Betelhem Tibebu is from Ethiopia and came to Australia in 2013 by boat. Here she shares her story and encourages us to respond with compassion, love and welcome to those seeking safety on our shores.
Desperate times. More desperate people. And desperately diabolical bills under the cover of COVID.
Numbness. Shock. Horror. Confusion.
These were my initial responses when I learned about the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020. People living in immigration detention facilities, including asylum seekers can, if this bill is passed, have ‘prohibited items’ removed from them by a Border Force officer or the Minister. This removal is at the minister’s or an official’s discretion. It doesn’t require a rationale. It needs no evidence.
What is a prohibited item? The definition is incredibly vague. It could even pertain to paper and pencil. It most certainly includes mobile phones.
This broke me. We have treated asylum seekers so badly and for so long. We have stripped them of their freedom, their dignity, their cultures and their future. But at least they had their phones. Phones, these most precious things that enable communication with family, friends, community and essential services such as lawyers and doctors. And now even this, this last and most precious of all things might get taken away.
As a Christian, these people are my family, my brothers and sisters whom I have never met, whose names and voices I do not know, who’s lives and sufferings I cannot fathom. But this I do know. They are more precious to Jesus than I can comprehend or even imagine. As a Christian I was compelled to do the only practical thing I can do, even though I know it won’t have a visible impact.
I determined to write a submission to the Senate Committee that is looking into the Bill and to try to meet with a government senator. And I wanted to take some friends along with me.
Anyone can write a submission. I wrote my first submission about a decade ago and I was so nervous. Now I just write. I live in a democracy. I vote. This makes me powerful. ‘I don’t know’ is not an excuse – we have the internet.
I read submissions written by reputable organisations: The Law Council of Australia, The National Justice Project, Amnesty International. Then I read relevant sections of the bill. I read the ‘rationale’, and felt physically ill. I used the context of COVID-19, my own adult English students’ struggles and other people’s isolation and distress to frame my submission and present key arguments about the removal of mobile phones. I wrote. I put it away for some days, read again and submitted. I would have liked to show someone else for feedback, but that’s against the rules. Once it’s published on the webpage, I can share it with anyone.
After a six week wait, a senator agreed to meet with us on Zoom. I am fortunate to have received Micah Australia training in meeting with politicians and followed their strategy: find out as much as you can about the politician - how they’ve voted, speeches, special interests - find common ground. I wrote a short bio. I tried desperately to find common values. There are two. I formulated our own agenda (using Micah Australia’s MP meeting guide) and wrote a script for the meeting, commencing with requesting permission to acknowledge countries (the attendies were on three different countries) and introducing ourselves; commending the government on the refugee resettlement program (of which this senator is proud); and segued into our purpose: ‘As Australians, we are extremely proud of our refugee resettlement program, but incredibly ashamed of how we treat asylum seekers. And now we are especially concerned about the potential removal of mobile phones…’ We framed our main arguments within the context of COVID 19, how it has impacted my own students, the importance of their phones, the suffering of many people despite having phones… We embedded his belief in the importance of the senate within our arguments, and illustrated points with personal stories of friends who are asylum seekers. He did not agree to any of our asks, which was anticipated.
Knowing the intransigence of successive governments about asylum seekers our objective was for the senator to enjoy meeting with us. We knew that short of a miracle of greater than biblical proportions, we would not have an impact on policy. This massive miracle did not happen, but smaller ones did. Two of us can be volatile: we remained calm throughout. And we achieved our actual objective. Following the meeting, and having received permission, I posted a note on Facebook stating that he had met with us and listened attentively to our concerns… I included the post in the follow up thank you email to his office manager. We received a warm response from the Senator, who wanted to pass on his appreciation for the time and effort we had put into it. Actual objective, that the senator enjoyed the meeting, achieved.
We hope that this is just the beginning of an ongoing relationship.
We are the first constituents that this senator has met with over an online platform. So please, get on the phone or onto email and organize meetings about things that matter. Share our common grace.
Christine Morris lives, works and plays in Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung Countries, where she is frequently seen riding her bike, admiring trees and talking to people. She attends Hoppers Crossing Uniting Church.
Feature photo: Phil Botha
If you’d like to take immediate action regarding the parliamentary bill to confiscate the phones of refugees in detention you can call the Acting Minister for Immigration, Alan Tudge to reconsider: Call Alan Tudge's office: (02) 6277 7790. Email Alan Tudge: [email protected] For more information, here are details of a calling party on 1 September organised by a refugee in the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne: https://www.facebook.com/mostafa.azimitabar