human rights, politics, refugees

Names, not numbers.

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Byron Writers Festival [4-6 August 2017] and it was seriously a goldmine of ideas, storytelling and inspiration. I friggin’ loved it. I can’t believe it was my first time!

Anyway. It would be so difficult for me to pick a favorite session from the festival – there were so many wonderful authors and novelists and journalists to hear from.

If I HAD to pick one though… It would be this one: ‘Offshore: Storied from Behind the Wire’. A panel solely dedicated to discussing Australia’s offshore detention centres and immigration policy (or lack thereof), featuring Roger Cohen (total hero status journo for me, foreign correspondent and senior columnist for the NYT), Madeline Gleeson (lawyer / senior research associate for international refugee law at UNSW / literary girl boss) and Jock Serong (former criminal lawyer and brilliant novelist – writes books about the modern Australian identity, recently released a novel exploring Australia’s treatment of refugees). I got angry, sad, and motivated all over again. Hearing from these passionate humans just set me on fire… Convicted me, and reminded me that so long as there are vulnerable people being tortured offshore in my name, I have a responsibility to speak up.

What actually struck me the most during this session though is how tragically the system our government has created for these people echoes the psychological abuse that occurred inside the Nazi death camps. I cried when Madeline Gleeson told us that there are young children on Nauru that actually have trouble understanding the question ‘what is your name?’, because they are only ever referred to by the numbers they are given when they arrive to the camps.

Get your head around that.

The babies who are being held in concentration camps offshore (by our government, funded with our money) are referred to by number, not by name.

Madeline explained that all of the detainees are referred to by number from when they arrive on the island. The first half of this number is generated using the number of the boat the person arrived on, and ends with the number that they were counted as they disembarked. There are children who honestly answer the question ‘what is your name?’ with something like ‘B743’ – and have to have the question rephrased again and again until they can comprehend it.
This is horrific.

We already know how the Jewish holocaust affected surviving adults – I don’t think it’s unfair to make this comparison. Imagine how the abuse and trauma of Nauru has impacted the lives of these children?

A mere glimpse of this trauma was laid bare in the leak of the Nauru files almost 12 months ago. These men, women and children are still subject to the same – if not worse – danger now, day and night. Sadly I’m sure that we haven’t even heard the extent of the abuse yet.

These people are innocent, they are vulnerable, and they are broken. Our government has broken them. Made an example out of them. And they’re still there, in limbo.

In the words of Roger Cohen yesterday: no matter the problem, you CANNOT use cruelty to 2,500 people as a deterrent. You just can’t. Not here in Australia.

The torture that has been deliberately inflicted upon these people is absolutely on our shoulders.
That being said… I am always optimistic that things will take a turn. Maybe tomorrow in parliament. Maybe this week. Who knows?

Malcolm Turnbull is under more pressure than ever. Our government knows what they’ve done. They’ve known all along – but now they know they’re in the spotlight. Just on Friday, Turnbull’s phone conversation with Trump was leaked to the public – showing just how desperate he is to make this mess go away.

It’s getting harder and harder to hide. This policy is – has always been – untenable.
At the close of this ‘Offshore’ session in Q&A time, the panel were asked what the most effective form of activism is to fight this injustice. You know what Madeline said?

“Write to your local members.”

By far, she said, this is THE most effective way to cut through. Even if your MP seems like they don’t care, they do. They absolutely do.

A good reminder to all of us:


Even if it seems like it doesn’t. You know why? Because your vote counts. Politicians know this. Even when it seems like they aren’t listening, they are.

So please: if this is as disturbing to you as it should be, write to your local member NOW and implore them to end this cruelty. End mandatory detention right now and for God’s sake, #bringthemhere.

You have a voice. Use it!

SS x

[From left to right: Prof. Adam Shoemaker (Chair), Roger Cohen, Madeline Gleeson, Jock Serong.]


Broken Men in Paradise Roger Cohen for the NYT

‘Behind the Wire’ Project’:

The Nauru Files:


Offshore Madeline Gleeson

On the Java Ridge Jack Serong



One thought on “Names, not numbers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s