Posts Tagged ‘refugees’

dialogue

 

This blog is a re-purposing of an exchange I just had with a dear friend on Facebook. I know this friend to be a sincere man, who thinks deeply. His identity is irrelevant. The discussion isn’t.

Begins:

But what you don’t seem to appreciate, [name], is that all your bile (or rather the bile in the websites and news services you quote) is aimed at Muslims. I would ask you to consider the following:

>We’re pissed off about being branded a racist when we speak out for what we believe in

No, people are branded racists when they categorise an entire people as being one thing – less intelligent, more violent, more hateful, etc – when clearly that cannot be applied to all the people in that group. Calling out “all Muslims” – or “all Anyone” of course – IS racist, because no one group is homogenous.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught crap at school

Well, you’d have to give me an example. The schools I deal with, judging the Ainger Awards, for example, seem to be turning out very aware, balanced and thoughtful kids, chock full of stuff I never knew. And my daughter, who has had to work very hard, has progressed to doing a PhD in neuroscience from a not-especially-academic Christian school, so I am pretty impressed with that.

Maybe your experience is different. I’m all ears.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught that they can go to whatever toilet they like

Unisex toilets are hardly the barbarians at the gate, and if they make life easier for transgender teenagers I have no problem with them. I find kids today much more respectful of each other’s space than we were. I suspect it’s just a change, and change can be scary. I haven’t heard a single case of it causing a problem, here or anywhere – but I have heard plenty of middle aged people going volcanic about it.

>communities are dropping Christmas celebrations

Certainly not in Melbourne. Carols by Candlelight was great this year. Are you sure this is happening, or have you heard of one or two nutjobs going on about it, and beat it up into a “thing”?

PS Muslims think Christ was a holy man, too. Our neighbours gave us a lovely card and a generous gift this year.

>we’re pissed off that Muslim only housing estates are being built in Australia

Why? If people want to live together, let them. We have Chinese retirement homes in Doncaster – the fabric of society seems remarkably unchallenged. We have had Jewish-only schools, homes and – frankly – suburbs for decades. No one cares less. Are you just afraid of something of which you have no real experience?

>we’re pissed off because Anzac Day marches have to be cancelled because RSL clubs can’t afford the extra security due to threat of terror attacks

Here we can agree totally. But you also need to remember that we have had as many terror incidents from bikie gangs and the far right Nazis in Australia as we have had from Muslims. Beating up fear about a virtually unheard of event – a terrorist attack in Australia – only serves to make people anxious. Sure, anything can happen, but the fact is we are a very long way from everywhere, and 99.99999% recurring of our population are law abiding and peaceful. Certainly as regards politics and religion. I know a few bookies who should be inside …

>we’re pissed off because every time we become part of a large crowd we’re looking over our shoulder

Yes, yes, yes – but I have to be frank with you, this has been going on pretty much since the beginning of society. Sadly, there is always someone ready to throw a bomb or lash out with a gun or a sword, and right now most of them are from extremist minority sects of Islam. But it wasn’t long ago, for example, that the world was just as transfixed by the activities of the Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades (some of whose attacks were CIA-led false flag attacks, by the way), the Fenians chucked grenades and bombs around willy nilly for about 150 years in the UK, anarchists started World War 1, etc etc.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.” Whilst what is happening know is horrible, and deplorable and indefensible, it isn’t actually all that different to centuries of conflict. If you want it to stop, find peaceful solutions, rather than pretending there is some new great conspiracy threatening your tea and toast.

I will say this – the main problem with Islamic extremism at the moment is the conflict between Shia and Sunni, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and the only reason we even know about it is because we have interpolated ourselves into their countries in a most aggressive and colonial way, instead of leaving the Arabs and the Persians to sort it out themselves. We made ourselves sitting ducks by insanities like invading Iraq when we had no clear reason why – except to secure oil supplies, as Alexander Downer admitted – absolutely predictably de-stabilising the entire region – and NOT intervening when the majority of the Syrian population asked us to, to get rid of the brutal Assad regime, because we were so burned by our own idiocy in Iraq.

In Iraq alone, over 500,000 civilians have died, 100% because of the instability caused by OUR actions, if not necessarily by our direct actions.

We let our politicians do that.

22 died in Manchester. Which breaks my heart. And I condemn it utterly. But think about it. Think about the half a million in Iraq alone. Think about the four million displaced from Syria. Can you understand why some people, not me, at all, but some people, don’t understand why we feel so threatened, compared to them?

Advertisements
Lorries drive along a protection fence, preventing access to a circular road leading to the port of Calais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

Lorries drive along a protection fence, preventing access to a circular road leading to the port of Calais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

 

The story of the youngest-ever refugee killed trying to enter UK from Calais should be made into a movie. It would change people’s minds about the topic overnight.

The fifteen-year-old Afghan boy  – who cannot be named until his family in Afghanistan are officially informed of his death – was trying to stow away on a lorry in Calais.

He was technically eligible to receive asylum in the UK but the paperwork had been taking a long time to come through.

Paperwork. Government code for “deliberately dragging our feet to avoid our legal responsibilities and pander to sick, anti-refugee sentiment”.

He was out with his cousin, a 17-year-old refugee staying in the same camp, in the early hours of Friday morning. The two boys managed to climb onto the roof of a lorry. Witnesses said the driver noticed them and swerved from left to right to knock them off.

We ask: How is that not murder?

The youngest boy was thrown to the ground, in the path of oncoming traffic. Witnesses told Care4Calais.org he was run over three or four times. It’s also been reported the drivers didn’t stop to check on him.

Other refugees came to the aid of the boy and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. When police noticed the body they called an ambulance, but he was dead by the time it arrived, 15-20 minutes later.

Again: the boy had a legal right to claim asylum in the UK. His brother is already resident in the country so he should have been given permission to join him, but he was fed up of the feet-dragging of the authorities responsible for his papers.

While he waited he was living in squalid conditions and had begun taking matters into his own hands, trying to hide on cross-channel lorries and even creeping onto the axles of vehicles.

The as-yet un-named young boy.

The as-yet un-named young boy.

Friends and relatives said he was desperate for an education.

He’d fled Afghanistan months earlier, aged 14, after the Taliban prevented him from attending school and tried to force him to become a suicide bomber.

His father feared for his life and sent him away.

The teenager had already travelled through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Germany. Imagine. A fifteen year old. Imagine he was your son.

“He was a kind boy with a good mind, he was trying to learn English in the camp and hoping to go back to school when he reached the UK,” said Abdul, an Afghan friend from the camp.

Calais-based charities say his death is the 13th this year and he is the third child to have died.

“Every day the British and French governments continue to delay taking appropriate and timely action more and more desperate children and adults gamble with their lives. This senseless loss of life must stop,” said Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais.org.

Be part of the solution. Share this tragic story. Change minds.

FailYesterday we reported on how Facebook sometimes very obviously fails to protect individuals or groups from hate speech on its pages, even when it claims to do so.

Meanwhile, we continue to oppose racists who pop up spouting their hateful filth on otherwise reasonable threads.

Today, we were talking with the racists about the many refugees who have made a fabulous contribution to Australian society, like Michael Gawenda, one of Australia’s leading journalists and editors from Poland, Tony Le Nguyen, the Vietnamese actor and social activist, and Matur Gak, a doctor from Sudan.

When these stories were offered as evidence for the irrationality of their fear of refugees, this was the response:

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 2.07.26 pm

 

We may be mad – obsessive, quixotic, take your pick. But we are not prepared to let people assert this sort of nonsense un-challenged.

So this was our reply:

I am not sure why you would assume 95% of refugees going to Europe are male. Where do you get your facts, from? NaziOpinionsAreUs?

The United Nations has registered over 4.2 million Syrian refugees, a step in seeking asylum from other countries, and has a demographic snapshot of about half of them. Of the 2.1 million registered in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon there’s a pretty even split in gender: about 50.5% are women and 49.7% are men. For men and women, the bulk of refugees (a little under a quarter each) are between the age of 18 and 59.

It is true that in 2015 there were a surge in young men, about 62% of all migrants that have traveled to Europe in this year were men. A little under a quarter, 22%, were children and 16% were women. This is caused by two factors: firstly previous refugee flows from Syria and Iraq were heavily biased towards women, the men traveled later. Secondly, young men in 2015 were fleeing round-up forced recruitment drives for the Syrian army, and most of these young men would have been shot or made to fight their own people had they not fled.

I know you are utterly ignorant of these facts. What I don’t understand, when they are freely available on the internet by a simple Google search, is why you persist in repeating vile rubbish. Do you think you’re funny? Are you just having what passes for you as fun? Well, you say or do what you like. Most of the rest of us want to get on with building a peaceful, productive and happy country. One that the ANZACs would be proud of.

(It is Australia’s national holiday next week, to remember the Australians and New Zealanders who have fallen fighting for their country. These types often make a big play of their support for the Day. Pointing out how their opinions are exactly the crap the ANZACs were fighting against is another vital piece of agit-prop. And one they never care to answer, in our experience.)

 

The day ANZAC was most obviously co-opted by violent racists - the Cronulla riots of 2005. As the New South Wales then Returned Servicemens' League President, Don Rowe, later explained: “We were absolutely disgusted. That is the last thing that Anzac is interpreted as being. The Anzac spirit is mateship, looking after one another . . . you certainly don’t go around waving flags and call yourself an Anzac and go around belting people up. That’s totally the opposite to what Anzac is.”

The day ANZAC was most obviously co-opted by violent racists – the Cronulla riots of 2005. As the New South Wales then Returned Servicemens’ League President, Don Rowe, later explained: “We were absolutely disgusted. That is the last thing that Anzac is interpreted as being. The Anzac spirit is mateship, looking after one another . . . you certainly don’t go around waving flags and call yourself an Anzac and go around belting people up. That’s totally the opposite to what Anzac is.”

 

Before you ask “Why bother arguing with racists?” we’ll give you the answer, because that’s easy. Racism must be opposed wherever it rears its flithy head because other people read racists’ poison and without a countervailing point of view they become convinced by it all too easily.

That’s how fascism happens.

And that’s what has happened in large parts of the American public, right now. It can happen anywhere. In any culture. Of any type.

Racism and fascism are Siamese twins, and they rise unchecked when logic, rationality and patient, evidence-based debate flies out of the window.

My father fought in a World War for six long years to protect a civilised society. We will not allow his sacrifice to be tossed away on the funeral pyre of populist bullshit, nor the efforts of millions or others.

 

The Pacific island of Nauru

The tiny, barren island nation of Nauru holds refugees while Australia processes their asylum claims.

An Iranian asylum seeker has been fined for trying to kill himself during an attempt to move him and his daughter from an Australian-funded detention centre on the island of Nauru.

Sam Nemati, sole guardian of the eight-year-old girl, admitted the charge and was ordered to pay A$200 ($155; £109).

Mr Nemati had been in the detention centre for two years.

Australia relocates all refugees trying to reach the country by boat to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The process is extremely controversial despite being supported by both the Liberal-National Coalition Government and Opposition Labor party.

Nauru is a small Pacific island nation about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) north-east of Australia. It was previously administered by Australia but gained independence in 1968.

Deterring a ‘Method of protest’

Prosecutors had originally sought a two-month custodial sentence for Mr Nemati, arguing that such a sentence could be used as a deterrent, as reported in Australian media.

“We are concerned that this method of protest is being used and want to stamp out this practice,” prosecutors said.

The pair moved to Nibok Lodge in January, where Mr Nemati said his daughter would have more children to play with. But authorities said they were not authorised to live there, and moved to evict the pair on 21 January.

Mr Nemati became distressed when officers began removing his belongings, and attempted to take his own life. He was taken to hospital for medical treatment before being charged and subsequently detained for two weeks in February.

Old penal code

The law against attempted suicide in Nauru is based on the 1899 Queensland Criminal Code. But while Queensland has since repealed that particular law, attempted suicide remains illegal in Nauru.

Other existing offences under the code include witchcraft, sorcery and fortune-telling.

In early February, the High Court upheld Australia’s asylum policy as legal under the country’s constitution. The ruling paved the way for around 267 people, including 37 babies, to be deported to Nauru. Despite this, huge numbers of people have protested the establishment of “concentration camps” to hold asylum seekers, pointing out that it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, and urged the government – as a minimum move – to bring asylum seekers to the Australian mainland.

(BBC and others)

Wellthisiswhatithink says: Just another example of the breathtaking brutality of this detention regime, which is a shame to Australia, inhumane and unsustainable. Although in general Australia has a generous refugee resettlement program by world standards, the country is extremely wealthy and can definitely afford to do more. This type of thing is ruining our international reputation.

 

No. Europe 2016.

 

Europe

Somali-womanVia Mamamia

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is attempting to send Abyan, the Somali refugee who fell pregnant after allegedly being raped on Nauru, back to the island.

Abyan was brought to Australia earlier this week to have her pregnancy terminated, but according to refugee advocates she may be returned to Nauru as early as this afternoon (Friday afternoon, Australian time).

According the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), the 23-year-old was grabbed from her room at Villawood detention centre this morning.

 

villawood 720x547

Refugee advocates say Abyan was grabbed from Villawood this morning. Image via Getty.

She has not seen any counsellors, nor been advised of any medical arrangements for her planned termination.

RAC spokesperson Ian Rintoul told Mamamia that he had met with Abyan on Tuesday morning and she had requested to see a counsellor regarding the termination of her pregnancy.

“She is clearly distressed and said that she needed time and wanted to talk to counsellors and doctors about the termination of her pregancy,” he said. “She said she had suffered too much on Nauru and she wanted to have that information before she made that final decision.”

Mr Rintoul said Abyan had received nothing in the way of counselling or the normal medical treatment that would usually be given to a victim of sexual assault.

“Immigration is claiming that Abyan has declined to proceed with the termination, but this has not been confirmed with Abyan herself,” he said. “This attempt to remove her is the most shocking violation of her rights imaginable. It is a vindictive move by the government against someone who has already suffered months of unnecessary trauma on Nauru. This removal to Nauru must be stopped.”

 

PeterDuttonFeature

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Image via Getty.

Abyan’s case first attracted the attention of the media after a video was aired on ABC’s 7.30 program, describing an incident in which she and another 26-year-old Somali woman were raped by two Nauruan men. The second woman, Namjan (not her real name), is currently on Nauru, where the government is threatening her with charges of “false complaint” over the rape allegations.

“She again is very distressed,” Mr Rintoul said. “She is aware of what the government is saying and is most immediately aware of the threats that await her if she leaves her accommodation.

“They are threatening to expose her and to kill her… She said she is very, very afraid.” RAC are urging everyone who has been moved by Abyan’s plight and the situation of refugee women on Nauru to contact the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister and demand that they put a halt to Abyan’s removal.

You can call Malcolm Turnbull’s office on (02) 6277 7700 or Peter Dutton on (02) 6277 7860. Or email them at malcolm.turnbull.mp@aph.gov.au and minister@immi.gov.au

Is this how a civilised country should treat people. What do you think?

UPDATE

WE WERE TOO LATE TO PREVENT THIS DISGRACE.

http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/oct/16/australia-secretly-flies-pregnant-asylum-seeker-back-to-nauru-before-hearing

Again.

Seven dead after Greek coastguard vessel hits migrant boat

The lifeless body of a young child was carried out of the water after a migrant boat sank after colliding with a Greek coastguard vessel.

 

This the tragic moment a young child’s dead body was pulled from the sea after a Greek coastguard ship collided with a migrant vessel near the island of Lesbos.

At least seven people, including four children, died when the wooden boat travelling from Turkey to Europe sank on Thursday. The boat sank within minutes of the crash with a 30-metre patrol vessel on Thursday morning, in circumstances that were being investigated. Sources said the boat was seeking to evade the patrol vessel.

Three other victims, “a woman, a man and a minor”, were found later, the coastguard said as Greek rescuers backed by a Portuguese ship and an EU border agency Frontex helicopter combed the waters for the missing.

The 31 survivors who were brought to safety had reported a total of eight people missing.

 

An AFP photographer who witnessed the crash from the shores of Lesbos said the boat went down just two or three minutes after the collision, which took place some two kilometres from land.

The photographer saw rescuers scrambling to pull people out of the water, with a second coastguard vessel and a Frontex helicopter arriving on the scene around 10 minutes later.

The nationalities of the migrants is not yet known but Greece is the primary destination of Syrian migrants fleeing the civil war, via Turkey, trying to find sanctuary in the EU.

 

Two men carry a woman's lifeless body from the sea after she drowned off the coast of Lesbos. Source: Reuters.

Two men carry a woman’s lifeless body from the sea after she drowned off the coast of Lesbos. Source: Reuters.

Scores of migrants have died making the perilous Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.

On Wednesday, a woman, a young girl and a baby died after their boat sank off Lesbos. In total, more than 450,000 people have arrived in Greece, most of them fleeing the civil war in Syria. The International Organization for Migration says more than 600,000 migrants have landed on Europe’s shores since January, while more than 3,000 had died or gone missing in the attempt. Approximately 4 million Syrians are internally or externally displaced.

What this latest tragedy underscores, yet again, is the crucial need for the countries surrounding the Middle East to open up more legal channels for people fleeing war and persecution, so that they do not have to risk their lives to reach safety, a point made repeatedly by the UN refugee agency.

Some years ago, we predicted with shattering accuracy in this blog exactly what was about to occur in Syria. Before it started.

If the future conflict in all its horror was clear to a blogger thousands of miles away in Australia, we cannot understand how it was ignored by all the great and good, by those who are paid to know, by those who are tasked to avoid these things.

Instead we stumbled into an entirely avoidable civil war, with hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, with vast swathes of land now ruled by a murderous end-of-days fundamentalist regime that murders and destroys at will and is very likely un-defeatable, with other areas controlled by an Al-Qaeda affiliate that is apparently now our ally, with 4 million refugees, and a once relatively wealthy country reduced to rubble. And with a disgusting fascist regime clinging tenaciously to power, supported by a superpower ally who is now steadily installing forces in the regime’s defence on the ground.

You may wish to consider purchasing this t-shirt. It is consistently one of the most popular I sell, and the most commented on when I wear it myself. Buy a shirt, change the world, one person’s opinion at a time. It might not seem much, but it’s better than doing nothing. And the great strength of the design is that it doesn’t matter which side of the conflict you “support” … and it is also, of course, applicable to a variety of other conflicts worldwide.

http://www.cafepress.com/yolly.431431249

Stop bombing civilians

Buy the shirt, change the world one person’s opinion at a time.

Oh, and if you’re one of those asking why Syrian refugees don’t go back where they came from, well, this is why.

Destroyed buildings in Syria's besieged central city of Homs following shelling during fighting between government and opposition forces.

Destroyed buildings in Syria’s besieged central city of Homs following shelling during fighting between government and opposition forces.

The ruling Coalition in Australia has agreed to provide 12,000 Syrian refugees with permanent safety in Australia.1 It’s a complete turnaround on Tony Abbott’s decision last week not to increase refugee intake – and a victory demonstrating the power people created when we stand together in hope and compassion.

Less than a week ago, we all awoke to the harrowing photo of little Aylan Kurdi, drowned. We read the story of a family torn apart by a tragedy marked by global indifference. And we saw our government’s attempt to shut down compassion with their usual mindless, endlessly-repeated slogan, ‘Stop the Boats’.

The pressure group Get Up decided to take action in response to our government’s indifference. To shine a light in the dark – with thousands of us organising and attending vigils all over the Australia, vigils that hit front pages, headlines, and news bulletins all over the country.

Together, GetUp members and our friends across the movement transformed the community grief and despair from the death of Aylan Kurdi into powerful public pressure to offer safety to Syrian refugees. Now the lives of 12,000 people fleeing danger will dramatically change for the better.

This is an incredible new beginning. We have broken through the wall of cruelty that has stood around Australian refugee policy for far too long. Now, let’s bring it tumbling down completely.

We must not stop until fairness and compassion are always the Australian response.

The story of a successful movement of voters.

On Monday, GetUp members and friends, family and allies came together to act – lighting the dark in the tens of thousands in cities and towns across the country. And images of those vigils didn’t only light up the front pages and nightly news; they lit a fire under MPs and leaders on both sides of the political divide. Politicians arguing for generosity pointed to our vigils as a sign of powerful public sentiment.2

The effect of this mass movement demanding compassion is clear. On Monday morning, Tony Abbott was still refusing to move more than a token amount. But after the nationwide vigils began, on Tuesday morning this was the remarkable front page of the right-leaning Murdoch-published Victorian Herald Sun:

Front Page of Herald Sun 8 Sep 2015

And today? Today we’ve changed everything.

For the first time in so long, the Australian government is acting with true humanity towards refugees, providing real, permanent safety to those in need, genuinely beginning to step up and play its part in the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Last Thursday, many of us felt helpless. But today, we can be filled with pride in Australia, and hope for what comes next. 

Because of what ordinary people did. Stood up and were counted.

The Prime Minister’s announcement isn’t perfect. But it’s so much more than anyone imagined was possible last week. Together, the people have moved the national conversation from fear and boats to understanding and welcome. We’ve moved from talking about whether Australia will help, to talking about how much Australia will do. Our headlines have been full of politicians of all stripes calling for Australia to do more for refugees, and be the generous country we know we can be. The same change of heart has been seen in most Western countries – with the very obvious exception of the USA. Of that, more another day.

The tide has changed.


Adelaide Light The Dark - SA crowd
Sydney
Light The Dark - Syd crowd
Melbourne

LIght The Dark - Melb kid
Perth
Light The Dark - Perth mom & kids
Light The Dark - Perth crowd

Extraordinary moments like this can’t happen in a vacuum – they’re only possible because of the tireless work of volunteers, organisers, allies, and the incredible commitment of so many people all over the country. Well done to them.

When it comes to Australia’s treatment of refugees, hope can be hard to come by. But by standing shoulder to shoulder this week, we proved just how much is possible. So a big thank you and congratulations to all the communities and people who have raised their voices this week, including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Amnesty International Australia, Welcome to Australia, Love Makes a Way, Refugee Action Coalition, ChillOut, Care Australia, Oxfam, and so many more for being a part of Light the Dark events and making bold statements for a better Australia.

References
[1] ‘Australia to accept an extra 12,000 Syrian refugees and will join US-led airstrikes’, The Guardian, 9 September 2015
[2] ‘Tony Abbott to confirm Syrian airstrikes as pressure grows over refugees’, The Guardian, 8 September 2015.

Most of all, a big thank you to the ORDINARY Australians who stood up to the counted – teenagers, mothers with small babies in their arms, fathers, brothers, Grandparents, working class, middle class, workers, retirees, people in suits straight from city offices, tradies in their overalls – the most mixed crowd we have ever seen at such an event. Ordinary people, saying “enough is enough”.

If people want to make an immediate donation to help 4 million Syrian refugees, the most direct way will be via the UNHCR Syria Crisis – Urgent Lifeline Appeal.

http://donate.unhcr.org/international/lifeline

refugees

Refugees are not breaking the law. They should always be treated with respect, and with courtesy. They should not be met with armed guards and batons.

They are not the problem. They are the result of the problem.

When our countries sell arms to dictators to attack their own people, we create the problem.

When through our own lack of care those arms find their way through nefarious means to extremist groups, we create the problem.

When we prefer war-war to jaw-jaw, we create the problem.

When we allow, through our indifference, those that rule us to carve up the world into opposing camps that jostle and claw for preference, we create the problem.

When we demonise those we disagree with as sub-human, not-like-us, dirty, feckless or dangerous, we create the problem.

Every time we applaud a simple slogan uttered by a self-seeking politician or media commentator, instead of working harder and seeking to understand the depth of a situation, we create the problem.

When we keep the wealth of the world gathered into our hands instead of sharing it fairly, when we allow traders to destabilise whole country’s economies to achieve a profitable statistical blip on their trading charts, and when as night follows day when those countries dissolve into riots and civil strife, then we create the problem.

Refugees are not the problem. They are the result of the problem.

And we cause the problem.

 

child

If you want to make an immediate donation to help 4 million Syrian refugees, the most direct way will be via the UNHCR. Click here.

  • Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes
  • New finding is first example in humans of the theory of epigenetic inheritance: the idea that environmental factors can affect the genes of your children
  • The team’s work is the clearest sign yet that life experience can affect the genes of subsequent generations.

In a fascinating study discussed in the Guardian newspaper and elsewhere, it seems that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations.

holocaustThe conclusion from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war.

They also analysed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

Her team’s work is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.

The idea is still highly controversial, as scientific convention states that genes contained in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations. However, our genes are modified by the environment all the time, through chemical tags that attach themselves to our DNA, switching genes on and off. Recent studies suggest that some of these tags might somehow be passed through generations, meaning our environment could have and impact on our children’s health. If so, it will provide a whole new area of preventative health care.

Other studies have proposed a more tentative connection between one generation’s experience and the next. For example, girls born to Dutch women who were pregnant during a severe famine at the end of the second world war had an above-average risk of developing schizophrenia. Likewise, another study has showed that men who smoked before puberty fathered heavier sons than those who smoked after.

GenesThe team were specifically interested in one region of a gene associated with the regulation of stress hormones, which is known to be affected by trauma. “It makes sense to look at this gene,” said Yehuda. “If there’s a transmitted effect of trauma, it would be in a stress-related gene that shapes the way we cope with our environment.”

They found epigenetic tags on the very same part of this gene in both the Holocaust survivors and their offspring, the same correlation was not found in any of the control group and their children. Through further genetic analysis, the team ruled out the possibility that the epigenetic changes were a result of trauma that the children had experienced themselves.

“To our knowledge, this provides the first demonstration of transmission of pre-conception stress effects resulting in epigenetic changes in both the exposed parents and their offspring in humans,” said Yehuda, whose work was published in Biological Psychiatry.

It’s still not clear how these tags might be passed from parent to child. Genetic information in sperm and eggs is not supposed to be affected by the environment – any epigenetic tags on DNA had been thought to be wiped clean soon after fertilisation occurs.

However, research by Azim Surani at Cambridge University and colleagues, has recently shown that some epigenetic tags escape the cleaning process at fertilisation, slipping through the net. It’s not clear whether the gene changes found in the study would permanently affect the children’s health, nor do the results upend any of our theories of evolution.

Whether the gene in question is switched on or off could have a tremendous impact on how much stress hormone is made and how we cope with stress, said Yehuda. “It’s a lot to wrap our heads around. It’s certainly an opportunity to learn a lot of important things about how we adapt to our environment and how we might pass on environmental resilience.”

The impact of Holocaust survival on the next generation has been investigated for years – the challenge has been to show intergenerational effects are not just transmitted by social influences from the parents or regular genetic inheritance, said Marcus Pembrey, emeritus professor of paediatric genetics at University College London.

“Yehuda’s paper makes some useful progress. What we’re getting here is the very beginnings of a understanding of how one generation responds to the experiences of the previous generation. It’s fine-tuning the way your genes respond to the world.”

Can you inherit a memory of trauma?

Researchers have already shown that certain fears might be inherited through generations, at least in animals.

Scientists at Emory University in Atlanta trained male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossom by pairing the smell with a small electric shock. Eventually the mice shuddered at the smell even when it was delivered on its own.

Despite never having encountered the smell of cherry blossom, the offspring of these mice had the same fearful response to the smell – shuddering when they came in contact with it. So too did some of their own offspring.

On the other hand, offspring of mice that had been conditioned to fear another smell, or mice who’d had no such conditioning had no fear of cherry blossom.

The fearful mice produced sperm which had fewer epigenetic tags on the gene responsible for producing receptors that sense cherry blossom. The pups themselves had an increased number of cherry blossom smell receptors in their brain, although how this led to them associating the smell with fear is still a mystery.

boy-infront-of-city-e1342200914945-1024x501

The implications of this study are surely enormous. One can only imagine the impact on children of parents living in vicious war zones like Syria and Iraq. The children of parents suffering the horrors of famine in Africa. What changes are we wreaking in our gene pool from the modern day stress of living in overcrowded urban environments, especially those that are grindingly poor, such as in Mexico, Brazil, the Phillipines, India and elsewhere?

And very close to home, what are the impacts on the eventual descendants of the poor people trapped in seemingly never-ending detention in the Australian  immigration system: people who have already suffered the trauma of leaving their homes as refugees, escaping persecution.

We have often heard “the sins of the fathers are vested in the children”. Now it seems their innocent suffering may be, too.

detainee

 

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, AUSTRALIA,
JULY 2014 ~ A POEM

 

She takes a bottle,

smashes it against a breeze block

they used to build the barracks

that bake at noon and sweat at midnight.

 

Sorts out a piece of glass

sharp, fits neatly in her hand

draws it across her slender wrist

a green transluscent bow ’cross a brown cello.

 

She lies back, deeply tired.

More tired than she thought possible

sun incessant on her face

and, dignified, hoses her life over the wooden steps.

 

Within a few minutes they come running.

Rush her to the infirmary

wrapping her, scolding her,

but she is silent, crying silent, bleeding silent.

 

A dozen at least like this, they say,

because if they die their children

will have a golden future.

Dreaming of the lucky country.

 

And in the Ministerial offices

a man with glasses and a poor haircut

says we do not comment on detainee self-harm

we could not possibly comment.

 

We lock them up.

We send them back.

We give them over.

We un-person them by not talking.

 

And on the island, the woman lies

wrists bandaged, children frightened.

She is an operational matter:

she operated on herself,

but we are not allowed to know.

 

The blood bakes black on the wooden steps.

Birds carol raucous in the trees.

Her children weep midst the breeze blocks.

Merry Christmas Island.

Not.

broken bottle

The as-yet un-named asylum seeker who attempted suicide yesterday.

The as-yet un-named asylum seeker who attempted suicide yesterday.

 

In just the latest horrific outcome of Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers, a Tamil refugee set himself on fire in Sydney last night after his appeal for continuation of his protection visa and resulting refugee status was rejected.

The man, believed to be in his late 20s, was taken to Concord Hospital after dousing himself in petrol outside his workplace in Balmain and setting himself alight. He has burns to about 98 per cent of his body. He is in an induced coma, having already undergone at least two skin-graft operations. There is a slim hope he may recover, although at that level of burns it frankly seems unlikely.

A friend, Balasingham Prabhakaran, said today the man, who is from the Batticaloa region in eastern Sri Lanka, had received a letter from the Immigration department telling him his application for a protection visa in Australia had been rejected and he must to return to Sri Lanka. He has been living in the community on a bridging visa for at least 18 months after fleeing Sri Lanka because of threats from authorities.

“He has told me he has a genuine fear about being sent back to Sri Lanka,” said Prabhakaran, who runs a 24-hour Tamil radio station in Sydney, Inbathamil Oli.

self immolation

Not something we think you’d do just because you want a job in Australia.

“He was very disillusioned after getting the letter on Tuesday.

He rang many of his friends to say ‘Hi’, and then after he finished his work as an office cleaner about 8.30 p.m., he went outside, and set himself alight.”

Apparently the refugee swallowed the petrol before pouring it on himself.

A number of workers from a nearby shipyard came to his aid, pouring water on him and trying to put out the flames.

“He had the can of petrol in his bag. It was obviously planned. They also found the rejection letter from Immigration and a two-page suicide note in his bag.”

Tamil Refugee Council spokesman, Aran Mylvaganam, said this sad case was further proof that the Australian government’s refugee policy was creating desperation among refugee and asylum-seeker communities. “I suppose the Minister for Immigration will just shrug this off as more collateral damage in the war on asylum-seekers,” he said.

Tamil Refugee Council spokesman Trevor Grant says the man is in a critical condition in Sydney’s Concord Hospital, with burns to most of his body.

“There is some hope that he may survive,” he said.

Paramedics treat asylum seeker for burns

Ambulance workers seek to save the young man’s life.

“They’re trying desperately to get his 65-year-old mother to Australia to be at his bedside, along with his brother.

“But he’s already had a number of surgeries, skin grafts etc., and he’s apparently going to have more today.”

The Federal Government is in contact with the Sri Lankan High Commission over the incident, said a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, adding that service providers did not hold or report any concerns about the man’s mental health.

The spokeswoman said in a statement:

“The government’s focus is to ensure for the proper care and support of this young man, in partnership with the Sri Lankan High Commission.

“The Minister is advised the young man had arrived in Australia in June 2012 and was released into the community on a bridging visa in October.

“In July 2013 he was found not to be owed protection and this decision was affirmed on appeal by the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) earlier this month.

“The young man was receiving support in the community from our service providers, while residing in the community on his bridging visa, as well as receiving migration advice under the IAAAS scheme in relation to his case.

“The Minister is advised that following receiving the news of the RRT decision, service providers did not hold or report any concerns about his state of mental health.”

But Mr Grant says the young man is one of many asylum seekers terrified of being sent home. “This is really an inevitable outcome of a policy that is purposely designed to create suffering in order to deter people,” he said. “This man has been one of some 20,000 in the community. They’re undergoing psychological torture not knowing what’s happening to them, living in fear every day of being returned to danger.”

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan authorities – as they would – sought to argue that there was no reason for Tamil refugees to fear returning to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Consul General for NSW and Queensland, Bandula Jayasekera says:

“It’s safe for anybody and everybody is looked after well,” he said. “It is also sad what these so called refugee advocates and so called lawyers are saying … and I see that as a bit of a business. “They have to look at the situation in Sri Lanka before going and commenting without any facts.”

Really, Sir? You might care to comment on recent reports suggesting the opposite. Perhaps Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison might care to comment as well? And it would be helpful if matters such as this could be reported more widely inside Australia and journalists press for more information from Government instead of being “fobbed off”.

Could all the politicians and diplomats concerned explain specifically, for example, why the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), in its annual human rights round up report and individual country of concern reports published today, expressed serious concern regarding the human rights situation in Sri Lanka?

Expanding on the reason behind the FCO involvement in securing a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling for an international investigation into war crimes, the report said:

“The UK sees accountability for alleged war crimes, respect for human rights, and a political settlement as essential elements of post-conflict reconciliation.”

It has to be said that the conflict with the Tamils was hideous, with war crimes undoubtedly committed by both sides.

But the peace leaves a lot to be desired.

Far from improving, Sri Lanka’s human rights situation may actually be getting worse. The report notes a ‘negative trend’ in progress on human rights issues over the last year and expands on a wide range of  issues including freedom of expression and assembly, human rights defenders, access to justice and the rule of law, the death penalty, torture, conflict and protection of civilians, freedom of religion belief, women’s rights, minority rights, children’s rights and LGBT rights. Pro-Tamil groups (easily found on the Internet by anyone making a modicum of effort) regularly report what they consider human rights abuses.

You can see the British Government’s Sri Lanka report here and an updated addendum here.

For further information about yesterday’s suicide attempt, you can contact the Tamil Refugee Council on 0400 597 351.

Five Christians were arrested after their group held a prayer vigil in reaction to what they described as Australia’s “cruel treatment” of asylum seekers on March 21.

Christians released

Commonsense prevails. They look like dangerous violent radicals, don’t they?

A spokeswoman for the group has said the charges were dismissed after they pled guilty to trespass in Sutherland Local Court this afternoon.

She said the magistrate noted that the protest was peaceful. “This was the other end of the scale to the Cronulla Riots,” she said.

Earlwood resident Justin Whelan, 38, was one of those who faced court over the protest he described as an appeal to Mr Morrison to “rediscover the ideals of his maiden speech”.

“I have witnessed first-hand the conflict and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine I feel compelled to take action to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers,” he said.

He was joined in court by Blue Mountains resident Donna Mulhearn, 45, Zetland resident Jaxon Jennings, 21, and Woolloomooloo resident Jody Lightfoot, 28. The fifth member of the group, 33-year-old Midland resident Jarrod McKenna, did not appear in court.

The group was supported by approximately two dozen protesters who gathered outside the court to hold another “asylum seeker prayer vigil”.

Protest spokesman Matt Anslow said the vigil participants had come from different Christian denominations, including Catholic and Uniting Church, as well as non-Christians.

Mr Anslow said his group had not had any contact with Mr Morrison since the March 21 protest.

“We recognise that we’ve been a party to allowing our government to continue these policies,” he said. “Today is less about an outcome, it’s about support”.

He had told the media that the March protest was not intended to target Mr Morrison in a negative way.

If ever a man needed praying for, it's this guy.

If ever a man needed praying for, it’s this guy.

“We were praying also for Mr Morrison, not in a way that was condemning or judgemental,” he said. “We were actually praying that Mr Morrison might have a change of heart. In his maiden speech for Federal Parliament, Mr Morrison gave a really amazing outline of his vision that included justice and compassion for vulnerable people. For us, we were hoping Mr Morrison might have a change of heart and join us.”

Wellthisiswhatithink has another and less gentle point to raise. What on earth were police officers doing wasting their taxpayer-funded time arresting these people in the first place? And once arrested, why on earth were they taken to court and not simply released? Who took that ludicrous decision?

I am reasonably sure the Christians who “invaded” Morrison’s precious little office would have left quietly if asked to do so, or would have allowed themselves to be moved outside, even if resisting passively. That should have been an end to the matter.

In a free country, people are free to say what they like, where they like, even if that causes minor inconvenience. What an utter nonsense this all was. Will the police in charge at this and other protests be counseled to show a little more restraint, and commonsense? Like hell they will. Will the prosecutorial authorities get dragged over the coals for wasted time, money and effort. No, they won’t.

Ridiculous.

Little by little.

Scott Morrison demonstrating his usual loquacious behaviour.

Scott Morrison demonstrating his usual loquacious behaviour.

Following on from controversially limiting his relationship with the world’s media to weekly set-piece press conferences at which he steadfastly refused to offer any information anyway, “Stop the boats” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has now indicated he will no longer even do that to update journalists about the Government’s “border protection” operations.

The Government has not held a briefing on Operation Sovereign Borders since December 20, after previously holding them on a weekly basis.

Mr Morrison, who held a briefing this morning, told the ABC’s 7.30 program that his weekly briefings will now be held on an “as-needs basis”. The briefings will be replaced by a written statement unless there is something significant to report.

“We will issue a statement on the numbers of arrivals and the transfers, and we will hold operational briefings – like we will [on Wednesday] – when we have something to say and when we have something to report,” Mr Morrison said. “We will do them on an as-needs basis to detail operational matters that are able to be released and we’ll respond to questions there.”

However, tellingly, Morrison declined to comment on reports of a protest on Christmas Island in which six people engaged in a hunger strike are thought to have sewn their mouths shut.

Astonishingly for a Minister in a so-called democracy, he offered the following nonsenical reasoning:

“We don’t comment on protest activity.”

Why, you may wonder, Dear Reader?

“We don’t publicise it because publicisation (sic) of that sort of behaviour, if it occurs, is exactly what the perpetrators want. That’s in the best interests of everybody – those who are the allegedly taking those actions and those who are seeking to manage those centres – it’s in all of their best interests and not to engage in that game.”

So let’s just unpick that. Publicisation (we think he meant “publishing”) is “exactly what the perpetrators want” but then contrarywise, its in the best interests of those “allegedly taking those actions” for them not to get that publicity. Curiouser and curiouser, you might think, and you’d be right.

So the response to asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest that they can't be heard is to, er, make sure they can't be heard. For their own good. What sort of Kafkaesque nightmare has Australia become?

So the response to asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest that they can’t be heard is to, er, make sure they can’t be heard. For their own good. What sort of Kafkaesque nightmare has Australia become?

We know what you mean, Minister.

Don’t think you are fooling us for one moment.

You think it is in your Government’s best interest to suppress news of disquiet, protests or riots in case the Australian people become so concerned by the concentration camp approach to legal asylum seekers that they start to question your outrageous policy settings. That is the one and only reason you are doing this. Shame on you.

At Wellthisiswhatithink we will make our attitudes perfectly clear.

  • Despite the Government’s desperate attempt to pretend it is so, there is no difference between asylum seekers arriving by boat or any other means. They are exercising a legal right to seek refuge under United Nations rules drafted, in part, by our very own country.
  • Asylum seekers who are not assessed to offer any threat to security can and should be housed in the community, not in camps. To do anything else offends for so many reasons they hardly need enunciating. Especially when so many of the asylum seekers are families, including children.
  • The appropriate response to this situation, (which by world standards of trauma-induced population movement hardly rates mentioning), and which craven politicians from both sides fail to insist upon, is to demand (not politely request) that the “way station” countries between Australia and the source countries sign the relevant conventions so migrants can stay there – for example, Indonesia. South East Asia has the lowest density of Refugee Convention signatory countries. Australia was among the first to ratify this 60 years ago but very few of our neighbours have followed our example. There is no reason whatsoever that these countries cannot offer safe haven to refugees, thereby obviating their need to riskily attempt to reach Australia by boat at all. If those countries need financial support to enable this, so be it. We are rich, we will offer it.
  • Last but not least, our refugee intake is pitifully small anyway. It could easily be doubled or trebled without anyone even noticing. The only reason it is not is fear of public angst. What we are witnessing is a total lack of compassion, of Christian values, of generosity, and of political courage. Given that senior members of the current Government parade their Christian beliefs in public, this is a disgrace. And for a nation built on immigration – built, indeed, on a policy open arms for those needing asylum – it is a disgrace that strikes a cold blow deep into the very heart of what it means to be Australian.

And now, it is a disgrace that increasingly takes place in secret.

And the level of double-speak on the topic, and not just from the Government but also from the Opposition, is so obvious and so rank that it would not disgrace Goebbels.

moon-pond-ripples

Stephen Yolland writes:

I am often asked – surprisingly insistently, by some people, actually – why I keep on rabbiting on.

Why don’t I just bugger off and make more money, or watch some more football, or make love to my wife or just sit and bliss out. (All attractive options, I must say.) Why must I choose to have an opinion on this and that, and with such ferocious passion, sometimes, and why on earth anyone would care, anyway, what I think?

Why do I feel I have the right to pontificate freely on topics of great diversity, and sometimes topics with which I am not, apparently, personally involved?

The answer is quite simple, and it is threefold.

Firstly, I believe we are all born with innate gifts.

Whether these are devolved to us in some spiritual way or merely the result of genetics, accidental wiring and our birth environment I have no idea. I have a suspicion, but I cannot be emphatic. I believe, nevertheless that it is true. It is why some people grow up to be fine artists, administrators, musicians, farmers, pilots, poets and so on. They have a natural aptitude which gets developed.

I believe passionately that the world requires us to build on our aptitudes: to contribute as much as we can with what we’ve got. That’s how the world keeps turning.

I can write. I have a good ear for tone, for a smart turn of phrase, and even though my memory is not what it was (helas!) I have a reasonably good vocabulary.

I cannot walk through this life alone.

I am interested in other people. I am connected. Whether those people are in Russia, America, Thailand, China, Britain, or my own country. I am interested in what makes them tick, why they think as they do, and what the results of their thinking are. “No man is an island”, and I am not. To be interested in other people, and to care about what happens to them, is in my DNA. It’s partly a spiritual commitment, and partly an observation that this is simply how I wish to be. It is an innate part of my humanity to be interested in others.

I know what I think. Well, I think I do.

Last but not least, I am opinionated. I have that type of mind that cannot look at a situation, or a problem, or an opportunity, and not create an opinion. It’s partly because, as a business consultant, it is my training. It is also because I have, for a “creative” person, a very logical and analytical frame of mind. I simply enjoy examining things from all directions, listening to all points of view, and then forming an opinion.

Once having formed an opinion, I then feel obliged to share it. Otherwise why bother holding it?

Are my opinions always right? No. Do I change them? Yes. Do I change them very often? Possibly not. My mother once said to me “If an opinion is worth holding, it’s worth fighting for”. I never forgot that.

What provoked this introspection, Dear Reader?

Howard Goldenberg

Howard Goldenberg

Well, I was privileged today to take a phone call from my friend and business colleague, Gideon Kline. Last evening, he was pleased to have been in the audience for some humanitarian awards the Jewish Aid community were handing out, and especially to have heard an inspirational speech from doctor, runner, activist, charity fundraiser and author Howard Goldenberg.

Goldenberg was speaking about the need for generosity of spirit, especially as regards our relationships with Australia’s first peoples and with the refugees who wish to live here. And his speech was, indeed, inspirational. Witty, apposite, empathetic, warm-hearted, and meaningful. You can read it here.

The speech is wholly wonderful: but what really hit home was his very Jewish insistence on how we are all beholden to continue to fight for a better world. A world in which the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you wish they would do unto you” is the one that holds sway. (The famous rule appears in all the Middle Eastern monotheistic religions in some form, of course.)

I reflected that it is so easy to become discouraged by the intractability of the problems our world faces. And as I reflected, this comment from Goldenberg really caught my eye, and sent me off to Wikipedia to lean more about the Pirke Avoth.

“Our sages taught, in Pirke Avoth – “The day is short, the work is great…

Lo aleicha ham’lacha ligmor, ve’lo atta ben-horin le’hibatel
mimenna …

It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it …”

Along with others that were listed, I found this phrase extremely moving. And I realised it ultimately describes why I, and so many others, (many much more effectively than me), “keep on keeping on”.

I have also heard the exhortion described in a more contemporary way as “Be sure to be a planter of oak trees”. One never sees the fully grown tree oneself, because one simply cannot live that long, but one day someone will, and marvel at its beauty, and rest under it’s shade, and be glad of it.

“It is not for me to complete the work. but neither am I free to desist from it.”

That’s why.

That, and as many have said “When you cast a pebble into a pond, you never know where the ripples end.”

I have no idea whether my words ever change lives.

I know it would change mine if they were silent.

And yes: having grown one in my own back yard, which every autumn gives me a good crop of acorns, I also plant oak trees, occasionally, surreptitiously, around the immaculately native-strewn and over-politically-correct parks of Melbourne, too. In fifty years, they will be the wonder of all who survey them. As famous, one day, as the elms, alders and other wonderful Victorian imports that still lend such a gracious air to our City today.

So sue me, already.

refugees.jpg

They look dangerous. Let’s send them somewhere acceptably primitive and tropical so no more come.

In a rush to the darkest hole in the murky depths of the political gene pool, Australian Labor have now decreed that any refugee attempting to arrive by boat who are intercepted before reaching the shores of our vast, under-populated and incredibly wealthy country will never be allowed to settle here, but will, instead, be shipped off permanently to Papua New Guinea.

PNG is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Their residency there will be paid for by huge Australian aid grants – theoretically, that is: the PNG infrastructure is woefully inadequate for their existing population, and it is hard to see how they could possibly cope with an influx of thousands of Iranians, Afghanis and Sri Lankans – but the Australian electorate are not even permitted to know what the scale of this financial support might be, as opposed to the cost (or likely benefit, as shown by research paper after research paper), of settling any refugees in Australia.

This is a disgracefully mean-spirited and petty move from our Prime Minister, who so often parades his “Christian” virtue – what a hypocrite. What a nasty little power hungry goblin of a man he really is, to be sure. He has the moral compass of a gang leader trying to take over a rival’s turf – in this case, the ever-strident ratbaggery of Tony Abbott and his radical right cronies.

It is a timely moment for everyone interested in the quality of our governance to remember Martin Luther King’s famous remark:

“Everything Hitler did was legal.”

The “PNG solution” is legal.

It is also wickedly, shamefully and embarrassingly wrong: it is morally unsupportable.

And that it could be considered an aid to the slim prospects of Kevin Rudd being re-elected is a swingeing indictment of the priorities of the Australian electorate, and of the endless campaign of misinformation that has been waged by the Liberal-National Coalition both in and out of office.

A plague on both your houses.

That we are obliged, by law, to exhaust our ballot choices until we inevitably vote for one or the other of you is no longer tenable.

It is time – long overdue – that “None of the above/No further” was an available option on our Alternative Vote ballot papers. A reform that would see many seats left vacant after an election, I am sure. Just the wake up call the hacks in the Australian Government and Opposition – and the commentariat that lets them get away with such appalling policies – deserves and needs.

And while we’re about it, let’s nail two other pieces of public policy bullshit.

Bullshit #1

Would you risk this, would you risk your family, if you weren't utterly desperate?

Would you risk this, would you risk your family, if you weren’t utterly desperate?

This isn’t about stopping asylum seekers from drowning at sea.

If that was our motivation, we would simply send a few chartered cruise ships to Indonesia, scoop up all the refugees, and bring them to Australia safely.

This is because, despite Australia’s legal obligations, we don’t want these people here.

Despite our honourable tradition of welcoming refugees – and of them becoming leading citizens at all levels of our society – we have now officially decided to turn our backs on some of the poorest, weakest, most persecuted people on the planet.

Because remember, these are not “illegal immigrants”. They are not “economic migrants”. Because if they are found to be, then they are repatriated. These are displaced people, refugees.

Bullshit #2

Why do these people have to try and make their way to Australia?

Because Indonesia and Malaysia are not signatories to the UN Convention on Human Rights. They won’t give these people a “safe haven”. They lock them up. They marginalise them. They persecute them. They won’t let them work, raise a family, make their own way.

So they HAVE to keep going. So tell me, someone, why does Australia support the Governments of these countries with economic aid? Why do we not leverage this aid to insist that they take up their responsibilities too?

No, I am not arguing that Australia should not take up a larger share of the burden – we have the resources, and Lord knows we need the people. But the hypocrisy of the Indonesian and Malaysian leadership is nearly as breathtakingly sickening as that of the Milky Bar Kid and his acolytes in Canberra.

It is time for ordinary people in Australia to become righteously angry about this matter. Sadly, I suspect that apart from a laudable and vocal minority, they will focus their attention on the cricket.

Español: Presidente de Chile Salvador Allende ...

Salvador Allende (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a student, there was a bloody and vicious coup in the South American country of Chile, in which the socialist and President – Allende – died, as well as an unknown number of others.

As we remember one 9/11, it is undoubtedly salutary to remember another.

It is a feature of culture that events overtake one another, that we choose what to remember, and what to forget. In a media-flooded world, our attention span is fleeting.

But sometimes, we owe it to the dead to pause, and remember. Out of respect to them, and out of concern for the present day. As Woodrow Wilson so appositely remarked, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Chile Allende

The other 9/11 deserves to be remembered too.

The coup ushered in one of the most unpleasant military dictatorships in modern history.

What made it particularly notable was the cool, vindictive way that the incoming military government under General Pinochet captured, tortured and executed many thousands of left-leaning individuals – teachers, musicians, union officials, civil servants – the so-called “Disappeared”.  That these crimes also swept up a couple of America citizens led to a moving and controversial Hollywood film from campaigning left-wing director Costa-Gravas, “Missing”, which brought the events to a wider audience than might otherwise have been interested in the goings-on in a distant Latin enclave. With his other famous film “Z” it represents a high-water moment in political artistic commentary.

How many actually were imprisoned, tortured, injured or died is unknown and always will be. Estimates of deaths vary, during the coup itself and the resulting regime, from as low as “about 3,000”, to as high as 60,000. What is also true of this unhappy time in history is that truth, as always, is the first casualty of war. Rumours have always swirled of American involvement in the coup, and they have been both rigorously denied and forcefully argued by both academics and contemporaries.

Two good sources for further reading include http://www.namebase.org/chile.html and http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/59547/william-d-rogers-kenneth-maxwell/fleeing-the-chilean-coup-the-debate-over-us-complicity and Wikipedia.

Kissinger Pinochet

Realpolitik, they used to call it. Some of us also call it hypocrisy.

What is certain is that Chile became the victim of one of the most intense periods of the so-called Cold War. Whatever the precise nature of US involvement – and it was almost certainly a combination of actions by the US military-industrial complex and direct Nixon/Kissinger/CIA political activity – there was definitely also Russian support for the Allende regime, both practical (food, and supplies) and political.

As night follows day during that sad time, Chile went the way of so many proto-battlegrounds of that era: a collapse into first economic chaos, and then political chaos. As always, it was the innocent civilians that fared worst.

At University, I was active in the Chile Solidarity Front, a thinly disguised communist/Marxist organisation that campaigned against the military dictatorship and for the return of democracy. We all knew the Front was probably funded by Moscow, but even if we were non-Marxists (as I was) we didn’t care, such was our outrage at the recent events. And the Front did good work too.

Anything up to a million leftists, intellectuals, and democrats fled Chile and ended up all over the world, some after having been roughed up, arrested or tortured, some just getting out while they still could. They frequently arrived in their new host countries as the most genuine of refugees – broke, bewildered, traumatised, deeply sad. And angry. We would run fund-raising events, feed them, find them clothes, find them accommodation, and help them get settled in new academic or working careers. Often we would just sit with them, and let them talk. They would tell us of a world dimly perceived in suburban Britain but very real – where the Cold War was anything but cold – either in their native tongue, with translators, or in broken English.

I remember one young boy in particular, perhaps 19 years old. I can see his face now. He was almost impossibly good looking, like the poster child for wayward Latino men everywhere. Masses of black curls swept over his gaunt, bearded face and down to his shoulders, completely unrestrained by any comb or brush, and his eyes were black as night, clearly haunted by what had happened to him. Like some real life Che Guevara figure he would sit in the central lobby of our Students Union and pick out pretty tunes on an old guitar someone had given him, and graciously accept coffees, and smile politely, understanding little of what was said to him, always quiet and intense, always courteous, although the smile never touched his eyes.

He had a girlfriend, also Chilean, who would sit in silence next to him, staring at him. She wore a small scarf over her hair, always pulled severely back, I recall. Scarves were not a part of current Western fashion, and nothing she could have done would have emphasised her alien-ness more immediately or more completely. She looked like a refugee from our parent’s childhood or some agricultural dystopia. And she never spoke. Sometimes, they would glance at each other, and whatever had happened in their lives – whatever visions terrified them, whatever horrors they had endured – would wordlessly be acknowledged between them. But she never uttered a sound.

Today, I sell my wares – a little writing here, a little strategic advice there – to a descendant of the great Chilean exodus. Her father still thumps the table with fiery left wing emotions, apparently. But she is more complex: a modern product of a successful capitalist society and a prodigious work ethic. Now her own children, one exquisitely beautiful young girl, and one gurgling, cheerful boy, are setting out on their own lives, in time to enrich the society I live in with their own skills, and their own unique cultural history.

There is a live debate in Australia, as in most countries, about refugees and immigration generally. It fills our airwaves with snarling faces, worried looks, heartfelt anguish, and deep discussion. So although I started this article intending to write a piece on “violence is always awful, whoever initiates it” – and so it is – along the way, it morphed into me pondering not only the disappeared, but the dispersed.

I freely confess I do not know what the answer to the world’s problems is. I thought I did once. With the arrogance of youth, I was never short of an opinion, and idea, or a way forward. I am still full of opinions and ideas, but I no longer think getting people joiked together to acheive anything is easy, and sometimes it seems to be purely impossible. Thus I am grateful for incremental improvements, and hope we can manage them fast enough to prevent disasters.

Nowadays, I look at so many places in the world and despair that we will ever learn from our mistakes.

What I do know for sure is that Hate is not the answer. And if it is not the answer, then Love probably is.

And one of the best and most practical ways I can show my love is to state, categorically, that I welcome refugees to my country.

I welcome them no matter what race, colour, creed or history. And I promise to be patient as they learn to adapt to my world, certain in the knowledge that, in time, the vast majority of them will make a growing and valued contribution to my country and my region. “Send me your poor and huddled masses” still holds true, for me.

And every time an Afghan or an Iraqi or a Burmese or a Bonsian or a Lebanese or a Sudanese glances at me and catches my eye and smiles, and I see that the smile actually touches their eyes, then I will chalk up one more tiny victory against tyranny, against those who hate the human spirit, against those who believe they have a divine right to rule with cruelty, against those who rip and maim and torture and kill the innocent, against those who carelessly tear apart families, and against those who do not recognise our common humanity.

And there will be those who call me naive, and simplistic, and I will not care.

For my part, I will sit, and listen to my new neighbours play guitar, and watch their silent looks passing between them, and buy them coffee, until they can do it all for themselves. What else can I do? What else can any of us do?

Frightening, isn't she?

Regular readers will know I am pretty much against generalisations – “all generalisations are false” being one of my favourite aphorisms –  other than those that are supportable by the obvious empirical evidence, such as “The Republican Party have selected a bunch of vicious right wingers and idiots for people to choose from in 2012 and do not stand a snowball in hell’s chance of winning against Obama in November”.

One of the generalisations that worries me sick is the creeping fear of Muslims that plagues daily life in the West. Our leaders (whether in a political sense, or opinion formers) regularly use coded language – or not so coded – to keep us constantly on edge about the likelihood of a home-grown Muslim – whether we’re in America, Europe, or Australia – launching a terrorist attack in our backyard. It simultaneously plays to our best side – instinctive defence of family, stability, our community – and to our worst – fear of the unknown (or little known), fear of “other”, fear of those not like us.

There is no doubt that the world is in thrall to terrorism. But the numbers of cases of “home-grown” Muslims actually engaging in violence against the countries they now call home have been remarkably few, given the millions of people living next door to us who have contacts or family in the Middle East and Asian sub-continent, and who might well have reason to be aggrieved at some (not all) of our involvement in those regions.

Well now Professor Charles Kurzman, of the  Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at the University of North Carolina, has released a report that found that radicalization among Muslim-Americans is “relatively low,” and has actually been on the decrease since 9/11.

Kurzman also points out that many of the suspects in 2011 “appeared to have been limited in competence.” In one arrest of a Muslim-American for terrorism-related charges, for example, Emerson Begolly, “a 21-year-old former white supremacist who converted to Islam and posted violent-sounding material on the Internet” was tricked by his mother into meeting with FBI agents outside of a restaurant. He then tried fight them off by biting them. In another case, on his way to attack a local Shia mosque, Roger Stockham bragged about the his plan to a bartender when he stopped in to a bar for a drink.

Kurzman notes that “The limited scale of Muslim-American terrorism in 2011 runs counter to the fears that many Americans shared in the days and months after 9/11, that domestic Muslim- American terrorism would escalate,” the report concludes. “The spike in terrorism cases in 2009 renewed these concerns, as have repeated warnings from U.S. government officials about a possible surge in homegrown Islamic terrorism. The predicted surge has not materialized.”

Blogger Emily Hauser notes that she wishes she “had a job that would justify me doing a comparative study of all the kinds of extremist violence perpetrated in this country on an annual basis. I’d like to see how, for instance, the 1 ,002 hate groups tracked by the Southern Law Poverty Center compare to extremist American Muslims (individuals or organizations).

If you’d like to know what most Muslims (American and non-) think about such extremism, I gathered some statistics and statements here (spoiler alert! They’re pretty solidly against it).

Well done again, Emily.

Judging the Ainger awards, and what it’s got to do with this story

This year I was a judge at The Ainger public speaking competition in Melbourne for teenagers. It was not a debating competition, in that the speakers had to persuade us of their point of view – rather it was designed to see who could present their case lucidly, compellingly, and convincingly, whether or not we were convinced of the merits of their argument.

The notes for contestants were very specific. Rule one read:

“Speakers must choose their own topic which should be based on fact. It should be
presented in a manner that will cause an audience to take a greater interest in a topic which
may not appeal to them. In addition to the content, the speaker should use analogies,
anecdotes and the music of the language to illustrate and enhance the delivery. The
presentation should inform, interest and entertain. Take heed of Cicero’s advice: “Oft an
argument of greater merit will be defeated by an argument of lesser merit, which is better
presented.”

It is worth noting, I think, that the winning speech (and including the heats, there were dozens of speeches on a huge variety of topics) came from a young Australian Muslim teenage girl in “Western” clothing and sans hijab who asked the audience  – who were mainly white, Anglo, middle-aged, and slightly more men than women – in a voice that was carefully modulated and barely rising above a quiet and calming tone for her entire speech, to simply look with her at some of the facts surrounding Muslims in our society.

In particular, in the four minutes alloted to her, she asked us why we were so obsessed with the issue of the burka, when less than 2% of Muslim females wordwide wear it, when it is a cultural item not a religious one, and when the figure in Western countries was way lower than that anyway.

Why, she was asking, with incredible self-control, subtlety and courtesy, did we, as democratic-minded people in free societies with great traditions of tolerance, allow ourselves to be distracted, overwhelmed or misled by caricatures and bias against her, her family, and her co-religionists. Why are we so easily led astray by the shock jocks, and those who seek to divide us, not unite us? By those who prefer simplistic sloganeering to facts. She didn’t even ask us to change our minds, just to hear her out, and pause for a moment, and think.

As we listened to her questions – so gently presented, and yet with such urgent import – I looked around the audience, and I fell to thinking about how our societies had absorbed and benefitted from the flow of immigration from so many areas over the centuries.

I grew up in Britain – a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, starting with the Romans, the Saxons and Vikings, through the Normans and hundreds of other groups and cultures, up to the West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis of the 60s and 70s, and the Eastern Europeans and Africans of today.

America wouldn’t even exist as a nation state were it not for the exhortation “Send me your poor and huddled masses”, and, indeed, because of the vast influx of Africans brought across the Atlantic by the slave trade, and Hispanic migrants from the south.

Australia is the most racially mixed country on the planet – with the possible exception of Israel, but as that is also virtually a uni-religionist state it could be considered in a different category – and also one of the safest and most peaceful, and similarly would not exist in its current form were it not for a proud tradition of accepting and integrating immigrants from all over the world, and from widely varying cultural backgrounds.

As I listened, I pondered how those previous flows of immigration had been received by the host nations. And it struck me that they had often caused a degree of tension – the clashes between the Irish and Italians in New York, the anxieties over immigration in the UK when Enoch Powell predicted “rivers of blood” flowing down the streets, the dismissive attitudes of the mainly British and Irish local stock in Australia when they were confronted by a vast influx of southern Europeans in the 50s and 60s – those “wogs” who “smelled funny” and talked incomprehensibly – or again in the 80s and 90s with concerns over the Asian-isation of this wide brown land. And how those tensions always existed, and exist, and probably always will, but how over time they always invariably seem to disappear, as we learn about the incoming culture, and come to value its distinctive contribution to our suburbs and our streets.

The wandering jew

When the Nazis began to wage war against the Jews, they used rhetoric and propaganda at first, then followed by action. On November 8, 1937 a propaganda exhibit entitled Der Ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew) opened which portrayed Jews as communists, swindlers and sex-fiends. Over 150,000 people attended the exhibit in just 3 days. Jews were frequently associated with communists and thieves. The Wandering Jew later became a notorious hate film, and associated the Jews with rats and other vermin.

And then I mused, at some length, about the Jews, and how they had been repeatedly marginalised and persecuted, and alternately embraced and celebrated, and then persecuted again, over hundreds of years. And how one of the major differences between the Jews and other immigrants was that they didn’t just believe different things, they often looked different, too, with their  yarmulkes or kippas, and some of them with funny haircuts and weird black 19th century clothes, too. And how in Europe and Russia that meant they became such an easy target for us to foist our fears on – see any propaganda materials of the time to understand how difference in appearance played a major role in whipping up fear – so that we slaughtered tens of millions of utterly innocent men, women, and children, giving away our own humanity in the process. And I say “We” deliberately, because although it was the Tsarist Cossacks and then the Stalinists and then the Nazis who actually did the deed, it was the rest of Western society – including great chunks of the political establishment, the cultural leadership, and the opinion formers – who stood by and let them do it when a timely intervention could have stopped the madness before it ran entirely out of control.

And two things occurred to me.

No, I still don’t think women should wear the burka, because I remain to be convinced that anyone truly wears it out of choice but rather through fear and cultural imposition, and I think it is demeaning to their personal freedom not to be able to wear whatever they damn well please*, and it is representative of an antiquated and patriarchal view of the family and the world that I simply do not agree with. And I also believe it is active cruelty to expect an Afghan woman to walk along the streets of Melbourne on a thirty eight degree day swathed in black heat-absorbing cloth while her husband wanders along beside her in white shorts and a t-shirt.

And also that the matter has nothing to do with Muslims in general, who in the main are far more like me than they are unlike me, who love their children, and worry about their jobs, and want to live in a decent house, and go to the footy, and contemplate art, and most of all just want to be left alone to get on as best they can, and make a contribution to the country they now live in. And that every time I forget that, I am zipping my mouth shut in a manner that could one day lead to marginalisation, or pogroms, or worse – and will certainly not lead to a rapprochement between my country and the countries Muslim migrants have come from any time soon. And that if there is not a rapprochement, that the tiny number of terrorists who make our life a misery under the cloak of radical Islam will continue to kill themselves and others, as sure as night follows day.

David Kossoff

David Kossoff

Driving home that evening, I remembered a short story told by David Kossoff, who was a popular actor and writer-philosopher when I was just a boy, and a Jew who wrote movingly for Christian audiences in his best-seller “The Book of Witnesses”, (first published 1971 and still available, and a heart-warming read for followers of both cultures), who talked on radio one day about the foolishness of one side of society instinctively mistrusting another.

As a child of Russian-Jewish emigrés to London himself, he told with gentle charm the story of a young man who was walking home one night to his hut near the Jewish outskirts of a Russian town, pushing his bicycle, when a mounted sabre-wielding Cossack thundered around the corner of the street with clearly murderous intent, and bore down on a small group of Jews huddled in fear against the wall of a nearby building.

As the Cossack raised his sabre to strike, the young man interposed himself between him and the Jews and called out “What on earth do you think you are you doing?”

Momentarily nonplussed, the Cossack looked down, and cried out “It’s all the fault of the Jews!”

The young man shook his head, and spoke quietly. “No, my friend,” he said, “It is all the fault of the bicycle riders. It is me you should kill if you are angry.”

The Cossack peered at him in confusion, and asked “Why the bicycle riders?”

The young man shyly looked up at him and smiled gently, and murmured “Why the Jews?”

Kossoff doesn’t say if the young man was Jew or Gentile, and I like to think that omission was deliberate. And as I thought back to the faces of those in the audience listening to the quiet urging of a young girl who could not understand why we didn’t trust her and her family, I realised that one thing was stamped on the face of the listeners, almost universally.

It was shame.

And as I pulled into the driveway of my very ordinary suburban house, which just happens, by sheer coincidence, to be right next door to the home of a family of Muslims of Lebanese extraction – who seem just like my family except they drink tea when we would drink wine, and look healthier for it, too –  I gave thanks to God, as I often do, for the innocent, naive honesty and passion of the young, and I made a mental promise to listen to them more intently and more respectfully, as I watch myself slide slowly but inexorably into ossified middle age, and beyond.

*This also means I accept their right to wear it, of course, if it is genuinely their choice and preference.