Former governor-general Sir William Deane is urging Australians to reflect on their family’s migrant journeys to Australia to better understand the plight of asylum seekers.
In Canberra on Tuesday Sir William launched a collection of essays by not-for-profit think tank Australia21 that calls for an overhaul of mandatory and offshore immigration detention of asylum seekers and a more compassionate public debate.
He reflected on his great-grandfather’s family voyage to Australia in 1851 on a wooden sailing ship from Europe.
“They sought asylum on this side of the world from the devastation of the great famine,” Sir William said.
“We Australians should have understanding and compassion to the actions of those who subject themselves and their families to serious risk of disaster at sea to escape from violence or terror or unbearable hardship.”
Sir William said most Australians would see asylum seekers of the 19th century as people bravely seeking better lives for themselves and families.
He said Australia must acknowledge that other countries were facing much larger refugees numbers, particularly Lebanon, which was accommodating 800,000 people escaping Syria’s civil war.
He quoted parts of a recent report by the United Nation’s refugee arm into the mistreatment of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
“One cannot but fear that at least some of the findings, particularly those relating to children in detention … are justified,” he said.
“If they are, the United Nation’s reports diminish our country’s hard-won and long-justified international reputation as an upholder of human rights and dignity.”
Essay contributor and former refugee Widyan Al Ubudy told reporters the Australian public should see asylum seekers not as “queue jumpers” but as human beings.
“These so-called illegals have faces, families, hopes and aspirations just like you and I,” she said.