I could have applied for Australian citizenship several years ago. I’m Canadian, I’ve been living in this country since 2002, and I’m a permanent resident. My children are Australian and my husband has become an Aussie too. Something fundamental held me back.
Last week two people changed my mind: Saeed Hassanloo and Canada’s former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Hassanloo is a 25-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who has been in detention for four and a half years and who, near death, agreed to break a 44-day hunger strike last week. He was in a Perth Hospital but news has trailed off and I don’t know if he is still there now.
In response to calls for compassion and clemency, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Hassanloo had not been granted asylum and that he would not review his case. In media reports last week, Dutton referred to hunger strikes as ”emotional blackmail.’’
Refugee policy is complex and I’m not an expert. I don’t know the intricacies of offshore detention and I don’t know the facts about Hassanloo’s claims or the government’s refusal to grant asylum. Neither have been made public.
I am, however, confused as to why the Australian government would seek clemency from the Indonesian government for convicted Australian drug smugglers who are on death row, yet refuse to grant clemency to a young man, whose only crime appears to be that he is seeking refuge.
Events like these make me re-evaluate what it means to be Australian and my place in this country. I don’t believe in the death penalty, I believe all human lives are sacred. Since when are the lives of Australians worth more than those of people from other countries?
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in the US, has said that ”the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
I would add that the true measure of our character and of our government’s character is also how we treat the vulnerable from other countries who come to us in need, who are seeking refuge from things we cannot understand.
Adrienne Clarkson, the former governor general of Canada who was herself a refugee, is the second person to convince me that it was time I left the gray area of permanent residency. I’ve never met Hassanloo or Clarkson, though I hope to. As a permanent resident I have the same rights as an Australian citizen, except the right to vote or run for offices, and until now I didn’t see a need to change this.
After hearing Clarkson’s Massey Lectures Belonging: the Paradox of Citizenship and reading her essays, I realized I was missing much more by sitting on the citizenship sidelines. I was missing something fundamental that is not written into any law or constitution. I was missing a voice. Not just a voting voice but a voice that is allowed to analyze and criticize the government, a voice that is allowed to point out problems, inconsistencies and things that can be done better. A voice that says Australia has many things to offer, let compassion be one of them. That type of validated voice only comes with citizenship. It’s an intangible benefit that leads to tangible changes, hopefully for the better.
I have my doubts about the direction Australia is going in, but I will not stand on the sidelines any longer. I refuse to join the ranks of the complacent. I have filled out my application for Australian citizenship and I’m sending it off.
I hope I will always be proud to call myself Canadian. I hope that by adding my voice to those who are trying to make Australia more compassionate, detention centres will be closed and asylum seekers will be treated with respect and that this will ripple into other areas of society. Then maybe this country will show me that a ”fair go’’ here is more than just rhetoric.
And maybe one day I will be proud to call myself Australian.