"For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share."

Words from Ariel Ho, Manager of Projects for TIME 2015

Just like the forgotten second verse of the Australian National Anthem, from which this line comes from, this concept of welcoming those “who’ve come across the seas” is often forgotten, or in many cases, ignored, disputed or belligerently protested against.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a “refugee” is a person who:

"Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

The UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, allows refugees to lawfully enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they have valid travel or identity documents. Asylum seekers do not break any Australian laws by arriving on boats. Unfortunately, the media and the government often (incorrectly) portray refugees and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants or queue jumpers. There are misconceptions that they are here to be dole bludgers or are stealing Australian jobs, with many believing that they do not contribute to Australian society.

However, when hearing the experiences of refugees, it becomes clear that these misconceptions are truly what they are – misconceptions.

Recently, at a conference, I heard Dr Munjed Al Muderis talk about his experiences as a refugee. He is a brilliant surgeon pioneering osseointegration surgery in Australia (certainly contributing to Australian society). His description of the detention centre was really what struck me though. He told us that while he was detained, he was sent to jail a few times, and every time he went to jail, he would think, “Freedom!” While most of us probably would not associate jail with freedom, he found that unlike the detention centre, where he was dehumanised and referred to by a number, in jail, they called him by his name and they fed him proper food. He said that jail was heaven compared to the detention centre.

Prolonged detention compounds the trauma already experienced by refugees, and it has been demonstrated that it has a profoundly negative effect on health, especially mental health. An assessment of the mental health of detainees held in an Australian detention facility for more than two years concluded that every adult had major depressive disorder (MDD), though prior to detention only 21% had MDD. According to The Forgotten Children inquiry of 2014, 34% of children had mental health disorders that would be serious enough for hospital-based psychiatric treatment. In the Australian population, there is less than 2% with mental health disorders at this level.

Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is unacceptable.

Want to do something about it? Call your local MP and let them know your thoughts, get involved with refugee health programs (like Healthy Start), or even just educate the next person you meet who thinks “boat people” are illegal.

AFRAM, the refugee health branch of AMSA, has recently released a booklet with information on Australian Refugee and Asylum Seeker Policy. If you are interested, click here.

More resources:

Myths about refugees 

Dr Munjed Al Muderis (Ted Talk)

The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014