of huge benefit to Australia. This law, if passed, will pose huge ramifications not just for the people seeking asylum, but for Australia as a whole.
As well as our international legal obligation under the refugee conventions, all humans have an obligation to one another. Treating others with love and respect is at the core of our common humanity. Personally, I would not be alive today if it were not for the help of those around me. As a social worker, I try to make use of the help and support I am getting from the Australian community to support those in need, especially refugees and asylum seekers.
Moreover, Australia has the capacity to take in more people. We know that there is a better way. Throughout this crisis, the Canadian government, for example, has repeatedly stepped up and shown us that there is a just and humane alternative. Our Prime Minister, in contrast, has left us red-faced on the international stage, as he tries to flog broken policies that we all know he does not believe in.
My experience has taught me to be more hopeful of the Australian people than of our government. If the current Australian government does not understand this, it will find itself replaced by one that does.
If our core value is giving people a fair go as our national anthem suggests, then I believe we should hold onto what makes Australia a great example of a nation among developed nations when it comes to welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants to Australia.