Coalition policy on asylum seekers “plumbs new depths”, says award-winning writer

“The newly announced Coalition’s proposal to never allow over thirty thousand stranded asylum seekers settle in Australia, plumbs new depths of cruelty. It is a policy that will cause severe psychological harm. It extinguishes all hope and re-traumatises people who have already been traumatised many times over – in the repression they suffered in their previous homelands, their perilous escapes, and their impoverished limbo status in Australia.”

Mr Arnold Zable, president of the Melbourne Centre of International PEN, which campaigns for jailed writers, was speaking after being named the recipient of the annual Voltaire Award. Presented by the human rights group, Liberty Victoria, the award is for distinguished contributions to free speech.

“In addition the Coalition’s proposed abolition of the Refugee Review Tribunal marks an end to any fair process in hearing asylum seeker claims and is a violation of due process and the most basic of human rights.

“Each asylum seeker has a story to tell and the denial of that story leads to despair. Their claims reflect the terror they have experienced in the countries they have fled. Take for instance Iran. Members of PEN know only too well of the severe repression that takes place there. It is near the top of the global PEN case list of countries with the highest numbers of imprisoned and threatened writers, journalists, bloggers, editors, and human rights advocate,” he said. “The repression in Iranian prisons is brutal.”

An Iranian dissident, Ardeshir Gholipour, spent five years in Australian detention centres before PEN learnt of his extreme distress because he was in danger of being sent back to his homeland. 

“PEN was able to quickly verify that what he had been saying was indeed true. He had spent 27 months in the notorious Evin prison in Teheran, in a cell one metre by two metres, for distributing pamphlets advocating democracy and political freedoms in Iran.”

A life member of PEN Melbourne,  writer Rosa Vasseghi,  was imprisoned and tortured in Iran because of her Baha’i faith. “What she endured in prison was shocking in the extreme. Her sister Rozita is now in jail.

“We are under no illusions of what is taking place in Iran.”

He said empathy was at the heart of Human Rights advocacy – the act of putting oneself in another’s shoes. “For International PEN advocates, it is the plight of the imprisoned writer that deeply disturbs us – writers who have been persecuted for having the courage to peacefully pursue their craft. For refugee advocates it is the horror of indefinite detention, statelessness, and years lived in limbo that disturbs us.

“We are also concerned with enabling refugees to tell their stories, and for journalists and writers to get free access to detention centres to hear the stories and report on conditions.

“The essence of PEN advocacy is to defend writers who have had the courage to tell the story, and to defend their right to tell it. In all too many countries this right is denied.”

Previous Voltaire Award winners include Julian Assange and Wikileaks, critic Margaret Pomeranz,  journalist David Marr  and human rights advocates Julian Burnside QC and Kate Durham. The award will be made at a dinner in Melbourne on Saturday 12 October 2013.

Jane Dixon SC

President, Liberty Victoria