Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope: Quaker support for Refugees subject to Operation Sovereign Borders
Dorothy Scott, Victoria Regional Meeting
“Fatima”, a 14-year-old girl living in Afghanistan, created this artwork. She is self-taught, never having formally studied art. Since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021 she has not been allowed to go to school and is only able to leave the house under the supervision of her brother. Her father has been trapped in Australia’s offshore detention regime for ten years. He has applied for resettlement in Canada and three years on, he is yet to know if he will be accepted. The last time he saw his daughter she was four years old. Jan Trewhella, a volunteer with the support group Our Afghan Families describes the Afghan men still in PNG as:
physically and mentally damaged and broken men … they have lost all hope of a future for themselves and their families and with that, some have also lost their sanity and their will to live. Meanwhile their families, continue to be at serious risk of persecution, torture and death with the return of the Taliban to power.
Wednesday 19th July 2023 marked ten years since Australia’s offshore detention policy began. The depth and scale of the prolonged suffering which has occurred in the past decade is immense. In the words of Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish-Iranian journalist, author and former Manus Island detainee:
It is unbelievable that this tragedy is still going on after ten years with people stuck in Port Moresby. Many lives have been damaged, many families separated, and now Australia has abandoned them. Nothing has been achieved. Nothing but the creation of a tragedy and the mental and physical damage to hundreds of people. Humanitarian and democratic values have been undermined.
While successive governments inflicted this cruelty to deter others from trying to reach Australian shores, small groups of Australians have been working tirelessly to bring this policy to an end and to support those who have been subject to offshore detention. One of these groups is Manus Lives Matter, an inter-denominational network formed in 2015 by Sister Jane Keogh, a retired Brigidine nun. From its early days Canberra and Region Friends have supported Manus Lives Matter, as have other faith groups.
Operation Not Forgotten
In addition to providing direct practical assistance and emotional support to individual refugees, Manus Lives Matter also successfully advocated to the Refugee Council of Australia to establish the initiative Operation not Forgotten, in partnership with a Canadian organisation, MOSAIC, to enable refugees in offshore detention to be sponsored to resettle in Canada. A team of volunteers led by Robyn Fetter worked with the refugees and asylum seekers to undertake the complex application process for sponsorship, during which close bonds were forged between the refugees and volunteers.
Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope
When I asked Sister Jane Keogh in 2020 how Quakers might help Manus Lives Matter, she said there was a need to support those applying to go to Canada over the two years their applications were being processed. Delays caused by Covid have meant that for many this period is now closer to three years.
That is how the Quaker-funded Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope project came into being. In the first year, 2021, it received a $10,000 grant from the Victorian Quaker Fund and $7,500 in personal donations from Friends. In 2022 the AYM Thanksgiving Fund Committee approved a grant of $20,000 for the second year of the project. In 2023 Quaker Service Australia made a grant of $25,000, and an additional $25,000 was given by the Jan de Voogd Peace Fund for supporting a group of Afghan families in Afghanistan whose husbands and fathers are still stranded in PNG. Manus Lives Matter is grateful for the generosity of these Quaker bodies and Friends, and Alan Clayton and I are grateful for the opportunity to work with the extraordinary people from Manus Lives Matter.
Both practical and emotional support is offered through close relationships with volunteers. The practical support includes: mobile phones and phone credits; living expenses, including food; medical treatment and medication; legal expenses; gym membership in Port Moresby (for depressed refugees fearful of physical assault in the streets); driving lessons to secure employment for a refugee transferred to the mainland; and significantly, support for families in Afghanistan of those still in PNG.
Support for eight families still in Afghanistan, whose husbands/fathers have remained offshore, became a priority after the Taliban returned to power in 2021. The Afghan refugees were deeply distressed about their families whom they could not protect, with the refugees’ opposition to the Taliban, and/or their Hazara ethnicity putting their families at risk. Their plight is compounded by the economic collapse affecting the entire country, causing the families to be without the means to purchase food, fuel for heating and cooking or medical supplies.
Where to From Here?
It is hoped that the majority of those awaiting resettlement in Canada will arrive there by the end of 2023. In early August Robyn Fetter reported that 43 of the refugees had arrived in Canada, 11 having completed their first year of settlement (although still having access to support), and 32 in the process of being settled. All have jobs and most continue to work on their English. There are 92 refugees still waiting to go to Canada.
Many remain deeply traumatised by their past experiences in detention on Nauru and Manus Island. There is also a group of refugees and asylum seekers who are ineligible for Canadian sponsorship or have been rejected, and some who are too despairing to even attempt this pathway, and they all remain extremely vulnerable. Some are still in PNG in precarious circumstances, while others are in Australia on six monthly Bridging Visas, with no social security entitlement and no prospect of being allowed to settle in our country. Manus Lives Matters is committed to continuing to support them and advocate for them.
My involvement with Manus Lives Matter through Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope has been a privilege and has led me to make several observations which may be of interest to Friends and Quaker funding bodies.
- The organic process by which Manus Lives Matter arose from Sister Jane Keogh’s “leading” into an inter-faith network, giving rise to new, totally volunteer-based groups such as Our Afghan Families, is truly inspiring, but being outside the formal charitable sector (without “deductible gift recipient status”) leaves such vital work badly underfunded.
- Small groups of committed volunteers can adapt and individualise responses to refugees and offer the precious gift of friendship, so different from a “service provider-service user” relationship typical of large, formal organisations. This can complement the work of large NGOs which have the capacity to develop and “scale up” initiatives such as Operation Not Forgotten.
- Quakers can be most effective when we are part of a broader inter-faith humanitarian initiative, thus harnessing a diverse set of skills and resources.
- Our Quaker notions of “concern” (“a weighty matter that disturbs the conscience and impels the concerned person or Meeting towards action”) and “leading” (acting on a concern) are profoundly important and are rightfully given salience by Quaker funding bodies.
Refugees detained at the Park Hotel, Melbourne
Compared with the leadings of others, my leading in relation to refugees is relatively recent. It crystallised in 2019 when a small number of refugees and asylum seekers held in offshore detention were brought to the Australian mainland via the Medevac provisions (until the Morrison Government repealed the legislation after nine months). The men were held in detention, including at the Park Hotel in Melbourne. Soon after they arrived the hotel windows were tinted so people in the street could not see the refugees inside. The refugees were punished for peeling off the film on the inside of the windows but did so anyway. Perhaps punishment was the price they were willing to pay for a small sense of agency.
I used to visit a young man in the Park Hotel who was in a very poor mental state and suffered severe dental pain for which he received no treatment.
He had never seen my granddaughter
but he called her “The Butterfly”.
I had sent him a photo
of her little face peering into a pumpkin flower.
He had never seen our garden
and asked me to describe it.
I sent him a photo
of trees laden with plums and peaches.
Was it wrong to share such beauty
with a young man desperate to be free?
So long since he had held a child,
so long since he had touched a tree.
Years in hell on Manus Island,
now imprisoned in a Melbourne hotel.
Its windows were newly tinted
to render refugees invisible.
Oh, the banality of evil.
Oh, the fragility of hope.
Perspex between us when I visit,
guards hearing every word.
He asks me, so gently,
“How is The Butterfly?”
And when I leave, I weep.
I weep for what my country has done.
I weep for what my country has become.
A group of Quakers in Coldstream Monthly Meeting in Ontario privately sponsored our friend to go to Canada and early this year, almost three years after his application was lodged, he arrived. After suffering from extreme sleep disturbance for almost a decade, this immediately ended on his very first night on Canadian soil. At long last he felt safe.
Let us hold in the Light all those who still wait for the day they will be safe.
A refugee arrives in Canada through Operation not Forgotten
Refugee Support: Keeping Connected, Sustaining Hope Dorothy Scott, Victoria Regional Meeting...Read More