11 September 2019

Candelo activist gives Omid Masoumali a voice on Election Day

| Ian Campbell
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A regional voice from New South Wales has stepped forward in the final week of the Federal Election campaign, trying to bring clarity to one of the most toxic policy issues of our time.

Kate Burke from the small village of Candelo in the Bega Valley, has form when it comes to Australia’s treatment of refugees.

In September of 2015, the talented singer, songwriter and instrumentalist launched the “You are Welcome song project.

The community came forward to help produce a video clip to accompany Kate’s tune of the same name.

The song and the clip aim to send a message to refugees, that many Australian’s welcome those fleeing persecution, despite the impression debate around this issue might create.

With Polling Day 2016 approaching, Kate saw an opportunity to build on her earlier artistic protest and make something of the notion that politics is an extension of the peoples will.

“Our vote is our chance to make positive change, now is the time”, she says.

Handing out re-purposed black and blue t-shirts, screen-printed with the words “Who is Omid?”, Kate launched a new project designed to help voters reflect on the refugee policies of the Coalition, Labor and The Greens.

The t-shirt and the question it poses are designed to start the conversation, one that could be considered confronting.

So who is Omid?

Omid Masoumali was a 23 year old Iranian refugee who died after setting himself on fire three months ago at the Nauru Detention Centre.

“Omid was pushed to the limit and beyond, by the Australian Government’s approach to his asylum claim,” Ms Burke says.

“He was a recognised refugee, fleeing persecution in Iran, and looking for a safe haven.

“He was told that if he didn’t return to Iran, he would face at least ten years in a situation described as a form of torture by the United Nations,” Ms Burke says.

The idea of dentition being torture is supported by the Human Rights Law Centre.

Director of Advocacy, Rachel Ball wrote earlier this month, “The offshore camps on Nauru and Manus Island are the sites of horrific and ongoing violations, including illegal detention, sexual assault and child abuse.

“About 2000 people, including children, are still being warehoused in intolerable conditions.

“Earlier this month (June 2016) the United Nations’ refugee agency, which undertakes regular visits to Manus Island and Nauru, described the current policy as “immensely harmful” and called for the centres to be emptied,” Ms Ball wrote.

This is the environment Omid had been living in for three years, the environment he was escaping when he self-immolated in front of United Nations officials earlier this year.

Omid’s horrifying final moments of life were captured on the camera of a mobile phone.

Reports say the footage shows a man, who we now know to be Omid, drenched in liquid, standing alone in a clearing, pleading.

Omid makes a swift, small movement with his right arm, and suddenly, his body is alight.

“This is how tired we are,” Omid is said to yell desperately.

“This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it any more.” Omid said according to The Guardian.

Three years earlier, Omid and his wife Nana Masoumali boarded a boat, fleeing the violence and persecution of their homeland.

In line with Australian Government policy, when the boat was captured Omid and Nana were detained on Nauru and told they would never be resettled in Australia.

Both Coalition and Labor Governments have defended that approach saying the policy weakens the business model of people smugglers and stops deaths at sea on overcrowded, dilapidated vessels.

“We need to decide whether it is worth torturing individuals in order to stop people getting into boats,” Ms Burke says

“The boat arrivals may have slowed down, but the humanitarian problem isn’t going to go away.

“Are we condemning generations of people to torture and abuse as a deterrent to others?” Ms Burke says.

Nine months ago the Australian Human Rights Commission described the detention environment as toxic.

In their report, “The health and well-being of children in immigration” Professor Elizabeth Elliott AM, a pediatrician at Sydney’s Children’s Hospital and Dr Hasantha Gunasekera from the University of Sydney wrote, “We were deeply disturbed by the numbers of young children who expressed intent to self-harm and talked openly about suicide and by those who had already self-harmed.

“The children interviewed are amongst the most traumatised children the paediatricians have ever seen.

“Some children had witnessed atrocities at home, survived a traumatic boat trip, had been moved between several onshore to offshore detention centres, were traumatised by the presence of uniformed guards.”

The report made a number of recommendations, the simplicity of which might surprise.

Prof Elliott and Dr Gunasekera were keen to see the provision of age appropriate toys, access to sporting areas and playgrounds, food available outside of meal times so that children could “graze” and an end to headcounts by uniformed guards at 5am and 10pm.

Ms Burke despairs at the indefinite nature of this approach to refugees by Australian Governments.

“Like the Australian Government of the Vietnam War era, we could have offered Omid a safe haven in Australia,” Ms Burke says.

“He was not an economic immigrant, a freeloader, or a terrorist, he was a refugee, someone who like the people who fled Vietnam during the seventies needed care and a second chance.”

The “Who is Omid?” campaign aims to cut through the grey noise of media and politicians and remind the community of the humanity involved and our connection to it.

“We have a responsibility towards anyone in our care, be they Australian citizens or not,” Ms Burke says.

“This is the government the Australian people elected, these actions are done in our name.”

In the run up to Saturday, Ms Burke is encouraging voters to use the power of their vote to force a change.

“When I’ve been talking to people there is uncertainty about how their vote actually works,” Ms Burke says.

“In our current two-party system, you can send a message to the two big parties about refugees by placing a minority party like The Greens first, then placing the two major parties in your order of preference.

“Voting that way means during the allocation of preferences the full value of your number one vote is transferred to the major party of your choice through the prism of a party offering care and a fair go for refugees.

“You’re not wasting your vote,” Ms Burke says.

Through the Refugee Council, Ms Burke has been handing out a policy break down that covers the Coalition, Labor and The Greens approach to refugees. Click here to see it.

“I would encourage people to keep asylum seekers in mind when voting this Saturday – it’s up to the Australian population to vote for positive change,” Ms Burke says.

Election aside, what of Omid’s wife Nana Masoumali?

ABC reports suggest she was taken back to the Nauru Detention Centre after being transported to Brisbane as part of the medical response to her husband’s burns, a response she has been critical of.

Pic 2 and 3 from ABC News

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