Leading mental health expert Patrick McGorry visits Christmas Island

Paige Taylor; 19/7/10 – 6 Items

Patrick McGorry, touched down on Christmas Island yesterday as a guest of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The leading mental health researcher, Australian of the Year and and outspoken critic of immigration detention centres, (he has described them as factories for mental illness), said he was there to “look and learn”.Professor McGorry will inspect the Indian Ocean island’s three detention facilities, including a former workers’ camp where families with young children are detained – amid increasing focus on incidents of self-harm and conflict among asylum-seekers on the island. Approximately 2500 people are detained on Christmas Island and two boats, carrying suspected asylum-seekers, are on their way there now. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship frequently allows refugee advocates inside its compounds on Christmas Island but it has never opened the gates to such a high-profile mental health expert.

See: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/leading-mental-health-expert-patrick-mcgorry-visits-christmas-island/story-e6frg6nf-1225893668430; UN queries Government on plunging number of accepted Aghan refugees; 19/7/10; http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/breaking-news/un-queries-government-on-plunging-number-of-accepted-aghan-refugees/story-fn3dxity-1225893709022; http://news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-national/un-queries-aust-asylum-seeker-policy-20100719-10ga7.html;

 A revived Pacific Solution dishonourable and costly

29/5/10; Your editorial on Tony Abbott’s return to the Pacific Solution (“Politics of channelling John Howard on boats”, 28/5) points out, rightly, that the numbers of boatpeople speak for themselves, but they are seldom given a fair chance to do so. Australia’s immigration intake is running at about 300,000 and will not be significantly affected by the asylum-seekers accorded refugee status this year. The rest will of course be repatriated, which is a bipartisan policy. There are thought to be about half a million Mexican/Latino illegals going into the US every year, and tens of thousands moving into the mainEuropean countries, apart from movements within the EU. This certainly creates problems for the signatories of the Geneva Conventions on Refugees, and a focus for Right-wing parties in Europe to whip up racist paranoia in the electorate.

Australia is certainly now copping a much increased flow of asylum-seekers in boats compared to the later years of the previous Howard government. However, refusing full asylum to genuine refugees, and shunting off all sea-borne applicants again for long periods in off-shore processing centres would be dishonourable and extremely costly; John Piper, Waverton, NSW

More letters: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/a-revived-pacific-solution-dishonourable-and-costly/story-fn558imw-1225872736635; http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/channelling-john-howard-on-boats/story-e6frg71x-1225872267913

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Asylum harder for Afghans

Michael Gordon and Andra Jackson, 29/5/10

About two-thirds of refugee claims by Afghan asylum seekers in the past month have been rejected on the grounds that the minority Hazara community no longer faces persecution and discrimination. The decisions reverse the trend of more than a decade, where Afghan Hazara asylum seekers in Australia were found overwhelmingly to be refugees and deserving of protection under the United Nations refugee convention. They come amid reports from Afghanistan that at least six Hazaras, including a three-year-old child, have been killed, 68 houses burnt and 1800 Hazaras displaced after attacks in the town of Behsud last week.

See: http://www.theage.com.au/national/asylum-harder-for-afghans-20100528-wlkz.html; Major parties criticised for chasing the xenophobe vote; Yuko Narushima; 29/5/10; http://www.theage.com.au/national/major-parties-criticised-for-chasing-the-xenophobe-vote-20100528-wll1.html

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Transcendence of history and homeland

Geordie Williamson’ 29/5/10; The Australian, No Internet Text; Geordie Williamson is chief literary critic of The Australian.

The Perfume River: Writing from Vietnam; Edited by Catherine Cole; UWAP, 312pp, $32.95

What do the writers assembled in The Perfume River have to tell us about Vietnam? On the evidence of this illuminating and often brilliant anthology, it is that the new-found prosperity and touristic glamour of modern Vietnam hides a nation of ghosts.

The history is familiar, and it seems too much for any one country to bear. More than five million slain between 1959 and 1975, in what locals call the American War; tens of thousands more disappeared into the waters of the South China Sea, or the re-education camps established by the victorious Vietnamese government, in the upheaval that followed the conflict’s end.

Australia, too, has been shaped by the war and its aftermath. Hundreds of our servicemen died in combat; many more were injured in body or mind. At home, resistance to the conflict refashioned the politics and culture of a generation. Meanwhile, the last vestiges of the White Australia policy were swept away with the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees to our shores.

It is fitting, then, that editor and contributor Catherine Cole should make a broadly cross-cultural selection. As her introduction explains, the anthology draws together writing “from Vietnam” in every sense.

The writers live in Vietnam and a number of other countries. Some are Vietnamese, others are not. For all, Vietnam has defined itself as a voice of inspiration, of homeland, memory and discovery.

So, while The Perfume River opens with the expected piece — an extract from the internationally acclaimed 1991 novel Sorrows of War by Bao Ninh, who was born in 1952 and served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade — it is immediately followed by Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Sacrifice” from The Boat.

The first narrative deals in harrowing, highly stylised, first-person detail with the slaughter, by American forces, of the 27th Battalion in 1969. The extract is a lightly fictionalised riot of violent excess: fairly so, since the author really was there, one of 10 survivors out of 500.

Nam Le’s story explores similar experiences (the massacre at My Lai) at a generational remove from events. The narrator (again, a barely fictionalised portrait of the author) is marked by his father’s experience of war, yet knows them only through the older man’s stories.

Both share an ambivalent attitude towards those far-off events: a mixture of willed amnesia and horrified guilt in the face of a past larger than complaint, more perilous than memory.

Indeed, tensions between past and present are at work throughout the anthology: between young writers, come of age in a society relatively open and amenable to modernity’s rush, and their traditionalist elders; between those who stayed behind and those who escaped into the comfortable alienation of First World exile; and between Vietnam’s denizens and the foreign sojourners who seek to understand them.

This does not mean that these poems and short stories, novel extracts and nonfiction prose accounts are mired in the ugliness of recent history; on the contrary, many of the writers here seem incapable of inelegance. In Pham Thi Hoai’s Sunday Menu, a young woman makes weekly visits to her elderly, housebound grand-mother, to report on the exquisite menus of old-fashioned Vietnamese cuisine served by herself and her mother at their restaurant.

In truth, the restaurant is an illegal Cyclo driver’s roadside joint, where cheap, two-day-old soup is ladled out to Hanoi’s working poor. Trapped on one side by her grandmother’s pre-revolutionary perfectionism and on the other by her mother’s shallow, post-revolutionary greed, the young narrator goes mad in the middle:

I’m not introspective, I’m not sad, just occasionally a little confused, because each person belongs to an era in a natural way, like every painting has its own frame, and I don’t know which frame I belong to. I am always between this frame and that frame, nothing is settled.

Outsiders, mainly Australian, bring a different perspective. They are possessive of their discovered nation and often announce a preference for the raffish, ruined country that existed prior to the renovation launched by

Vietnam’s new leaders in the mid-80s. Christopher Kremmer’s travel piece pins, wriggling, the shortcomings of present-day Hanoi, noting that the old problems — poverty, political control and isolation — have been replaced with new ones — overpopulation, insensitive development and conspicuous consumption.

There are deeper reasons visitors long for the earlier, stranger Vietnam.

As Pam Brown writes, quoting Edward Said, in an autobiographical prose-poem called The Hanoi Cycle:

… a culture defines itself in contrast with some alien and fanciful entity. I redefine my culture every time I leave it and, here in Hanoi, I become the alien and fanciful entity, briefly.

That experience cuts both ways, of course: a Vietnamese wife in a different story finds herself stuck in a Melbourne suburb, trying not to hate her husband for bringing them to this land of wealth and opportunity.

Attractively produced, carefully edited, and —  to my ignorant ear, at least —  often beautifully translated, The Perfume River is a labour of love that is a credit to all involved in its production. It reminds us of how correct Marcel Proust was, when he said that it is only through the agency of art that we leave our own selves and know what it is to be another.

But the anthology also suggests a limit to the insights even the most thoughtful and talented Western observer can bring to an alien culture. Its pages hint at a disquieting thought: contemporary capitalism might be as destructive to the warp and weave of Vietnamese society as communism ever was.

And yet the best Vietnamese contributors manage a generosity toward the outside world that is humbling. In Vietnam, it is said, no distinction is made between spirits of ancestors and those of strangers: both are accorded a place alongside the world of the living.

Just as hospitality is extended, even to the shades of men who came to kill earlier generations, so too do its writers reach out, to a world that retains the power to do its own subtler kind of harm.

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‘Moral duty’ swayed smuggler

Nicolas Perpitch; 4/6/10

A key Indonesian people-smuggler claims he turned informant for the Australian Federal Police and revealed the inner workings of a major trafficking network because it was his moral duty to turn his life around.  But he also admitted he had cut a deal with the AFP which led to a significant reduction in his Australian prison sentence and his release after the minimum 2 1/2-year period. The smuggler, whose name and identity was suppressed by the West Australian District Court, had also agreed as a condition of parole to voluntarily return to Australia and give evidence in the trial of alleged former colleague, Hadi Ahmadi. Mr Ahmadi, 34, is charged with bringing 911 asylum-seekers to Christmas Island on four separate boats in 2001.

See: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/moral-duty-swayed-smuggler/story-e6frg6nf-1225875245280; http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/turning-boats-away-cruel-says-georgiou/story-e6frg6nf-1225875247711; http://www.theaustralian.com.au/politics/christmas-island-exodus-to-mainland/story-e6frgczf-1225875247579

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Kevin Rudd changes tack on boats

Patricia Karvelas, 2/6/10

Kevin Rudd has moved to soften Labor’s position on boatpeople, assuring his caucus colleagues that he would not engage in a “race to the bottom” with Tony Abbott. The Prime Minister famously promised to turn back the boats during the 2007 election campaign, but in an apparent change in strategy, he yesterday launched a strong defence of his government’s moderate position on asylum-seekers. Several MPs in the caucus meeting told Mr Rudd there was widespread fear in their communities over the influx of boats. Mr Rudd responded later that the Opposition Leader’s plan to resurrect the Howard government’s Pacific Solution and temporary protection visas, and its promise to tow the boats away from Australia was built on “a rolled gold bucket of fear”.

See: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/politics/rudd-changes-tack-on-boats/story-e6frgczf-1225874225671