Much like the party guest who RSVPs to an event and fails to attend, ‘hashtag activism’ is often derided for its inability to incite follow-through. Social media shows us a steady stream of armchair warriors re-posting ideals that accord with their own, and I too am guilty of this kind of moral outrage – seated in the cosy embrace of my warm, lit home, I have ‘liked’ a post or fired off the occasional profanity-laced missive. And for many of us, this is where the outrage and indignity ends. Faced with a plethora of competing causes, we disengage. There is only so much noise we can hear, so we disconnect, look away, and put the bad things out of our minds.
But somehow, this did not happen with the #LetThemStay movement.
When Senator Sarah Hanson-Young first spoke up about Australia’s asylum seeker policies and our processes for offshore detention years ago, it largely fell on deaf ears. Possibly this was because at the time we were mired in a kind of terrorism hysteria, and were repeatedly told that threats to national security could only be curtailed by taking a hard line approach to border protection (a somewhat specious argument that makes as much sense as Homer Simpson owning a tiger-repelling rock).
Perhaps we can be forgiven for not listening to our pollies given their disparate views, but what about the Law Council of Australia? In May 2015 it made a submission to the Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru, that firmly established Australia’s duty of care obligations and responsibilities, noted the foreseeable risks of prolonged and remote detention, and stated that “…it is highly likely that Australia owes an ongoing duty to take reasonable care to avoid these foreseeable risks of harm.” It didn’t have the same zing as #LetThemStay, but it was a start.
But no one really wants to listen to a bunch of lawyers, do they? What about the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory organisation that reports to federal parliament through the Attorney-General? When its medical team uncovered evidence about the mental and physical health of children held at the Wickham Point detention facility in Darwin – some of whom comprise the 267 asylum seekers destined to return to Nauru – ears pricked. After all, it is hard to drown out the words of Professor Elizabeth Elliott, a paediatrician with extensive experience in assessing asylum seeker and refugee children, who stated, “These children…are among the most traumatised we have ever seen.” Perhaps we owe it to medical professionals like Professor Gilbert, and her colleagues to listen to what they have to say, especially as their actions in speaking out have the potential to curtail both their liberty and livelihoods (under section 42 of the Border Force Act 2015, persons making a record of or disclosing protected information face two years imprisonment).
Earlier this month when the impending return of 267 asylum seekers to Nauru was deemed lawful by the High Court of Australia, the Prime Minister spouted the virtues of a policy designed to keep our borders safe (albeit at the expense of the physical and psychological health of vulnerable women, men, children and babies). Fortunately, the #LetThemStay message gained further support when ten Anglican churches and cathedrals invoked the ancient Christian tradition of offering protection to all hell bound for Nauru. Eventually 44 churches spoke in support of offering protection to those facing deportation.
Maybe the noise in favour of #LetThemStay got a bit louder when the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, wrote to the Prime Minister and offered for Victoria to take in each of the refugees facing removal. This watershed moment was quickly followed by other state leaders offering support. Over the next few days people took to the streets, with thousands turning up at rallies across Australia. Mums and babies, grandparents, professionals, the old and young, rich and poor, stood side by side, signs with #LetThemStay waving forcefully as winds of change filled the air.
It is happening slowly, but the murmurs are becoming roars as the #LetThemStay movement grows. The ACTU and Education Union have offered support; Missy Higgins released a song inspired by the drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, donating 100% of net profits to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. One hundred Australian comedians penned a letter to the government condemning the current approach to detention. And last week we witnessed more bravery from our medical professionals when staff at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Hospital refused to discharge Baby Asha back to Nauru, deeming it an unsuitable home environment. Backing their position was the President of the AMA Brian Owler who emphatically stated that any act to remove the baby from medical care would be “a dangerous act from which there is no return”. Scenes outside the hospital showed hundreds protesting in support of asylum seekers staying in the community; people who for days wilted in the scorching Queensland heat to bring awareness to the issues facing refugees (Baby Asha was eventually released to community detention, which would be a source of relief were it not for the ever-looming threat of being sent back to Nauru in the dark of night at the behest of Minister Dutton).
So perhaps ‘hashtag activism’ isn’t as superficial as sceptics may believe, because it seems that as we learn more about policies that inflict more harm than good, people are feeling compelled to take a stand, because try as we might to shut out the niggling voices of political spin, we are reluctant to doubt the words of ordinary Australians who speak up to unmask extraordinary regimes. The teachers, the doctors, the lawyers, the advocates; the people with voices who are using them for the voiceless – these are the people to whom the #LetThemStay movement owes its visibility, because in a time where our politicians are ignoring what Australians have to say on matters related to offshore processing , each of us, as citizens of this country, and as taxpayers who are funding these processes, are starting to get a little bit loud about what we will and will not condone.
Let’s keep turning up the volume.
Image: Andrew Hill
Sarah Tucker is a Brisbane-raised, Melbourne-based writer, blogger and lawyer whose writing explores themes of family, friendship and mental health. She is a proud mum to two little men and a cattle dog with even more psychological issues than she has. For more of her writing, visit allmydirtylaundry.com.