Juliet Donald, an Australian-born psychologist, was ashamed that her homeland was indefinitely detaining refugees on offshore islands, but having moved to Canada, she felt there was little she could do other than protest and petition from afar.
Then the Toronto resident came across an online callout by Australian expatriates urging Canadians to consider sponsoring those refugees — some held for more than six years on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and remote Nauru. She jumped at the opportunity to gather interested Aussies in Toronto to form a sponsorship group.
“Over the years I have voted, written letters and joined online campaigns to call for the urgent safe resettlement of those in indefinite detention. I have often felt the wish to do more to help this group,” said Donald, a native of Sydney, who immigrated to Canada in 2011.
“Many Australians do not know about Canada’s refugee sponsorship program, but now we can do more, in Canada.”
Donald’s team is among a growing number of groups from the Australian diaspora in Canada trying to “right the wrong” perpetrated by their government, which began the offshore processing in 2012 of boat people seeking protection by turning them away and holding them at remote island detention centres, where their asylum claims would later be determined.
The Australian government has said the tough border policy was necessary to deter people from attempting the risky sea passage at the hands of smugglers, but critics, including Amnesty International, have called the treatment of the detainees inhumane.
According to the Refugee Council of Australia, more than 4,177 people have been sent to the island detention centres. As of August, there were 288 still in limbo in Nauru and 306 in Papua New Guinea. Media reports said there are about 1,000 former detainees receiving medical treatment on the Australian mainland. Critics have long raised mental health concerns for detainees stemming from prolonged detention and social isolation.
In November 2016, departing U.S. president Barack Obama agreed to take in up to 1,250 people from Nauru and Manus Island, as well those in Australia receiving medical treatment. So far, only 619 have been resettled in the United States, with another 258 having been approved and awaiting departure. There are still about 1,000 people — including Iranians, Tamils and Somalians — looking for resettlement.
Last year, Washington-based Australian expatriate Ben Winsor co-founded Australian Diaspora Steps Up, or Ads UP, to support the settlement of the new arrivals in the U.S. The online community has since garnered more than 1,700 members, many in Australia, who want to fundraise, donate and volunteer to help the newcomers.
“We all feel the shame and guilt of our government’s policy and want to do something to right the wrong,” said Winsor, a former journalist, whose group has members from California to New York assisting more than 250 former detainees in the U.S.
This summer, Winsor reached out to Australian expatriates north of the border, asking them to help the detainees still in limbo by sponsoring them under Canada’s private sponsorship program that allows private groups to fundraise and volunteer to resettle refugees from abroad.
Canadian Stephen Watt has hosted workshops to explain the process to Ads UP Canada members. So far, a handful of sponsorship groups have been formed in Toronto and matched with former detainees.
“Besides the U.S. deal, Canada is the only other option,” said Watt, a marketing professional by day. “Many of us had not heard of Manus. We couldn’t believe the cruel treatment of these refugees because we all thought of Australia as the southern version of Canada,” which is recognized worldwide for its welcoming policy towards refugees.
Former detainee Jaivet Ealom, who fled Manus and successfully sought asylum in Canada in September 2018, said he, too, was in disbelief over how a first-world country treated people who needed protection from persecution.
Ealom, a Rohingya refugee, fled persecution in Myanmar and arrived in Australia by boat in 2013. He was first detained on the infamous Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, for four months before being moved to Manus later that year. In his four-and-a-half-years in detention, he was known only as EML019 and stayed in a windowless shipping container that sometimes hit temperatures of 40C.
“The worst part was the mental torture of not knowing what’s going on. There’s no sentence, no timeline. No one called you by your name. It’s so dehumanizing,” recalled Ealom, 27.
“I’ve seen sh– in Myanmar, but nothing compared to Manus. It’s designed to torture and break people down,” added Ealom, who now studies political economy at the University of Toronto and volunteers for Ads UP Canada by speaking to people about his experience in detention. “When I first left Manus, I couldn’t handle noise from cars and people. That was how isolated we were in detention.”
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Eileen Pyne Rudzik, who came to Canada from Australia in 1968 to pursue a doctorate in developmental biology at U of T, said she was shocked when she first heard about the treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government because the Australia she remembered was generous and welcoming to hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Europe after the Second World War.
“The indefinite detention is totally punitive and unacceptable,” said the Toronto woman, who belongs to one of Ads UP Canada’s sponsorship groups. “This is not the Australia I knew. It was the land of ‘fair-goes.’ This situation needs to be redeemed. The more we can do here, the better.”