Advocate of change
A SPECIFIC event often serves as a catalyst for change and for Sue Longmore, it was 19 years ago as Australian troops took control of the Tampa, a ship carrying rescued asylum seekers.
On August 26, 2001, the Norwegian freighter rescued 438 asylum seekers from a stranded Indonesian fishing boat in the Indian Ocean and attempted to bring them to Australia; they were mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan – men, women and children fleeing the Taliban.
“They picked up the asylum-seekers that were drowning and tried to bring them to Australian waters to safety. The government refused and there as a stand-off,” Ms Longmore said.
“It got into the media and Julian Burnside, a human rights lawyer, acted on their behalf. That brought it into my conscience, it made me want to find out more.”
Ms Longmore went on to advocate for the treatment and plight of refugees, forming the Queenscliff branch of Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) and connecting with asylum-seekers, including Ali who was fleeing Afghanistan.
“We offer friendship, support and advocacy to asylum seekers living in the community, in mainland or offshore immigrations detention centres, as well as those returned to their homelands.
“We lobby MPs for key refugee reform in accordance with Australia’s international human rights obligations as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and funds to assist asylum seekers and refugees including legal and medical expenses.
“I’m 66 years old and have been advocating for a third of my life. I’ll keep going until I see change because once you’ve seen the evil side, you can’t just ignore it.”
Ms Longmore said 19 years ago, she was given a number, and that number represented Ali, detained inside the notorious Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia.
“It was more than pen pals; I was a lifeline to Ali. Julian Burnside collected names and numbers (in detention centres they’re known by numbers). I picked a number and started writing, eventually when Ali was transferred to South Australia’s Baxter detention centre, I would travel over there to meet him.”
Ms Longmore made the trip every month during his detention, a period which made Ali become “so despairing” she felt it was their connection that stopped him from taking his own life.
“The scenes in the centre were terrible and I’d come back home and life would just be tumbling along. I’d be back in Point Lonsdale wondering how such evil could be going on.
“So many people are unaware of the conditions and treatment of people in detention and that’s what drove me to begin the RAR movement, 18 years later I’m still here.”
Ali spent two and a half years in detention becoming “mentally distressed” unable to find out what happened to his wife and two children, he signed papers and returned to Afghanistan.
“They fled into Pakistan and now my family and I support Ali, without our support who knows that would’ve happened to him.”
Ms Longmore said conditions have not improved across her years of advocacy with many refugees unable to obtain a permanent residency or visa, even once recognised as a refugee.
“Asylum-seekers and refugees have become so demonised by political leaders and the press, some see them as being people without any worth but they’re just the same as us.
“The current process ironically is called the fast-track process but it can take many years. We need a fair and just system where legal assistance is provided. We need policies that don’t rely on cruelty to get outcomes; a fair, transparent and just system that abides by the Refugee Convention.”
If you would like more information or would like to know how you can support QRAR email [email protected] or head to queenscliffrar.org.