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John Howard meets Sara and Safda, Ebrahim Sammaki's children
The weekend of the Bali bombing commemorations included a footy match between Australians and the Balinese. Here John Howard is seen chatting to Ebrahim Sammaki's children Sara and Safda, unaware of the presence of any major media outlets. Click here or on the image to open the larger version.

About the Bali bombings and a refugee family

One Bali Bombing story was almost forgotten forever

The disastrous Bali bombings of October 12, 2002 will always be remembered as Australia's 9/11.

They will be remembered as the terrorism event that deeply shocked Australia.

The island of Bali. Beautiful paradise, where so many Aussies celebrate their holidays in the company of the peace-loving Balinese on that great Indonesian island. How could a handful of radicals so cruelly target them?

Yet almost, one family deeply scarred by the events would have remained forgotten, were it not through the work of one journalist working for Green Left Weekly, volunteer reporter Sarah Stephen, who at the time wrote about immigration and refugee issues for the small but punchy left-wing magazine.

Sarah Stephen was the first and only reporter who told her Green Left Weekly readers about the death of Ebrahim's Indonesian wife, Endang, as a result of the Bali bombings. Project SafeCom's Jack Smit spoke to Green Left Weekly's Ms Stephen and 'amplified' her report through a media note to the 200+ media outlets and reporters in its database, and interviews with Australian media followed the next day: the story was now becoming real news for the mainstream press. Below are three images created from those reports to ensure a permanent record was created for all to see.

Over the next twelve months, many people tried to appeal to Prime Minister John Howard and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock for the two children, asking for permission for them to visit Ebrahim in the Woomera detention centre and - as Baxter had now opened - in the new Baxter detention centre, or for Ebrahim to be released to become the principal carer of his children.

Stories emerged in the media that the two children, Sara and Safda were living in a sinister environment with family members of Ebrahim's wife Endang, and may be exposed to prostitution in that environment. High profile Australians such as former Governor-General Sir William Deane joined Parliamentarians such as Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Bartlett or the Australian Greens, and backbenchers from both sides of The House, all of them to no avail: Howard nor Ruddock were willing to show any compassion, in fear as they were for the children, on arrival in Australia, to be approached by lawyers; they well knew that on the grounds of parental responsibilities, and being on the mainland of Australia, the children would be exposed to the full rights of 'onshore asylum seekers' and have a strong claim for settlement.

Soon Adelaide magistrate Brian Deegan would come out, wanting to bring the children to Australia: he had lost his son Josh in the Bali bombings too, giving an unique and authoritative voice to the debate over the children. But, as Sarah Stephen wrote in April 2003, there was no compassion for one of the Bali bombing victims:

No compassion for one Bali bombing victim

Green Left Weekly
April 23, 2003
By Sarah Stephen

Ebrihim Sammaki fled Iran after the fall of the Shah, and fell in love with an Indonesian woman, Endong, while he was living in Indonesia. Nine years ago, they married and had two children. Then, two years ago, Ebrihim decided to seek a better life for his family.

Unfortunately, coming by boat to Australia landed him in the Woomera detention centre. He has been in detention ever since.

Because Ebrihim's marriage is not recognised by Indonesia, and he is not a permanent resident, it is unlikely he will be accepted back into Indonesia. Sammaki and his wife asked the Iranian embassy about returning to Iran, but was told his marriage and children would not be seen as legitimate.

In October, exploring a way to be reunited with his family, Ebrihim asked his wife to find legal advice. Endong heard of a lawyer in Bali, who she travelled there to see. In Bali, she was badly burned in the bombing on October 12. Because of Australian immigration department delays, Ebrihim missed an opportunity to be with her when she died.

Their two children, three-year-old Sara and seven-year-old Safdar, remain in Indonesia, under the custody of non-government organisation Zero to One, which was set up in honour of another Bali bombing victim. But it can't take care of them indefinitely.

It's a sad story which Australian authorities have made immeasurably sadder. On April 14, the immigration department rejected a request for a visitors' visa to allow the children to visit their father. Immigration minister Philip Ruddock maintains that it's up to the Indonesian or Iranian governments to reunite the family -- not the Australian government.

In a letter to supporters, written soon after the death of his wife, Ebrihim wrote:

"The desert has shown no mercy for our tears and heartache or the cry of the children for their papa."

The first Commemoration weekend

It's Monday October 13, 2003, and for most of the weekend news reports have reeled off the events in Indonesia, where on Bali the bombing commemorations have taken place. John Howard has been there with Jeanette, and there have been two locations for the events. One had been the official event, with a flurry of media representatives, film cameras and a bouquet of radio microphones gaffer-taped to the lecturne to catch the official speeches, not in the least the address by the Australian Prime Minister, who wants to cash in on the goodwill in distress and in the presence of 'the enemy' - those Indonesian terrorist groups that had been behind the bombings.

"We've boundless plains to share," goes the song as the ABC cameras zoom in to catch John and Jeanette doing their national duty, but efforts of Sara and Safda's caregiving NGO Zero to One in the preceding weeks to persuade the PM to allow a meeting between himself and the children had fallen on deaf ears - well, almost.

After boiling the kettle I make myself another Nescafé - I've been watching the British thriller movie on Auntie until well after midnight - and dial Rose's mobile number, more out of habit than for one specific purpose. Rose works for the Uniting Church in WA's Synod context, and talking to one of the hundreds of advocates keeps me well-connected from the isolation of redneck Narrogin. Rose's chirpy, but she interrupts me:

"Jack - I'm still on the tarmac, I've just flown in from Bali. Guess what, Howard met Ebrahim's kids, it took weeks to get permission, and his staffers didn't want to have them there, but eventually they were allowed to meet him at the footy match - that's not where the cameras were, there was no media at the footy match. Careful though, we're really hush-hush about it, we want to do things on the quiet."

It takes me just two hours to send the alert through the [then] 5000 folks in the database and send the same email to the 84 groups and alliances who post at the Yahoo! Groups, at and at other platforms, reaching another estimated 6,000 people. Here's a copy of the email as posted to the Project SafeCom list, and here's the email as we sent it to our members.

The next day's afternoon, Tuesday October 14, the confirmation comes in. Our Ballarat-based long-time supporter H.L. did her work, and was strategically smart: she sent a request to her local Labor MP and Member for Ballarat, Catherine King, who she's had contact with before. Catherine King in turn writes to Nicola Roxon, who at the time is the Opposition Shadow Immigration Minister, while the ALP has now chosen Simon Crean MP as its Parliamentary Labor Party leader in The House. Nicola Roxon replies to Catherine King, promising she will try a question in Parliament about the children, but includes to say that 'they're very busy'. H.L. takes care to send the string of emails generated so far back to Project SafeCom.

On Wednesday morning Labor is ready for action. Simon Crean and Nicola Roxon issue a joint press statement and do a doorstop, and during the 2pm question time John Howard gets duly hammered over his lack of compassion for some victims of the Bali bombings, while Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja comes out to produce one of the Balinese Padi Films photographs in the Senate. Howard looks at his shoes, but in the Thursday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald the photo brightly shines from the front page for all to see.

Below are the two items relating to the events unfolding as a result of Project SafeCom's email: Cynthia Banham's Sydney Morning Herald report that became its Thursday lead-story with the photo, and the United Nations Association Newsletter of the week:

(Our summary of the issues continues below the two news items...)

PM poses with Bali victims but still they can't come here

Sydney Morning Herald
By Cynthia Banham
Thursday October 16, 2003

The Prime Minister, John Howard, was confronted yesterday by a photograph taken at the anniversary commemorations in Bali at the weekend after it was revealed he was pictured with the daughter of an asylum seeker held in Australian detention.

The image showed Mr Howard smiling and holding the hands of a four-year-old girl who lost her mother in last year's bombings.

The girl, Sara Sammaki, and her seven-year-old brother Sabda, standing beside her in the picture, have been repeatedly refused visas by the Australian Government to visit their father at the Baxter detention centre.

Ebrahim Sammaki, 36, is an Iranian asylum seeker who has been in detention since early 2001.

His wife, Endang, was killed in the terrorist bombings last October after she travelled to Bali to get legal advice about her husband's detention.

Asked by Labor leader Simon Crean during question time if, as a "special act of compassion", he would allow the children to visit their father, Mr Howard said he would discuss it with the Immigration Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone.

"If there are circumstances that should produce a different response on this occasion, they will [be allowed to visit]."

But Senator Vanstone said the children had been denied visas three times because the Immigration Department was not satisfied they would leave Australia once the visas expired.

The father had been offered a repatriation package to return to Iran but had declined to take it, her spokesman said.

Senator Vanstone told Parliament the children's plight was now the subject of a review in the Migration Review Tribunal and so it was not "appropriate to discuss that any further".

For months the South Australian magistrate, Brian Deegan, whose 22-year-old son Josh also died in the bombings, has been trying unsuccessfully to convince the Federal Government to grant the children temporary visas so they can visit their father.

So, too, has Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who produced the photograph in Parliament yesterday. It was sent to her colleague in the South Australian Legislative Council, Kate Reynolds.

A spokeswoman for Senator Stott Despoja said the person who took the photograph had asked not to be identified.

Senator Stott-Despoja said she had met Mr Sammaki and he was a "grief-stricken, saddened man who is locked up in detention in our country while his two children are grieving the loss of their mother".

And the United Nations Association of Australia notes in their Friday October 17 2003 newsletter:

In a joint statement, the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, and the Opposition spokesperson on immigration, Nicola Roxon, said, " ...The Prime Minister must act on his promise of compassion to the victims of the Bali bombing by allowing two children who lost their mother in the bombing to visit their father in an Australian detention centre."

Reminding Mr Howard of his statement in the Parliament the week before, saying that the 2002 bombings in Bali would be remembered as a day when 'Australians displayed remarkable courage, remarkable strength, remarkable compassion and remarkable affection to those who had been so badly injured and so badly hurt.'[3] Compassion sought for two children

The rest of the development over the next two weeks can now slot into place in natural progression: former Governor-General Sir William Deane, South Australian magistrate Brian Deegan, Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja and others once again become fierce spokespeople in the media, all outlets around Australia pick up the story as a leading item - and Vanstone and Howard start to respond.

Danny Hyams acts as Ebrahim's legal representative. Unseen to the public, Greens and Democrats fight each other over who should have the credit for the issue finally getting traction, while at Project SafeCom we sit back and watch it all unfold.

And by Thursday November 6, three weeks after the Sydney Morning Herald boasts its front page photo, it's all done.

Nobody mentions Project SafeCom's central role in the development of the issues since the momentous days of Ebrahim's release from Baxter. Two years later, while I'm in Melbourne, Ebrahim cooks me dinner, Sara crawls on my lap, while Safdar wants to show me his terrific toys. Understandably, Ebrahim barely remembers my phone calls to him in his days following the bombing - because many people phoned him.

Nobody knows about the emails between the ALP member for Ballarat Catherine King and our supporter H.L., who broke through the Canberra sound barrier, while perhaps a few thousand others emailed Labor's Parliamentary leader Simon Crean and Immigration Shadow Spokesperson Nicola Roxon or phoned their local member of Parliament.

From an e-activist perspective, the success of this 'project' lies in pouncing at the right moment (the few hours you have when a story first breaks), using the immediacy of electronic communication while making sure you use the right method and approach (in our case, mobilising about 10,000 people to write to Parliamentarians while they can "score points" against the other side in politics).

Children whose mum died at Bali deserve compassion, says PM

Sydney Morning Herald
November 4, 2003 - 2:32pm

Two Balinese children whose mother died in the Sari Club blast in Bali deserved a compassionate response to their request to visit their father in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said today.

Mr Howard said today he accepted the need for compassion in immigration cases when asked about the case of Sabda Sammaki, 8, and his four-year-old sister Sara.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone is reviewing the children's request to visit their Iranian father Ebrahim Sammaki at South Australia's Baxter detention centre after a request from Mr Howard.

Mr Sammaki came to Australia seeking asylum two years ago, and Australian immigration authorities have on three occasions refused the children visas to visit.

Coalition MPs raised the children's request during a meeting of government parliamentarians today.

Mr Howard replied that most people supported the government's tough stance on immigration, a coalition spokesman said.

"But he added that that didn't mean that the policy shouldn't be administered in a compassionate fashion in individual cases," the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Senator Vanstone said she had sought more information on the case after speaking with Mr Howard and was expected to make a decision within days or weeks.

Mr Howard and Opposition Leader Simon Crean were photographed with the Sammaki children during last month's Bali bombing commemorative service.


Sammaki family to be reunited at last

The Age
By Meaghan Shaw, Penelope Debelle
November 7, 2003

Iranian asylum seeker Ebrahim Sammaki, whose children have been stranded in Indonesia since the death of their mother in the Bali bombing, was yesterday granted a visa on compassionate grounds, allowing the family to be reunited.

Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone intervened to give Mr Sammaki permanent residency, saying it was important for the rest of the world to know that Australia was a compassionate nation.

Her decision came after Prime Minister John Howard was photographed alongside Sarah, 4, and her brother Haries 8, after a memorial football match during the Bali bombing anniversary commemoration.

Mr Sammaki, who had been in detention since arriving in Australia in 2001, was released from Baxter detention centre yesterday afternoon and taken to Adelaide, where he was being cared for by the Red Cross.

His first stop was the Immigration Department offices, where it is believed he applied to sponsor his children for visas to come to Australia. He also phoned the children's carer who was visiting family in Darwin.

Greens refugee spokeswoman Pamela Curr, who has campaigned to reunite the family, said Mr Sammaki was "over the moon" at the decision and that he had thanked "all the good people who helped me".

South Australian Democrat MP Kate Reynolds, who also spoke to Mr Sammaki, said he had been caught off guard by the Government's decision.

"He's spending his first night in freedom and he said his mind is just boggling," she said.

Senator Vanstone said Mr Sammaki was not entitled to a refugee visa and she supported decisions to repeatedly deny the children tourist visas to visit their father on the grounds that they would not return to Bali.

But she said the children were "unwitting victims" of the Bali tragedy and granted Mr Sammaki a visa on humanitarian grounds.

"It is in the national interest to demonstrate that Australia is a compassionate country, that we do have a humanitarian intake," she said.

Senator Vanstone said Mr Howard and her colleagues were "very supportive" of the decision.

Mr Sammaki's lawyer, Danny Hyams, said the release did not signal a change of policy but showed the difference a photograph could make. "We are all very lucky Mr Howard walked unwittingly into a situation where he met and was photographed with the children," he said.

Mr Hyams also revealed that Philip Ruddock had refused to grant his client a visa in his final week as immigration minister.

Ms Curr said the decision showed "the value of shaming the PM". "It's a pity it took 12 months for a little kindness and compassion," she said.

Prime Minister John Howard with the children during the Bali bombing commemoration.

Adelaide magistrate Brian Deegan, who fought a legal battle to bring the children to Australia after meeting them in Bali, said Mr Sammaki's release was "bittersweet".

"Two weeks ago I was looking at a guy who was going to be deported - now I can buy the same guy a beer in his new country," Mr Deegan said.

Mr Deegan, whose son Joshua died in the Bali blast, was hoping to contact Ebrahim last night but a Red Cross spokeswoman said Mr Sammaki had asked to be left alone for a couple of days. It is believed he spent the night at a city motel.

Australian Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who also tried to sponsor the children's visit, called the decision a "heartening outcome".

Opposition immigration spokeswoman Nicola Roxon said it was "a rare, maybe even unusual, but very deserving decision and a compassionate decision".

Mr Sammaki had been fighting Government moves to deport him back to Iran.

- with AAP

Selective compassion not compassion at all, Amanda

The Age
By Michael Gordon
November 7, 2003

New Zealand's decision to relieve the suffering of three families kept apart by the Pacific Solution is an indictment of the Howard Government's treatment of asylum seekers.

It should shame the Government into applying its newly acquired sense of compassion more broadly. But it probably won't.

Senator Amanda Vanstone spent a good deal of energy yesterday rationalising the correct (if belated) decision to grant a humanitarian visa to Ebrahim Sammaki, who has been released from the Baxter detention centre in South Australia.

She said it was based on what was best for his two children, adding that it was "in the national interest to demonstrate that Australia is a compassionate country".

But what seemed to distinguish Mr Sammaki was that his family tragedy was the loss of his wife as a result of the Bali bombing.

As the minister put it: "This is quite specifically a decision that's been made as a consequence of the Sammaki children having lost their mother in pretty tragic circumstances shared by other Australians."

But what of the tragic circumstances that led these others to risk their lives in leaky boats, circumstances Australians can barely imagine? Or the tragedies that occurred along the way, such as the sinking of the boat known as SIEV X?

Each of the cases of family separation on Nauru is tragic.

Jawed Ali, one of the three men who will be helped by New Zealand, fled Afghanistan at the urging of his mother after his brother was killed.

His mother and two sons died after he fled. His wife delivered this grim news by letter after she and their third child were detained on Christmas Island when they tried to follow him. They have spent more than two years on Nauru. His daughter was a few months old when he last saw her. Now she is nearly five.

One obvious difference with the Sammaki case is that the fathers/husbands of the Nauru families were accepted as refugees, and granted temporary protection visas.

Their continued separation is against the spirit of the international convention on refugees and Australia's treaty obligations on the rights of children.

But there is another difference, too. Unlike the Sammaki children, whose tragedy was highlighted when they were pictured with the Prime Minister in Bali, the women and children on Nauru are, by design, not accessible. It is virtually impossible for their stories to be heard.

Yes, Amanda, it is in the national interest to demonstrate that Australia is a compassionate country. But selective compassion is not compassion at all.

Mobilising rural Australia

Griffith Review
by Anne Coombs
October 2003

Betty Dixon from Goulburn called this morning. She had some information about one of "her boys" in the Baxter detention centre, Ebrahim Sammaki, whose wife, Endong was killed in the Bali bombing. Ebrahim is to be allowed to go to Adelaide for a memorial service for the anniversary on the weekend. As the anniversary approaches I have been thinking of Ebrahim, struck by a double tragedy: the separation from family and imprisonment that is the fate of asylum seekers in Australia; and the appalling bad luck that saw his wife passing down a Kuta street on the night of the Bali bombing. Fate has stuck the knife into Ebrahim, and twisted it.

After Betty's phone call, I pulled out the card that Ebrahim sent to his Australian friends last year, after his wife's death, to thank them for their support. On the front is a family photo taken before the family's separation. Ebrahim is a strong-looking man with bushy eyebrows and a square jaw. Beside him, Endong is slight and beautiful with long black hair. Ebrahim holds their baby daughter, Sara. The little boy Safda stands solemnly in front of his mother.

At the time he sent the cards Ebrahim was in Woomera detention centre. (The cards were prepared and paid for by one of Betty's friends in Goulburn.) In his message, printed inside the card, Ebrahim said: "The desert has shown no mercy for our tears and heartache or the cry of the children for their papa. But you, my friends, we will never, never forget your kindness. God be with you."

Ebrahim is still in detention. His motherless children are still in Indonesia. The Government continues to refuse them visas to visit their father.

SOON AFTER I wrote this John Howard was photographed with the two children at a football game in Bali. He stood grinning with Sara's hand in his and Safda standing next to him. He didn't know their father was in detention. But within days the photograph was published in newspapers in Australia and the Government came under pressure to allow the children to visit their father. Questions were asked in Parliament, Simon Crean took up the call, and Natasha Stott Despoja said she would be a sponsor for the children. Two weeks later the Government issued Ebrahim with a permanent protection visa, allowing him to be released from detention and re-united with his children. The outcome was a win for refugee advocates who had fought a campaign of "email activism" to get the issue onto the floor of Parliament.

The pro-refugee network is in fact a vast mosaic of overlapping networks: lawyers, church people, human-rights advocates, welfare workers, political activists and ordinary people; from highly skilled professionals with specific expertise to the many thousands who have joined a grassroots movement to oppose the Government's treatment of asylum seekers. This is the story of one strand in this network - Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR).

For most of her 73 years Betty Dixon has lived a quiet conservative life in Goulburn. She has five children, 13 grandchildren and, now, 12 refugee "sons". There are hundreds like Betty Dixon in rural Australia: older women, mothers and grandmothers, whose outrage has catapulted them into political activism, many of them for the first time in their lives. I think of Elaine Smith, up on the north coast of NSW, who is in touch with dozens and dozens of detainees on Nauru, and of Joc Stenson at Mudgee, helping the Afghan boys at the abattoir with their English lessons and visa applications. I think of my friend Marg, whom I've known for years and never known to be "political", but there she is at every RAR meeting.

RAR members have not shrunk from the challenge of confronting the Government wherever possible. In fact, I've been surprised by the readiness of normally unpolitical people to be politicised on this issue. When I first saw a horde of grey-haired grannies in their RAR T-shirts waving their banners outside Parliament House it occurred to me that I was witnessing something important - perhaps the beginning of a new social-justice movement in rural Australia. It showed that when the chips are down, when they really feel that fundamental freedoms are at stake, ordinary people can and will act.

RAR was born out of frustration. It began after the Tampa stand-off, when we were told that 85 per cent of Australians were behind the Government. Those of us who were not seemed to be cowered by this overwhelming majority, silenced. People who dared speak sympathetically about asylum seekers found themselves falling out with friends, family, neighbours. Public opinion was hardening.

In early October 2001, my partner, Susan Varga, our friend Helen McCue and I were sitting around at home wondering what we, as individuals, could do. This is the problem for people stirred up by our political leaders' actions or failure to act. Confronted with abuse of power, individual action seems futile. But it is exactly at such moments that it is imperative.

We knew there were a lot of people feeling the way we did. But how to mobilise them? Most Australians knew very little about the way asylum seekers were being treated, both in the privately run detention centres and by the bureaucracy that was processing their claims. People were not being honestly informed by the Government. We were convinced that many more would be sympathetic to asylum seekers if they were given the facts.

Thus Susan coined one of our first slogans: "When you know the facts you will open your heart." Susan is great at engaging with people. She knows how to make connections. I'm always full of ideas but not so good at making them happen. Helen is the sort who, if I say, "We could have a public meeting", will respond by pulling out her diary, naming a date and suggesting a venue. We discovered that the three of us made a good team.

We decided to hold a public meeting in our local town, Bowral, five days before the federal election in November 2001. We gathered a small group of like-minded supporters to help us organise. We did some research, prepared a fact sheet and also an open letter to be published in our local paper. We handed out flyers for the public meeting in the shopping centre on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons for a couple of weeks. We collected signatures for the open letter. We arranged an impressive line-up of speakers and invited local candidates to address the meeting. Nearly 500 people packed the Bowral Memorial Hall. It made an impact because it was one of the first public expressions of dissent by everyday Australians.

We coined the somewhat ambitious name "Rural Australians for Refugees" because we believed in what we were doing and its potential to grow, which is exactly what it did after that first meeting. As a result of coverage on radio and television and through the web, we were inundated with people wanting to help or be part of RAR. Within days, RAR groups were starting up in regional areas of Victoria and NSW. The growth was phenomenal - within three months there were close to 30 RAR groups across the country. Now there are more than 60.

Some RAR groups are located close to detention centres, such as those at Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Whyalla, while others are in parts of the country where they rarely see a refugee. So each group, and each individual RAR supporter, undertakes whatever work seems most appropriate. These are some of the ways that RAR people help: writing to detainees; working on submissions to have detainees released; visiting them and taking things they need - from medication to shoes to second-hand computers; finding legal help; writing to politicians and newspapers; lobbying for better treatment in detention; collecting household goods so newly released refugees can set up house; holding regular information nights and street stalls; organising events that raise community awareness; media work; lobbying councils to declare their towns "welcome towns"; organising holidays in the country for city-based refugees; and giving English and driving lessons.

The groups near the detention centres are in daily contact with detainees. In rural areas of NSW and Victoria, many people are involved in helping people on temporary protection visas. Some RAR members are battling to free particular families from detention - a fight that has taken over their lives. Others concentrate on public education and raising money for those working "at the coalface". Our group supports Port Pirie RAR's work and that of the House of Welcome in Sydney. Lismore RAR helps Port Augusta RAR and newly released refugees in Brisbane. Up in Bellingen, Walter Schwarz has co-ordinated a massive letter-writing campaign, linking up more than 1500 Australians with people behind the razor wire in need of friends.

As a network, we have worked on some common strategies, such as the "welcome books", which encourage ordinary citizens to write messages of welcome to refugees in detention and the "welcome towns" campaign, where local councils declare themselves refugee-friendly. Many towns have now passed resolutions to this effect. Last year we launched a nationwide campaign against temporary protection visas, with the theme "Refugees deserve a permanent future". In recent months there has developed a much better understanding in the community of the corroding effect of temporary visas and RAR has played a part in that.

The overall aim of RAR is nothing less than turning around public opinion. Our intent is highly political but RAR is non-party political. From the beginning our supporters have covered the political spectrum, from National Party to Green.

The work that many RAR people do is an inspiration. On a trip through NSW, Victoria and South Australia, I stayed with some of them. The first was Joc Stenson in Mudgee. Joc, a retired social worker, has been a tower of strength to some of the young Afghan refugees working at the Mudgee abattoir, helping them with their visa applications and English lessons. She has a big heart and a kind of cheerful weariness, as if there's not much the world can throw at her that she hasn't seen.

* * * * *

May 2003

There are about a dozen Hazaras, all on temporary-protection visas, at the meatworks. This afternoon, two of them, Ari and Nassim (not their real names), came over to see Joc. Nassim's temporary visa expires soon and he desperately wants a permanent one. A permanent visa would allow his family to join him. Recently Nassim heard that his little son had died back in Afghanistan. He hadn't seen him for more than three years.

Nassim's story is a familiar one. In his village the fundamentalist Taliban were on a rampage. There was no escaping the fatwah. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, which the Taliban do not consider Muslim at all. He had three choices: to become a fundamentalist, to leave Afghanistan or die. So he fled.

Three years later, nothing has really changed. "The people whose hands are covered in Hazara blood are still there. The fatwah is still in place," he says. He misses his family terribly - "family is the most precious thing" - but is still too afraid to return.

I met Ari at the first RAR national conference held in Mudgee last December. At 18 he is one of the youngest of the Hazaras, but because his English is the best he is constantly called upon to act as translator. It is terrible to think of the horror stories this teenager has had to hear and translate in his role as go-between. But Ari has seen horror in his own right: "I have buried more than 20 bodies with my own hands." Yet he always seems cheerful. He looks even younger than his 18 years.

Ari translates Nassim's story fluently. He has an easy flow of colloquialisms that he drops into the conversation with a grin. His favourite is "I'm going to shoot through now". He laughs every time he says it.

Joc is very thorough as she works through Nassim's story with him. She is methodical and respectful. The chances of his being granted a permanent visa are slim. The Government has made it virtually impossible for boat people who have arrived in the past few years to ever gain permanent residency. But if Afghanistan is deemed dangerous enough, the Government may grant him another three-year temporary visa. He may spend the rest of his life on temporary visas, unable ever to be re-united with is wife and surviving children - "Family is the most precious thing".

But he smiles at us and appears cheerful. Joc says the men almost never show their pain.

* * * * *

Bernadette Wauchope is the powerhouse behind Port Pirie RAR. Port Pirie is one of the poorest towns in Australia but also one of the most generous. Committed people who don't have a lot themselves are spending precious time and money helping the detainees in Baxter detention centre. Every day people drive the 100 kilometres from Port Pirie to Baxter to visit the asylum seekers, offering friendship and practical support. When I was there the town was preparing to welcome two families on bridging visas. People on bridging visas get virtually no government support and are not allowed to work, so whoever sponsors them is taking on a big responsibility. Port Pirie and other RAR members are working up a support network to provide health care, housing and living allowances for newly released refugees.

A number of people in Port Pirie RAR, although by no means all, are part of the Catholic Church. When RAR first started making an impact, we heard that there was a rumour going around Federal Parliament that we were a Catholic front. Susan, who is a secular Jew, and I, an atheist, were highly amused by this. But it is true that quite a lot of RAR supporters are practising Christians. They put their Christianity into action.

I don't know if Elaine Smith is religious or not - I've never asked her - just as I've never asked any RAR supporters their political affiliations. Elaine, who lives on the north coast of NSW, has taken up the cause of the detainees on Nauru. Dozens of them write to her, ask for help. She is swamped by the need. They write with their medical ailments, seeking her advice because the advice available to them on Nauru is rudimentary. Elaine emails out for help to others in the RAR network. People rally, do what they can. But how much can they do? The detainees are still stuck on Nauru, unable even to receive visitors.

When twenty-one detainees were released recently and flown to Brisbane, Elaine and husband, Geoff, drove up to see them. It was the first time she was able to give "her boys" a hug. These were boys and young men who had arrived on the Tampa. The ones who were "never to be allowed on our shores", the ones who were sent to Nauru, supposedly for just a couple of months. Two years later, after much pressure from refugee supporters, church organisations and Democrat leader Andrew Bartlett, they were released. But they were given only temporary visas - they are still in limbo.

* * * * *

August 2003

We have been meeting like this now for more than 18 months. The early meetings were crowded, every chair taken. There was a strange chemistry at work, whereby however many chairs we put out, that's how many were filled. We set up sub-groups to deal with various tasks - writing to politicians, lobbying the council to declare our shire a "welcome town", visiting Villawood detention centre, manning the Saturday morning stall with its welcome book for people to sign. People were motivated, angry, pleased to be doing something to show their anger at the Government.

But as time has gone on, meeting attendances have shrunk. There's still a band of stalwarts but many have drifted away. Because what can we do? This Government will not budge. There are still hundreds in detention; there's still the nightmare of temporary protection; deportations are happening. We've been able to make little real impact on policy. We're being worn down and the Government knows all it has to do is out-wait us, wait till this people's movement dissolves from weariness and disillusion and apathy takes over.

The other night I was on the phone - a RAR national steering group teleconference. I sat and listened through the litany of ideas and strategies. Good people. Good ideas. But they are not going to shift this Government. And the Opposition is not much better. Talk of a federal election, a double dissolution. How should we lobby? What should be our strategy during the election campaign? Futility overwhelms me. If this Government is re-elected what will it mean for the country? What awful measures may be ahead?

If the refugees cannot be freed, if the Government cannot be beaten on this issue, then what can be done?

I've been talking to Helen and Susan about this. Helen is very pragmatic, matter-of-fact: we must keep going because there is no alternative. We must keep doing what we can - lobbying the Labor Party, highlighting the plight of the people on Nauru through a photo exhibition and so on. Last night, at the local RAR meeting, Madge described what has been happening on Saturday mornings at the street stall. People still approach them all the time and some say how much they appreciate that they are keeping at it, there every week regardless of the cold or wind or rain. Their simple presence is a reminder that people are still being kept in detention. They still get people abusing them, but not a lot. Sometimes people driving down the street wave supportively.

There is no point in being disillusioned, no point, personally, in pulling back. Withdrawing doesn't help the spirit.

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Reading through the archive of emails and other material from the early days of RAR, I am struck by the sense of relief that emanates from people who have suddenly found an outlet for their frustration. Time and again people write of their powerlessness and hopelessness after the November 2001 election. Then they heard about RAR. And suddenly there's energy, a sense of excitement almost, because they have found others who feel they same way, and they can do something.

And the way it criss-crossed the country. An email suggestion that started in Port Hedland might travel to someone in Castlemaine, then to us in southern NSW, then to Armidale or Bellingen. It is the nature of email. Certainly RAR could not have grown the way it did without it. We have become a virtual community par excellence.

And the intelligence and passion of people, their preparedness to go out on a limb. For example, Judy Brewer-Fischer (wife of Tim Fischer) wrote this to her local paper in Albury: "There comes a time when you can no longer sit back and watch a humanitarian crisis of the dimension that we are witnessing in Australia today and pretend that you are powerless - we are a group of concerned local citizens - we believe that the current policy of indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers, many of whom are clearly genuine refugees, is morally and economically indefensible." She and her two co-signatories then invited people to a public meeting. And so Albury-Wodonga RAR was born.

Dozens and dozens of letters in this vein were sent to regional newspapers around Australia. For a writer to put his or her name to such a letter was not a decision taken lightly in a small community. But time and again we heard back how they had then been contacted by one, or two, or 20 people - how they were meeting next week - how they hoped to organise a public event and could we recommend a speaker?

This is people empowering themselves, isolated people coming together, with passion, to try to make a difference. Within towns new networks of friendship and support developed. People found new allies - maybe someone they had seen in the street over the years but never spoken to. One of the truly significant things about RAR is that it has given a platform for political activism to many people who have never been active. It shows that if you are passionate enough about something then you can, and should, make your voice heard.

And maybe it is having an effect. One insider to the Liberal Party told me recently: "[Mandatory detention] is a policy that was never meant to do what it has done. It's become a weeping sore on the national psyche."

We never wanted to run an organisation. So we refused to set one up. From the start people who contacted us from all over the country asked, "How can we join?" We told them there was no official membership, no constitution and no structure. "Just read our 10-point plan and if you agree with it and want to help - go for it." Some groups did set up their own structure but a lot of them also came to rather like the idea of no structure.

We were in contact with other groups that already existed in places like Armidale, Bellingen and Katherine. Most of these soon became RAR groups because we could all see that there was power in the name Rural Australians for Refugees. I think it was the unlikeliness of that concept that caught people's imaginations - particularly people in the cities. And it was a pretty scary concept for conservative politicians.

It simply confirmed to me what I already knew - that regional Australia is not the redneck, conservative monolith that most people think. The country has changed. Country people are far more diverse than city dwellers realise. Refugee supporters might still be in the minority in the bush but the fact that RAR groups are thriving from Mt Isa to Cootamundra is an indication that regional Australians can be as passionate about this issue as anyone else.

In the beginning, the three of us who had started RAR acted as the clearing house for the network - putting people in touch with one another, developing and passing on ideas for events and campaigns and acting as public spokespersons for the network. But we left it up to each RAR group to decide what sort of work it would do, how it would organise itself and promote what it was doing.

To get around the public liability problem some groups have put themselves under the umbrella of another local organisation that has insurance cover. Others hold their events and meetings in places that have insurance, for example, shire halls. And some of us just refuse to allow the danger of legal action to impinge on our freedom to dissent and to mobilise.

RAR could never have grown into a movement as quickly or as geographically dispersed as it is without email. People can feel included in the work of the network regardless of where they are located. We can respond quickly to unfolding events - targeting politicians or sending out requests for help for specific detainees. The website has been invaluable and one of the main ways that new supporters find us.

By late 2002, when Mudgee RAR hosted our first national get-together, there were probably close to 5000 people who were, one way or another, in the RAR loop. Some of them were city-based sympathisers. By then, Susan, Helen and I were burnt out. At Mudgee, a national steering group was formed and the administration of the network transferred to a group in central Victoria.

When there is no structure, when there are no clear lines of responsibility and hierarchy, how do you transfer leadership? We thought it was as simple as handing over the database and email lists and saying, "go for it". But even non-organisations develop their own culture - and RAR's was, from the beginning, essentially anarchic. People will do what they want when they want. The RAR leadership was only ever able to offer information, ideas and - most importantly - the sense of being part of something. This is the essential ingredient in a network and it was particularly important for people feeling isolated in rural communities because of their non-conformist views.

The new leadership team took over co-ordination for RAR at a difficult time. By 2003, the early, angry days were over. The refugee issue was mostly off the front pages and it was hard to maintain the energy. The central Victorians got some good things happening in Victoria - a regional conference that helped change the mind of at least one federal politician, a lot of networking with refugee advocates in Melbourne, some excellent media stories. Many of the Victorian groups thrived. But the flow of information through to the national network dried up. And as a result people felt abandoned. Many of us kept on with our work but the network almost ceased to function. Or rather, people developed and relied on their own contacts both inside and outside of RAR.

RAR's experience during 2003 says a lot about the difficulty of keeping networks alive across this vast country of ours. But in genuine grassroots movements, when someone drops the ball someone else picks it up and runs with it. In October 2003 that's exactly what happened, when two of RAR's most effective operators, Anne and Rob Simpson from Bellingen, volunteered to take over co-ordinating the RAR national network. Within weeks the energy and sense of connectedness was thriving again. Anne Simpson is one of the most experienced of RAR's networkers with connections right across the movement.

From the beginning, RAR plugged into the wider refugee movement. The movement has brought together an amazing spectrum of people, from conservative church groups to radical left political groups, all working for a common cause. Some of these have been working in the field for years. Others, such as RAR and the highly effective group Chilout (Children Out of Detention), are more recent developments. Like RAR, Chilout is essentially a middle-class movement made up of people who have been roused to take action by their outrage at the Government's policy.

There have been numerous attempts to co-ordinate the refugee movement nationally but so far none has been very successful. A Just Australia, based in Sydney, has attempted to be a national umbrella organisation but has met some resistance. Justice for Asylum Seekers, in Melbourne, has undertaken a National Networking Project (NNP) to overcome the communication problems. It has made some significant steps but is still not widely known. The Australian Refugee Rights Alliance (ARRA), again based in Sydney, has been doing some groundbreaking work, primarily in lobbying foreign delegations at the United Nations in Geneva. But ARRA is hardly known in Victoria. The need for greater co-ordination is universally acknowledged yet so diverse and dispersed and busy are refugee advocates, most of them volunteers that it never seems to happen.

Mary O'Kane, co-ordinator of the NNP, says: "Everyone wants it but no one has the time and resources to do it." The NNP has made a couple of significant advances. For example, there is now a national network of welfare organisations and legal advocates with a single initial contact point in each state to help detainees released by court order. It sounds so simple but to make it happen the available agencies had to be identified in each state and decisions made as to which was the most appropriate point of first contact. The need for this arose after the landmark Al Masri (Habeas Corpus) decision that found that people could not be kept locked up indefinitely after their appeals had been exhausted. Immediately after, eight long-term asylum seekers were released without warning in Port Augusta, Port Hedland and Sydney. They had no work rights, no access to government services and no community support. They had been imprisoned for years and were traumatised. The men had literally been left on the street until refugee welfare workers swung into action.

In the absence of formal networking systems, connections tend to be ad hoc, made when there is a need. Anne Henderson, deputy director of The Sydney Institute, became involved in the refugee movement after being taken to visit a detainee at Villawood detention centre by writer Linda Jaivin. While there, Anne met a 17-year-old girl who had come to Australia from Ghana to avoid a forced marriage and circumcision. She had been taken to Villawood straight from the airport because authorities said her visa was not in order.

The young woman had come to the attention of Chilout and was being visited by members of the Manly Social Justice Network. A Chilout organiser persuaded the Member for North Sydney, Liberal Joe Hockey, to make a commitment that if any constituent of his were prepared to take a minor into his or her home he would go into bat for him or her to be released from detention. As it happens, Anne and Gerard Henderson live in his electorate.

Anne says she always knew she would be prepared to do that. She had already called on Gerard to write a letter in support of Linda Jaivin's detainee friend. The only way the Minister for Immigration will intervene in these cases, after they've been rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal, is if there are exceptional circumstances and new evidence. Then the minister may issue what is known in the trade as a "417" - in other words, if you get the minister's dispensation you get a visa. But to even get a letter read by the minister is a feat.

Other people were also called on to help. They included Judy Hunt from the Jesuit Refugee Service and a sympathetic Phillip Street barrister who does pro bono work on behalf of refugees. The young woman's cousin, who lives in Sydney, went back to Ghana to gather the necessary "new evidence".

After months of silence, Anne Henderson's young friend - now 18 - was released last August. She was lucky and received a permanent protection visa that will allow her to become a citizen in two years. She is living with the Hendersons and doing her HSC through TAFE.

The thing that keeps people going in the refugee movement is the personal contact with asylum seekers - meeting people behind the razor wire, hearing their stories, seeing their despair. We are involved in a struggle that is both political and humanitarian. The politics makes us angry; the people make us care. RAR and the rest of the movement will keep on going as long as there are people in detention and as long as Australia refuses haven to refugees who simply want the chance to rebuild their lives.

Compassion is the value we often settle on

Social justice should be for all, not just those we feel sorry for.

The Age - Opinion
Klaus Neumann
October 11, 2007

THE GOVERNMENT has identified 10 Australian values. Prospective citizens are now quizzed about their knowledge of and commitment to those values. Among them are "tolerance, mutual respect and compassion for those in need".

Prime Minister John Howard has often sung the praise of compassion and spoken of Australia as a compassionate nation. He has tried to colonise a terminology traditionally associated with his political opponents, and at the same time respond to frequent accusations that his reign has been marked by a lack of compassion, particularly towards asylum seekers.

"We are a decent, generous, compassionate, humanitarian country, but we also have an absolute right to decide who comes to this country," he insisted in late August 2001 while the Tampa was drifting in waters near Christmas Island.

As an item of political language, compassion is contested. Its ownership and its meaning have been fought over, particularly since the late 1990s. The compassion referred to by the Prime Minister is not the same as the compassion demanded of the Prime Minister by refugee advocates who are decrying Australia's mandatory detention policies.

In 2003, during the anniversary commemorations for the victims of the Bali bombing, Howard was photographed alongside two young children whose mother had been one of those victims. Unbeknown to Howard, their father, Ebrahim Sammaki, was a failed asylum seeker who was being held in the Baxter detention centre. A few weeks after the Bali memorial service, the then immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone, granted Sammaki a visa to allow him to sponsor the migration of his children to Australia. She justified her decision by saying that it was "in the national interest to demonstrate that Australia is a compassionate country".

Like Howard and his ministers, most of those advocating a more generous approach to asylum seekers have been deeply concerned about the image Australians have of their nation and the image Australia conveys to the outside world. They, too, have understood compassion to be something that could be exercised by the Government on behalf of all Australians.

They haven't disputed the assumption that compassion is only for those who deserve it; instead they have challenged the Government's view that asylum seekers are undeserving: they have argued that asylum seekers are good people and would make excellent citizens.

The Government and its critics agree that compassion is an Australian value (even though the latter say that the Government's commitment to that value isn't genuine).

I believe we should be more suspicious of compassion. It is fickle; it is not directed towards the ones whose suffering is most severe, but towards those who appear most deserving; it can easily turn into pity; it can be manipulated; and it may not help the sufferer because it does not require action. Compassion on its own cannot be trusted. It needs to be qualified and supported: by reflections on what makes us compassionate, a commitment to justice, and a sense of responsibility.

Nations don't have feelings. But policy makers could experience compassion and act compassionately. Unlike her predecessor, Vanstone was sometimes prepared to let herself be moved by stories of individual suffering. Maybe she did feel genuine compassion for the Sammaki children, and for that reason overrode established policy. In that case, compassion would have played a role in tempering a policy formulated in response to Australia's supposed national interest. That role could have been more substantial if her compassion had allowed her to recognise the fundamental flaws of that policy. In that case, compassion would have triggered a policy review.

That is not to say that a policy maker's compassion should directly result in a new policy. On two occasions in recent Australian history, refugee policy was driven by compassion. In June 1989, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, prime minister Bob Hawke allowed Chinese nationals studying in Australia to remain here. Arguably that was poor policy because it compromised the refugee determination process. In 1999, the Howard Government offered sanctuary to several thousand Kosovars, after the compassion felt by many Australians forced its hand. Arguably, that, too, resulted in poor policy: the resources spent on the evacuation of refugees to Australia should have been used to fund relief measures closer to the source of the problem.

In an ideal world, good policy is the outcome of informed political debate. How could one debate policies based on compassion (other than to question the very fact that compassion has guided political decision making)? The political philosopher Hannah Arendt commented perceptively: "The qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display."

Frequent references to a compassionate nation and the undisputed status of compassion as an Australian value indicate how Australians would like to see themselves. Would it not be more desirable to be part of a nation whose government and whose citizens are committed to striving for social justice for all residents (rather than to ensuring that "those in need" are objects of their compassion)? Would it not be more desirable to be able to identify as citizens of a nation that meets its responsibilities as a global citizen to the full extent of its capacity (rather than of one that is charitable)?

Professor Klaus Neumann works at Swinburne University's Institute for Social Research. This is an edited extract from his inaugural lecture, delivered last night at the State Library of Victoria.