Former Socceroo and current human rights campaigner Craig Foster and NRL star Sonny Bill Williams were down in Canberra last week to present federal parliament with a petition calling on the government to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees long held in offshore detention.
The NZ resettlement offer has been on the table since 2013. It entails that nation’s willingness to take into its community 150 refugees and asylum seekers per year.
At the time it was made, our government had only recently begun locking up these people in offshore prisons in poor countries.
The reason Foster and Williams were in the capital seven years on is that there are still close to 300 innocent people who fled persecution being detained in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. And our government continues to refuse New Zealand’s offer.
As Foster stresses the sooner that happens, the sooner our nation can readjust its moral compass.
Transferring the cruelty
Foster travelled to Papua New Guinea in October last year to meet with the offshore detainees our nation was still denying freedom. And what he found was stark: people were broken, psychologically traumatised, they’d attempted self-harm and some were heavily medicated.
Whilst there, Foster met long-term detainee Mostafa Azimitabar or Moz, who’d been held in indefinite detention at the Manus Island immigration facility, despite his having been processed as a genuine refugee.
And when Foster paid a visit to the Mantra Hotel in the Melbourne suburb of Preston earlier this year, he was reunited with Moz, as the Kurdish musician had since been transferred to Australia under the Medevac laws.
However, despite Moz and another 180-odd men having been assessed as warranting transfer for medical treatment – and immigration then doing a full background check on them – they’re now locked up in Australian hotels, receiving next to no treatment or pandemic protections.
Regaining our humanity
Foster underscores that this issue is a bipartisan problem. And the devastation wreaked upon the lives of people who risked their mortality to get to our country for help also has consequences for your average Australian – although it might not be so apparent at first.
After 18 years of appearing on our TV screens, Foster is now calling on the public to comprehend the enormity of the human rights violations that have been carried out in our names, and demand the government changes its policy, so this level of depravity cannot happen again.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Craig Foster about the refugees who continue to be locked up with no real end in sight, the demonisation these innocent people have undergone in the public eye, and why Australians need to stand up and call #GameOver.
Firstly, last week, you and Sony Bill Williams called on Canberra to take up New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 offshore asylum-seeking detainees, who’ve now been held in detention for years on end. Mr Foster, why should the government take up the NZ deal?
There are 290 people still offshore. There are around 50 in the US stream, either waiting for transport to go or determination. So, you’re talking in excess of 200 people, who still require a long-term solution.
The refusal to accept the New Zealand offer is one of the most horrible examples of the demonisation of these innocent people.
The offer has been for 150 people per year for the last seven years. That’s around a 1,000 people and there’s only around 300 left offshore. So, this saga would have been behind Australia and behind these poor people some years ago.
Yet, sadly, that offer has continued to be refused by the Australian government.
While this offer was initially supported by the Labor government of the time, both major parties have been equally complicit in the horrible circumstances that we still face today – that’s regarding asylum seekers and refugees both offshore and onshore.
Within this context, fair-minded, reasonable and even compassionate Australians have been led to a position in 2020, where they’re capable of looking away when literally hundreds of innocent refugees are still being locked up in alternative places of detention (APODs), within their own communities, such as the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne.
Senator Michaelia Cash told parliament that while her government appreciates the NZ offer, it’s still focused on the US resettlement deal. How do you respond to that?
Any member of parliament who still prefers to argue why these people shouldn’t immediately be let go is only propagating the same demonisation of these people that’s been going on for so long.
There’s no reason why it hasn’t been accepted over the last seven years. And I’m thankful to New Zealand for it.
It’s difficult for Australians sometimes to take a step back and reflect on where we actually are at this point in our history.
If we go back 20 years to the turn of the century, we were in a very different place. Fast forward to where we are now, and you wouldn’t have believed that we would be capable of harming people in the way that we’ve done to these several thousand innocent people.
So, for any MP to continue to argue that there’s any rational reason for either not accepting the New Zealand deal or alternatively, to continue to put it off until some indeterminate point down the track is just disgusting. It’s pure politics.
These human beings are nothing more than political prisoners: that’s the reality of the matter. There’s no rational reason to do this.
If any Australian was in this position anywhere else in the world and was being treated in this way by a foreign government, every one of us would be stepping forward, raising our voice and saying that it’s not on.
But we find ourselves in a position where the popular media has demonised these poor people for so long that they’re stuck in an endless hell.
There are those who have entered the US process and are already well down that track. But there are hundreds more people who aren’t involved and have no long-term solution.
Given that the New Zealand election has recently finished, now is the ideal time for Australians to step forward to say, “Not another day. Why one more day? Why more self-harm?”
We had another attempted self-harm up at Kangaroo Point only weeks ago.
We’ve got ongoing and escalating psychological trauma among thousands of people. We’ve got over a thousand people who were on Manus Island and Nauru still stuck in the community without financial support or a long-term solution.
It’s just an ongoing humanitarian disaster. And as Australians, our future generations are never going to forgive us for willingly letting this occur.
As you’ve mentioned, we’ve got former offshore detainees who were brought to Australia under Medevac, who are now being detained in hotels, receiving little treatment.
What are your thoughts on the plight of these men?
I’d like Australians to understand that all of these people are innocent, and they’re nothing more than political pawns.
The mischaracterisation of these people has been constant, improper and disgraceful. And it’s led us to a point where Australians are listening to regular facetious arguments about why we should continue to psychologically and physically torture these people.
That’s the point here. And I say this as a very proud Australian, and one who’s been a long-term member of the media, and very active in trying to move us forward.
The point here is not just trying to get these refugees and asylum seekers to safety – of course, that’s the most important thing, on a human level.
But the larger point is trying to move us as a country past this horrific era, when we’ve demonstrated that we’re capable of committing these types of acts on innocent people.
The International Criminal Court ruled that what we’ve done to these people constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. That’s the reality that every Australian has to come to terms with.
As someone who played for the country, I’m simply not comfortable with that. I’m proud that I am not comfortable with that, and I’d like to think that I’ll never be comfortable with that.
My call to all Australians is to get uncomfortable and decide with hundreds of thousands of us that this should never be who we are.
Following your retirement from SBS, you’ve picked up your campaigning on behalf of refugees. You’re out meeting and speaking with the public on these issues.
It’s often said that the government is continuing this process because it thinks it wins votes. What are your thoughts on this assertion?
Both Labor and the LNP have been involved in this policy. But putting political allegiances aside, the larger issue is that Australia has been put in this position.
I’m interested in two things: getting these poor people to safety and having a conversation with Australia to move us as a country to a place where no political party in the future can put other human beings through this without political pain.
Clearly, in the last 10 years the opposite has been the case. Because of the mischaracterisation of these innocent people, Australia has been in a place where it’s actually to the political advantage of major parties to treat innocent people this way.
And that’s the really confronting aspect for all Australians. We need to accept that we’re a part of this. Just attacking one government or another is not going to solve the problem.
The real problem is that there’s been political capital in mistreating these people. We’ve had deaths. We’ve had self-harm.
I know this because I campaign on it and speak to many people that I come into contact with who are otherwise wonderful Australians.
I see normal and everyday Australians with views so skewed because of what the popular media has done to these poor people.
And lastly, Mr Foster, this has been going on for going on eight years now, much longer than most expected.
You’re now calling for the government to take up the New Zealand offer, but, in your opinion, what’s going to create this larger turnaround you’re referring to?
In order to achieve anything, there either needs to be a change in the views of a mass of Australians – which comes from people power – or it needs to be a change at the political level.
Refugee advocates everywhere are bringing to light much of the harm that’s occurred to these poor people.
I’m just one of them: an everyday Australian trying to change the way Australia is going to act in the future.
More pressure needs to be brought to bear by more Australians in order to put this and future governments in a position where the only decision that they can make is to treat people with dignity, respect and with their basic human rights.
Photos used with the permission of Amnesty International
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.