Human Rights Australia 2013

Fourteen SMU undergraduate and M.L.S. students, as well as professors and staffers, will be in Perth, Australia, August 1-14 for an Embrey Human Rights Program-sponsored study trip. The group will “connect with individuals and communities working for better human rights records pertaining to indigenous populations, treatment of refugees, violence against women, LGBT issues and survivors of torture,” says EHRP Director Rick Halperin, who is leading the trip.

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“Where will these people be?”

An update from Aymen, a biology and Spanish major, and human rights minor:

A month ago, all I knew about Australia was from what I had seen in movies and read on the Outback Steakhouse menu. After spending 10 days in Perth, I came back with unforgettable memories of exploring the city, taking selfies with kangaroos, being covered head to toe in dirt from crawling through a cave, (struggling) to canoe up a river, and most of all hearing firsthand accounts of Australia’s human rights issues.

Upon arriving at Curtin University, we dove headfirst into a hefty list of human rights violations, the first being the issue of refugee/asylum seekers. I wish the previous research I had done on the topic could have prepared me for the information I was going to learn, but like all human rights issues, each statistic, violation, and story made me think, “How do more people not know about this issue, and how am I just now finding out about it?”

Refugees/asylum seekers arriving in Australia are immediately placed in one of the 18 detention centers scattered around the continent. The refugees’ futures are far from clear, as many of them never know whether they will reunite with their families or whether they will wake up some day and be shipped to detention centers on the islands of Papua New Guinea or Nauru. While most people get a glimpse of detention facilities through newspapers or TV, our group had a rare opportunity to step inside and tour one.

The official who guided us through the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Center acclaimed the center’s amenities such as the state-of-the-art gym, computer room, and sewing room; however, drawings of estranged family members on the walls and the barbed wire surrounding the detention center starkly contrasted with the somewhat comfortable façade.

After the tour, I was confused and thought the detention center resembled a glorified jail or more aptly, a “people warehousing system.” Knowing that not all refugees in the center are granted temporary protection visas in Australia, the inevitable question was asked: “Where will these people be in the next couple days, weeks, or months?” The answer was, “No one knows, not the refugees themselves, nor the officials”; many refugees may face harsh living conditions on offshore processing islands or, worse, they will be sent back to their own countries from which they once tried to escape.

Our group was told firsthand that these refugees felt their sense of safety and trust was replaced with disempowerment and hopelessness. It’s easy to think, “Eh, well, all countries have immigration issues, there’s nothing I can really do about it.” When you look past the politics, you find stories of people who go about their daily lives with their loved ones and suddenly find themselves catapulted into dehumanizing circumstances, away from everything they know and trust.

Through this trip, I realized that all human rights issues can be categorized through statistics and pie charts, but hearing someone else’s story and realizing the inherent similarity between their humanity and your own sparks the true initiative to make change.

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