BM Writers’ Festival – part 2

A week after the Blue Mountains Writers’ festival, the session I keep thinking about is the discussion between Behrouz Boochani, and Safdar Ahmed. Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who wrote ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ whilst in Australian detention on Manus Island. Safdar Ahmed is a refugee advocate who has produced a graphic novel titled ‘Still Alive’ chronicling experiences of refugees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. It has recently won Book of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award, Gold Ledger, Comic Arts Awards of Australia and the CBCA Eve Pownall Award.

Both these authors presented nuanced arguments on the Australian refugee policy as endorsed by both the Liberal and now the Labor government. While many of us have fallen into accepting a worldview which is presented to us as a series of dichotomies, this either/or thinking limits not only our ability to think deeply, it also oversimplifies complex situations so that we are left to choose between only two possible possibilities.

In the case of Australia’s refugee policy, if you are against asylum seekers entering Australia, you will see them as dangerous people, mainly radicalised Muslims who will destabilise society if allowed to enter en masse. On the other hand, if you are advocate for refugees, you are likely to see them as decent, hardworking people who will contribute and be grateful for their chance to stay in Australia. Both views are but our own projections. The expectation of gratefulness places refugees in a position of having to always feel indebted for being ‘allowed’ to settle in a host country when the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees clearly spells out that it is the right (not privilege) of every refugee to seek asylum. In addition, Article 31 also states that refugees have a right not to be punished for illegal entry. As signatories to the convention, we are clearly breaking our international obligations.

Those who of us who are on the side of refugees can easily fall into the role benevolent do-gooders who feel virtuous about our actions. It is what Boochani calls the ‘white saviour culture’.  We only need to think about the recent return of the ‘Biloela family’. There is no doubt that this was an important campaign but beyond the public celebrations and feelings of having ‘won’, there is no structural reform. Hundreds of other asylum seekers still languish in detention. As Boochani says, ‘Nothing has changed. The system is still working, the mentality that condones detaining innocent people is still entrenched, and the detention industry flourishes.’

Ahmed has arrived at a similar position to Boochani. He started the Refugee Art Project with some friends when he began visiting Villawood Detention Centre. Over the years, this project nurtured a strong sense of community and led to the book ‘Still Alive’. This graphic novel does not portray asylum seekers, or himself for that matter, as flawless individuals but presents them as people who deserve asylum for no other reason than that they are stateless and are part of the human race. His work references many readily recognisable iconic images which he subverts to question Australian colonial attitudes.

Boochani’s new book called ‘Freedom, only Freedom’ is published by Bloomsbury. It is due to arrive in bookshops next month.

Ahmed’s book ‘Still Alive’ is available from Twelve Panels Press.

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