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United Nations Association Of Australia Incorporated

Member World Federation of UN Associations, Geneva
Patron: Major General Michael Jeffery AC CVO MC (Retd)
Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia

P.O. Box 6021
O'Connor ACT 2602
Tel (02) 6259 5078

* * * Press Release * * *

29 March, 2004

Australia's Untold Story Released at the United Nations

A report highlighting the extensive work of Australians supporting refugees has been released at the United Nations in Geneva. The "Untold Story" contains personal testimonies of many Australians who have rejected official detention policy to offer friendship and practical support to people in detention.

The "Untold Story" shows that harsh detention policy has galvanised thousands of Australians into action, which is quite unprecedented. There are now fifty-six national and state based organisations and Rural Australians for Refugees has seventy-one groups in regional areas throughout the country. In addition informal groups like Kids who Care and Baxter Mums are emerging in schools and the community.

The report compiled on the basis of a United Nations Association questionnaire reveals that significant personal relationships have developed between so many Australians and asylum seekers and those released on temporary protection visas. People from all age groups and backgrounds are involved and the overwhelming majority reveal a deep sense of shame about the way the Australian Government has punished vulnerable people.

As one elderly lady wrote

"I am 80 years old and a refugee from Hitler's Germany and I escaped in 1939 so I felt that I have to try and help others as I was helped."

National President of UNAA Margaret Reynolds said: "releasing this report at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva is intended to send a clear message that many Australians DO welcome refugees and are actively involved in trying to compensate for oppressive government policy."

"Furthermore we hope it shows that wherever there is injustice ordinary people will mobilise to protect the human rights of others."

The report will be fully discussed at a public forum of human rights defenders on Tuesday 30th April at the United Nations.

A copy of the report follows

Margaret Reynolds may be contacted
on 4122 732 0840 or 0418 181 843

Australians Welcome Refugees
The Untold Story:

A report to the 60th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights - April 2004

Prepared by Margaret Reynolds
National President
United Nations Association of Australia
Email: marg2003 (at)

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Who Supports Asylum Seekers?
Awareness Of Australia's Arbitrary Detention Policy
Why Are People So Involved?
How Are Asylum Seekers Supported?
The Future?


"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter" (Martin Luther King Jr)

This report aims to give just a snapshot of the efforts many Australians are making to help asylum seekers confined within prison like detention centres in isolated areas of Australia or in the Pacific.

Australia continues to attract widespread criticism for its punitive policies towards asylum seekers. The legacy of Tampa, SIEV X, the Pacific Solution and the arbitrary detention of families behind razor wire has seriously damaged our reputation as a tolerant nation.

These events and policies have galvanised thousands of Australians into action to personally support individuals and to lobby for reform. It is almost impossible to precisely detail the range of formal and informal organisations that have been established throughout Australia in the last three years. The National Directory of Refugees Australia lists fifty-six national and state based organisations. Rural Australians for Refugees details seventy-one websites of groups in regional areas.

There are other groups large and small - Kids Who Care, Armidale Sanctuary, Baxter Mums - which have emerged from schools, workplaces and community organisations. They meet in halls, lecture theatres and around each others kitchen tables. Actors, filmmakers, poets, writers, artists and crafts people have donated their time and talents to portray the plight of asylum seekers. School children have been involved in letter writing and a national essay competition organised by Australians Against Racism. Retirees and fruit growers have become politicised to organise protest rallies and delegations to Parliament. Grandparents have coordinated fundraising visits and legal appeals, while young people have collected toys for children in detention.

Sporting heroes have spoken out publicly. The first Muslim soccer team the Tiger II has attracted enormous support nationally when Hazara boys on Temporary Protection Visas were encouraged to form their own team. Professional groups representing - lawyers, doctors, teachers and nurses - have each publicly stated their concern for the health and well being of asylum seekers.

Hundreds of appeals are in the courts and the media constantly reports on new evidence against the punitive policy.

The range and level of activity is unprecedented in Australian history. So many Australians have rejected this official policy and rallied to provide friendship and practical support to asylum seekers. Hundreds of visits have been made and thousands of gifts, letters, photos, emails and phone calls exchanged which has made life in isolation a little more bearable. Significant relationships have developed between asylum seekers and their Australian friends.

This is the untold story of what can be achieved by determined citizens who have found ways to counter the oppressive policies of government. In February 2004, the United Nations Association of Australia circulated a questionnaire to help document "The Untold Story" about Australians who welcome refugees. We have been overwhelmed with responses that are both personal and deeply moving accounts of how many Australians have been affected by a policy they believe shames all Australians.

It is impossible to include in this report all the detail of efforts individuals are making to compensate for government policy. However, in selecting material for this report, we hope that the personal dedication of so many people shows that when governments deny the humanity of others, many citizens will respond with generosity and compassion.

We hope this report highlights the depth of concern large numbers of Australians have about the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers. In detailing these personal experiences we want to show that punitive policies are extremely damaging and will be strongly resisted by those who value universal human rights.

Who Supports Asylum Seekers?

What are the backgrounds of people who commit themselves and their families to adopting strangers from around the world. How do they manage to adapt to different languages and cultures? Why do some people decide to reject official government policy to offer friendship and support?

There is no single identikit for the type of individual who has become an advocate for the well being of asylum seekers in Australia. They are young and old, rich and poor, professional and unskilled, retired and unemployed. Some are still at school while others are focusing on university studies in human rights and international low. A wide diversity of occupations is reflected in their backgrounds - scientists, nurses, psychologists, farmers, fruit growers, teachers, public servants, lawyers and doctors have all indicated their commitment to the basic principles of United Nations human rights standards in the treatment of asylum seekers arriving in Australia.

A number of individuals work in the public sector in areas like immigration, welfare, foreign policy, defense, customs and policing. Several have expressed concern about the way their professionalism has been compromised by government policy.

A navy officer wrote:

The youngest respondent wrote:

Several elderly people identified their age and experience to emphasise the imperative they felt to "just do something".

One wrote:

Some were very aware of their own heritage as coming from immigrant families.

A large number of respondents simply identified themselves as mums, dads or grandparents. A group of women from a Victorian country town formed a group called "Baxter Mums" to demonstrate their role in supporting young men in the South Australian Baxter Detention Centre hundreds of kilometers west of their homes.

Several individuals identified their own personal family tragedy of ill health, yet found it essential to try to alleviate the suffering of others.

Awareness of Australian's Arbitrary Detention Policy

A majority of people was alerted to the harsh reality of Australian's arbitrary detention policies when the Norwegian ship "Tampa" was refused permission to land asylum seekers rescued off the northwestern coast of Australia in 2001.

The overall climate of insecurity generated by terrorist attacks in America was manipulated during the Federal Election Campaign when politicians used misleading language to portray asylum seekers as "illegal arrivals", "queue jumpers" and even on occasions possibly "terrorists".

The campaign sloganeering "we must protect our borders" further entrenched the view that these outsiders were a threat and because they were locked in prison like detention camps, many Australians were convinced asylum seekers must be criminals.

Yet many Australians are deeply troubled by the direction of this official policy.

Several people reported as Australians living overseas at the time.

Several respondents had knowledge and experience of detention policy before the Tampa Controversy.

Many Australians became aware of arbitrary detention through extensive media coverage.

Why are people so involved?

Most respondents felt personally motivated to both show support for people incarcerated in detention centers and to change a policy they found totally unjust and un-Australian.

People who have visited detention centres or met those released on temporary protection visas report a range of emotions.

How Are Asylum Seekers Supported?

The determined energy and commitment of so many Australian refugee advocates can only be glimpsed through just a few examples.

Thousands of letters and gifts have been sent to asylum seekers in detention in Australia and off shore islands. Phone calls can keep people in touch, but many Australians have never met their new friends yet feel extremely close to them.

The Future?

Because our every action has a universal dimension, a potential impact on others' happiness, ethics are necessary, as a means to ensure that we do not harm others. (His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

This report has attempted to detail just a glimpse of the human interaction that has occurred between Australians and detained asylum seekers. My special thanks to everyone who has contributed, your words and actions are inspirational. To all those people in detention or on temporary protection visas thank you for your tolerance and friendship.

We cannot know if documenting these experiences will lead to policy reform. Is it possible that political decision makers are prepared to be guided by citizens who have put humanity and principle ahead of opportunism and xenophobia?

However we do know that as long as arbitrary detention remains in Australia there will be determined human rights advocates working in countless ways "just to make a difference".

As one young woman wrote:

"The support that I give to my friend in detention is very basic. I simply visit whenever possible to sit and have a chat. This may not sound like much but it can make a world of difference. I am sure even if I went and sat in silence with him for two hours it would not matter. It is the value of the knowledge that there are Australians who care, and that Australia as a whole is not trying to reject him that is important."

As this report shows many Australians do welcome refugees and we have aimed to document some personal experiences in this continuing untold story.

Margaret Reynolds, National President
United Nations Association of Australia

March 2004