OPINION: Why Australia’s Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Is An LGBTIQ Issue


asylum seekers
Photo: Takver/Flickr

By Paloma Cole and Chris Peppel

One of the highlights of 2018 was a long overdue turn in public sentiment against Australia’s brutal offshore detention program for asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

It is our hope that in 2019 public sentiment will continue to grow against the detention of innocent people in worse-than-prison conditions.

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Why is this an issue that the LGBTQI+ community should care about? At its most basic level, it’s a matter of human decency.

Australia’s punishment of asylum seekers causes physical and psychological harm to people in incredibly vulnerable situations — people who turned to Australia for protection in their most desperate hour but are punished for their means of arrival.

It is not illegal to come to Australia by boat (or plane) without a visa when seeking asylum.

Our colleagues in Maurice Blackburn’s Social Justice Practice spent a significant proportion of 2018 taking court action against the Federal Government to force them to bring children and adults seeking asylum to Australia to receive urgent medical treatment.

It is a disgrace that our government had to be forced to do this by the courts, especially when the need for that care is very often caused by the unsafe conditions asylum seekers are held in, and the despair caused by indefinite detention.

It is not uncommon for people to come to Australia seeking asylum because of persecution for their sexuality or gender identity in their home country.

In a cruel twist, Australia has chosen to detain and resettle recognised refugees and people seeking asylum in two countries particularly hostile to homosexuality.

In Papua New Guinea, homosexuality is illegal; and Nauru remains belligerent to homosexuality despite recent decriminalisation.

Equality Australia’s Anna Brown represented gay asylum seekers in her previous role with the Human Rights Law Centre, and says that “There’s [a] shocking cruelty [in] sending men, who have sought safety because they are gay or bisexual, to be warehoused in camps on Nauru or Manus Island, where homosexuality is criminalised or has been until recently, and where there is no hope of a safe or secure future…”

Two of Anna’s clients experienced homophobic attacks and assaults on Nauru. Inside the detention centres, they experienced sexual assault and harassment.

Outside, they had rubbish thrown on them, were beaten by a group of men with pieces of wood, and punched in the head by passing motorcyclists.

Anna’s clients lived were trapped by the hatred and danger they faced every time they stepped outside – the same danger that forced them to flee their home country.

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The LGBTQI+ community, especially our elders, know what it is like to be hated, feared, and isolated from the wider community.

We know the sting of bigotry and the harm suffered when those in power actively work against us.

When we see the same (and worse) treatment being inflicted on other minority communities, we should step up, support, and shield them, using the privilege we (particularly white, cis gay folk) have gained over decades-long fights to be seen, acknowledged and accepted.

Australia’s persecution of people seeking asylum is an LGBTQI+ issue, and our community should respond.

We recently achieved a huge victory with the passing of marriage equality. We did so through persistence, passion and love, resulting in a rapid change in attitudes towards our community in a short space of time.

The same can be achieved for people seeking asylum.

Let’s use our voice, as a community, to advocate for those who fled their home countries because of unimaginable danger.

We hope that in 2019, an election year, the growing public support of people seeking asylum forces both major parties to adopt policy to abolish offshore detention.

Australia, and its LGBTQI+ community, is big enough to welcome refugees with love and compassion. We should do so this year.

Paloma Cole is a lawyer in Maurice Blackburn’s employment and industrial law service in Brisbane. Chris Peppel is a graduate lawyer in Maurice Blackburn’s personal injury practice in Cairns. Paloma and Chris head up Maurice Blackburn’s PRIDE Network in Queensland and are passionate about supporting, representing and advocating for their queer community. Maurice Blackburn’s Social Justice Practice takes on a wide variety of cases, mostly pro-bono, that challenge unfair treatment on behalf of some of the most vulnerable people in our community.