A website created last Friday is providing an online forum for Australians, in disagreement with the government’s strict asylum seeker policy, to apologize to would-be immigrants who have been turned away.
Ryan Sheales, a media and communications consultant from Melbourne, launched sorryasylumseekers.com in a bit to humanize an issue that is often overshadowed by political debate.
“How many asylum seekers can Australia sustainably accommodate? How should we, as a nation, deter/manage/encourage asylum seekers? Is ‘stopping the boats’ Australia’s only policy objective? Is mandatory detention a useful policy measure? My website wasn’t established for that purpose,” he said in a blog post. “Instead, [it] is based on a philosophy that Australia’s asylum seeker policy debate – while worthy and necessary – should take place on a bedrock of humanity.”
Though only a week old, the webpage has been flooded with hundreds of photo submissions from across Australia. Many of the images contain handwritten notes being held up to the camera, often ended with the hashtag #NotInMyName. Some of the images reference Reza Barati, an Iranian asylum seeker who was killed last week in a Manus Island detention center.
An autopsy revealed that the 23-year-old Iranian man succumbed to severe head injuries. The Papua New Guinea police and Australian Immigration Department have both launched inquires amid conflicting accounts of what led to Barati’s death.
Some sources say he was stomped to death during a riot while others claim that he was bashed in the head by a security contractor’s riot shield. A third explanation points to the involvement of local civilians who were asked to help police maintain order, by allegedly wielding wood and iron bars. Detainees had reportedly broken a fence.
“Any death is tragic and deeply regrettable, but the important thing has been to stop the boats and end the deaths at sea,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told ABC.
Greens leader Christine Milne fired back at Abbott and his supporters, demanding that off-shore detention centers be shut down.
“There is no way that an internal immigration department investigation is ever going to turn up what we need. The gag orders are in place, people are afraid to speak out,” she said. “What we are seeing here is cruel and inhumane treatment of people. That is wrong and there is no excuse for it.”
As messages of support pour in, ordinary Australians are divided on the core issue of immigration and the acceptance of asylum seekers.
“I think that Australia is quite a xenophobic and racist country, and the average white Australian doesn’t like non-Anglo immigration,” Ross Cole-Hunter, of Brisbane, told The Diplomat. “I know it’s not really a fence sitting area, but I feel there are points to both sides. I think the government is taking it a little extreme, but I understand what they are trying to do. I just don’t think it’s being done correctly.”
“It’s not something that I feel strongly enough [about] to post on that site,” he added.
After reading responses on the sorryasylumseeker.com site, Western Australia resident Shay Johnson called the commenters “Typical Aussie do-gooders.”
“If it’s not that, it’s the whales,” he added. “We don’t want [asylum seekers] because they don’t have any work skills and they jump straight on unemployment benefits, which are costing the economy a lot of money. Unemployment benefits are around AUD$1500 a month.”
Despite the apologies, polls show that a majority of Australians would likely agree with Johnson’s point of view. Last month, a UMR Research opinion survey revealed that 60 percent of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.” Additionally, 59 percent of respondents said that they opposed welfare assistance for refugees.