More than 400 people in Canberra last night demanded that the federal government bring a key witness to the murder of asylum seeker Reza Barati on the Manus Island off-shore detention centre two years ago today, to Australia for safety.
Participants in a public forum unanimously passed a motion asking the government to bring Behnam Satah to Australia to guarantee his safety. He has reportedly received death threats and is in poor mental and physical health.
The forum on ‘Spin and Secrecy; Refugees and the Media’ also passed a motion demanding the government not send 267 asylum seekers – threatened with deportation after a recent High Court ruling – back to Nauru. The motion supported offers of sanctuary to these asylum seekers from churches, state and territory governments, unions and other organisations.
RAC spokesperson Associate Professor Dr John Minns said that the motions would be sent to key government and opposition figures.
Speakers at the forum organised by the Canberra Refugee Action Committee stressed the role of government spin and secrecy in framing public opinion on asylum seekers and refugees. Examples included use of terms such as “illegal” to refer to asylum seekers whose right to seek asylum is guaranteed by international law.
Guardian Australia immigration correspondent, Ben Doherty said that language was now being used as a weapon rather than to explain the circumstances of asylum seekers and refugees. “There is a deliberate manipulation and distortion of the issues,” he said.
Mr Doherty said that the language around asylum seekers had been militarised with the situation now being treated as a security rather than a humanitarian issue. Audiences in Europe were “staggered” to see press conferences about Australian Government asylum seeker policy being conducted with senior army figures in uniform. “It’s very hard to know what’s happening as the government controls the information,” he said.
Journalist and commentator Paul Bongiorno said that the obsession with secrecy meant that Australians were able to hide from themselves what was being done.
“We don’t want to be told,” he said. “We don’t want to see what’s being done in our name.” However the recent release of images of Australian-born babies now threatened with deportation to Nauru and resultant front page media coverage had brought home that these were real children.
Mr Bongiorno said that supporters of asylum seekers and refugees were often dismissed as ‘bleeding hearts’. “But what is wrong with a bleeding heart?” he said. “What is wrong with compassion?”
Dr Minns said that the overflow crowd attracted to last night’s crowd was encouraging. “It’s time to change the debate on asylum seekers and live up to our humanitarian and international obligations to support traumatised people fleeing suffering and death in their own countries,” he said.
Forum speakers were:
Paul Bongiorno contributing editor for Ten News, commentator for The Saturday Paper and regular commentator on the ABC, who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2014 for “significant service to the print and broadcast media as a journalist, political commentator and editor”.
Ben Doherty two-time Walkley Award winner Guardian Australia immigration correspondent and as Thomson Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford in 2015 author of Call Me Illegal: the semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia.
Cartoonis First Dog on the Moon who was awarded the 2012 Walkley Award for Best Political Cartoon.
Dr Michelle Dunne Breen a former journalist and now lecturer and research fellow at the News and Media Research Centre University of Canberra.