If I Could Change One Thing About Australia It Would Be: The Way We Think About Asylum Seekers

There’s no factual basis to how Australia sees asylum seekers. We need to change the conversation.

Brought to you by Australian Of The Year Awards

Brought to you by the Australian of the Year Awards

In association with the Australian of the Year Awards, we’ve asked five influential and accomplished Australians to share an idea for change that they’re passionate about.

Our third guest is Kon Karapanagiotidis, a Victorian Finalist for Australian of the Year 2008. Kon is the founder and chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Australia’s largest provider of services that protect, support and empower people seeking asylum. Founded in 2001 as a TAFE project, the centre is now a fully independent organisation that supports over 2000 asylum seekers through 30 separate programs. The centre’s overall aim is to ensure that people seeking asylum in Australia are treated fairly with their rights respected under international human rights law.

The way Australia currently thinks about asylum seekers began two decades ago, under the Howard government. In response to the MV Tampa crisis, John Howard tapped into an underlying seam of fear and prejudice in some sections of the population, which had been stirred up by Pauline Hanson. Fear is a very powerful tool; appealing to the worst in people is a very powerful tool, too.

Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a poisoning of the Australian heart, and the Australian spirit. We’ve reframed some of the most vulnerable, defenceless, persecuted people on earth as villains. Post September 11, some conservative politicians have tried to tap into fears around terrorism and Islam, and used those fears to portray asylum seekers and refugees as a threat to our value set — even though their status as refugees demonstrates that they actually share our values; they want to be free, equal, and live in a democratic society.

There’s no factual basis to how Australia sees asylum seekers, as “illegals” and as “queue jumpers”: with more than eleven million refugees in the world escaping terrorism, war, conflict and persecution, and only 80,000 resettlement places a year, only a small number of people get on boats, out of desperation. It is perfectly legal for them to seek asylum in this way.

But that doesn’t matter, because perception trumps fact. The perception is that the country is under siege by people who are coming to take our way of life; that people have broken a law in crossing our borders, that they have jumped an imaginary queue. Successive Governments have stripped these people of so much humanity and agency, that polls from the last few weeks indicate that Australians support how hard we are on the issue, or wish we could be harder.

There’s not actually much left for the government to do in order to be harder on asylum seekers. The Moss review into conditions in Nauru demonstrated that this government, like the Labor government before it, has overseen the institutionalised systemic abuse, sexual and physical, of women and children. Refugees have died while under their ‘care’. In fact, the Government — which has criminalised doctors and carers who speak out about the abuse of kids in offshore detention — will soon try to pass a new bill that a former Victorian Supreme Court judge says will essentially give guards the authority “to beat asylum seekers in detention centres to death”, virtually with impunity.

In fact, we’ve drifted so far from a moral centre and a moral compass that my “radical” idea for change in Australia is actually a simple one: that we start looking at people seeking our protection as a humanitarian and moral challenge; that we can reframe the issue so Australians can see that welcoming, protecting, and enabling asylum seekers to participate and contribute actually makes this country great.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t. We need innovation, technology, mobilisation, and the broader community to transform the nation, and win back its hearts and minds. We need to build an architecture, or an ecosystem, of compassion. The only way to do this is by fostering an alternative vision. Unless Australians can see asylum seekers as people with agency and the ability to contribute to Australia, then we won’t get far. We’re beyond the reach of abstract morality or the notion of the ‘fair go’, which is a limited mythology: people seem to only support a fair go if it applies to them, or people who look like them. Instead, we need to appeal to the best in people.

This will take a lot of time and work. One campaign, one meme, one post, or one slogan won’t do it. It’s going to take at least a decade, and young people are going to be at the centre of that: they’re the ones who need to be out there mobilising the community, reaching out, sharing the facts and the truth. We also need to look at other pillars of influence: this change will need to be faith-based, union-based, rural-based, business-based, arts-based, sports-based. That’s why the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre work with a really broad range of people – anyone from unions, to Telstra, to football clubs. We have the most unlikely partners, but they all come together around the idea of a compassionate and just Australia.

Racism is a big issue in Australia – we see it not only with asylum seekers, but also with what happens to Indigenous people and Muslim people in this country – but I don’t think most Australians are racist. I can’t believe that. I’ve got to hold on to the idea that most Australians are good – that most people are decent and good, but they’ve been misinformed, they’ve been lied to, that they’ve had their hearts poisoned on this issue. I see at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre another Australia, one full of good will, compassion, and a growing concern about the way we treat asylum seekers. We’re a minority, but we’re a minority of millions, and we can be a powerful voice for change.

Do you know someone whose ideas for change have made Australia a better place? Want their hard work to be supported and recognised? Nominations for the 2016 Australian of the Year Awards are now open. Head to the Australian of the Year Awards site to submit a nomination before August 3.

Kon Karapanagiotidis is the founder and chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and a past state finalist in the Australian of the Year Awards.