Rights for all, except…

Written by Kelsie De Haan, Political Intern, Opportunity International Australia

Language is one of the most powerful tools that we can employ. Words have the power to build people up or to tear them down. They can be liberating, oppressive or bring about much needed change. That is why the discourse surrounding refugees and asylum seekers here in Australia is such a powerful one. This conversation upholds systems which abuse human rights and oppresses a vulnerable group of people and it needs to be recognised as such.

“Illegal immigrants”, “queue jumpers”, “boat people” and “potential terrorists” are just a few of the terms that have been used to describe asylum seekers and refugees. These terms have become interchangeable without anyone stopping to think about what they actually mean. They are used to portray this group of people as an enemy, an inconvenience and a threat. They are loaded with negative connotations, which can be used to manipulate the Australian public to hold particular prejudices. If we think of asylum seekers and refugees as law-breakers it dehumanises them and can shut off any compassion we would otherwise feel. It also allows those in power to deny the responsibility they have to uphold the rights of those seeking asylum in Australia. Instead, asylum seekers and refugees are positioned as a threat to Australian sovereignty and framed as a political issue not a humanitarian one.

The most blatant lie we are fed is that seeking asylum is illegal – it isn’t. Rather it is a basic human right outlined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The international community has time after time condemned Australian asylum seeker policy, deeming it an abuse of this basic human right, specifically the practices of indefinite mandatory detention, children in detention and the separation of families in detention. In fact, in 2012 Australia was found guilty of 143 violations of international law regarding their treatment of refugees. Further, Australia’s current approach costs $400,000 per-refugee, per-year and costs for running the offshore detention program between 2013 and 2016 cost $9.6 billion. We spend horrendous amounts on an oppressive and unjust system that violates human rights rather than using these funds wisely to ensure the protection of this vulnerable group.

But, rather than empathising and caring for refugees and asylum seekers who have had to flee their homes, we call them illegal and imprison them indefinitely. We treat them as criminals rather than victims and instead of protecting them, we physically and mentally abuse them.

How did we let it come to this? We underestimated the power of words. Dehumanising and threatening language is used to place these people outside of our scope of justice.  Asylum seekers and refugees have been placed outside of our moral boundaries, meaning we have been influenced to believe that fairness and justice don’t apply to them. We have been taught not to care.

With over 22.5 million refugees in the world, fleeing from war, persecution and violence, we need to expand our scope of justice again to include them. We need to care. Every day, 28,300 people are forced to flee their homes, running from war and persecution into systems of oppression and injustice. The refugee and asylum seeker threat is not to our national sovereignty, but the threat is to their wellbeing. Change is needed to ensure the safety and protection of these people; we need to ensure our government policy upholds the rights of this vulnerable group.

 

 

 

 

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I Know My Rights

Written by Kelsie De Haan, Opportunity International Australia Political Intern

Everyone should have access to the most basic of rights. That much we can all agree upon and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights backs me up on that on. It outlines what people are entitled to simply by being born human. It also outlines the responsibility the state has to uphold the rights of their citizens and provides a guideline to moral and ethical behaviour.

In 2005, a report was released outlining the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) which demonstrates how rights and responsibility play out at a global level. One of the key components of this is the state’s right to sovereignty which is forfeited if they do not uphold their responsibilities to their citizens. For example, to protect them from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It doesn’t stop there. Those who uphold the first responsibility are then given the added responsibility to help other states uphold it. Again, if they fail to prevent these atrocities or even perpetuate them, the international community assumes the responsibility to protect through intervention.

The right to sovereignty carries enormous responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of the citizens and we rightly expect this from our leaders. We readily criticise leaders who perpetrate human rights abuses and citizens pressure their own governments to take up the responsibility to intervene. For states to have the right to self-determination and self-government, first they must demonstrate their fulfilment of responsibility to promoting peace, protecting citizens and caring for the environment.

Somehow, things seem a little different at an individual level. The concept of responsibility tied to rights is often overlooked. We tend to be so quick to declare our rights and then dismiss our responsibilities. We expect the right to welfare as a citizen but we don’t like the responsibility of paying taxes – some even avoid paying tax and therefore impede on another’s right to receive adequate welfare. We love that we have the right to free speech, but are quick to shoot down other opinions that are different from ours – even attempting to silence through intimidation and violence. We revel in the right we have to live in freedom and safety but bemoan a speeding fine we receive when we put the safety of others at risk.

When we claim our individual rights without considering our responsibilities to those around us, it becomes very dangerous. It can lead to a place where the responsibility to respect another’s rights and protect their freedoms is overshadowed by the idea of ‘my rights over your rights’. Or in other words, ‘me first, you are not as important’. When this rhetoric is used, conflicting rights become the norm and solutions become less clear. It’s complicated. We see this daily in Australia where an individual’s right to seek asylum is in direct conflict with a state’s right to sovereign borders, or the right to free speech versus the right to live free of fear and hate speech, and even the pro-choice versus pro-life debate as it reflects the conflicting rights of a mother and her unborn child.

How do we justify privileging one person’s rights over another? It sounds awful when it gets stated like that, but we do it every day. I’m sure we would like to think that the ‘good guy’ always wins, but unfortunately it is more often the person with the most power who has their rights recognised and prioritised. When the responsibility to consider the needs of others is removed from the equation, conflicting rights are resolved through oppression of the disadvantaged by those in power. History shows us that oppression of a minority and the suppression of their rights appears to be the default setting, changing only when someone in a position of power draws attention to the injustice and allows an oppressed voice to be heard.

If being powerful is the prerequisite to exercising rights, this leaves women and children in a very vulnerable position. Fortunately, there are organisations like Opportunity International Australia and others whose sole purpose is to uphold their rights and empower them to a life free from injustice and poverty.  Yet for many other minorities, oppression and silencing of rights is a reality they face every day as a result of our reluctance to accept responsibility – responsibility to care for others, to make sacrifices for those in need, to listen to others and to simply be a responsible global citizen.

So, know your rights. Ensure that you have access to them. Make a stand for them. But don’t stop there. Know the responsibilities that you have because of your rights. Ensure others have access to their rights (no matter who they are or if you agree with all of their opinions), and make a stand for them. Use your rights to uphold those of others, not to oppress them.