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Mark Latham is wrong about Melbourne's attitude to asylum seekers

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
5 August 2014

To quote Julian Burnside, “you don’t need a bleeding heart to know asylum seekers should be treated humanely, just a beating one.”

Julian Burnside is one of the “human rights” lawyers and refugee advocates that Mark Latham speaks so scathingly about in his recent opinion piece, in which he suggests inner city residents only care about asylum seekers as long as they don't live anywhere near them.

The people of inner Melbourne beg to differ.

We live alongside refugees and asylum seekers. They are our neighbours, our colleagues and our friends. We care about them because they are humans, and all humans have basic rights.

In the last five years, the inner city hasn’t housed as many refugees as some outer suburbs. However, Latham’s article conveniently leaves out the fact that over the last sixty years we have housed many waves of migrants and refugees. We live alongside these people to this day, and the vibrant and diverse culture that our city is known for has been made richer by the refugees that have made Melbourne their home.

Europeans settled in inner Melbourne in the 1950s, escaping war-torn Europe. Vietnamese refugees settled in Richmond and Collingwood in the 1970s and 1980s. Most recently, inner Melbourne has become home to thousands of people from the Horn of Africa forced to flee because of famine, war and persecution.

The inner-city Federal electorate of Melbourne has the highest number of public housing residents of any electorate in the whole country - and 27% of these public housing tenants are migrants and refugees.

In 2012-2013, the City of Melbourne was the fastest growing local government area in the whole country. We understand the pressures of population growth, yet we’re still happy to accept refugees into our community.

In his article, Latham claims that inner city voters want a compassionate approach to asylum seekers because it’s just “abstract policy” for us, and we don’t live in “the real Australia”.

My personal experience, like tens of thousands of Melburnians, says otherwise.

For years I lived in the inner-west suburb of Flemington, just one hundred metres from our local public housing high-rise flats. These flats house hundreds of recently arrived migrants - many of whom are refugees, particularly from the Horn of Africa.

These people are my neighbours. Tomorrow I’ll attend their Eid festival with Greens MP Adam Bandt, who also lives just one street away.

Refugees have been adding to Melbourne’s cultural diversity and incredible community for decades now. I want that to continue.  

We’d love to house even more asylum seekers in the inner city, but the sky-rocketing costs of inner city living and the disastrous lack of investment in public housing push people to the outer suburbs, where it’s difficult to access services and transport.

The waiting list for public housing in Victoria is up to 30 years, and we’re 32,500 houses short of what we need. Even people that are in high risk situations, such as being homeless or escaping domestic abuse, still wait three to five years for housing, sometimes more. Our public primary schools in inner Melbourne are significantly over-subscribed and suffering from years of under-investment.

Australians are compassionate people, but I understand why some in the outer suburbs are feeling the pressure. Our transport and housing infrastructure has suffered from decades of neglect from the old parties. It’s no wonder that people feel worried about accepting new residents, when they’re stuck in hours of traffic, can’t squeeze on the train in peak hour or can’t get their kids into a local school.

It’s irresponsible for politicians (and past politicians like Latham) to use asylum seekers as scapegoats for a problem that is really about lack of infrastructure and a failure to plan for the future.

Regardless of all these facts and statistics, it’s offensive for Latham to suggest that caring about the humane treatment of asylum seekers is just a trend.

Melburnians are kind, welcoming people and they should be congratulated for that, not chastised.

Australia is quick to condemn the horrendous treatment of minorities and oppressed people around the world. This makes it all the more shocking that human rights abuses are happening right here in Australia, in our names.

The Greens policy on asylum seekers is one of common sense and compassion.

We advocate for a policy that asks Australian to take a greater role in the Asia-Pacific region, and adequately fund the UNHCR, to make sure people have safe ways to seek asylum and escape conflict and persecution, so they’re not forced on to leaky boats.

We ask that Australia process asylum seekers onshore. Not only would this approach save lives by ensuring safe pathways, and fulfil our obligations under international law, but it would save Australians the billions of dollars currently being spent on maintaining offshore detention centres.

Let’s also not forget that both the old parties have cut overseas aid, fuelling the tensions that force people to leave their homes.

Reza Berati died in a detention centre and still nobody has been charged for his murder. Mothers are so desperate they are attempting suicide to save their children. 157 Sri Lankans were held at sea in a floating prison for almost a month.

These terrible situations don't simply offend an inner city hipster’s sensibilities. They offend the basic human rights that every individual is entitled to -- the same “human rights” that Latham insists on putting in inverted commas.

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
5 August 2014




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