“My Brothers Keeper”

An interview with Jane Keogh of the Refugee Action Committee, Australia

by Jennifer Badstuebner

Jane Keogh lives in a leafy suburb in Canberra. She is, in many ways, just an ordinary Australian. Jane though is different because she was transformed after she witnessed how Australia responded to the Tampa crisis and subsequently the creation of detention centers for refugees in this country. Jane has become a tireless campaigner for the human rights of refugees in Australia. AsiaRights spoke to her about her involvement in the Refugee Action Committee.

Jane Keogh grew up in Sydney and Canberra joining the Brigandine Sisters at a young age. She spent thirty years in education, the past twenty as principal of Catholic primary schools in Sydney, Parramatta and western country NSW areas. Jane's driving ideal throughout her years of teaching and study has been the question: "How do you teach people to care?” When the Tampa incident happened her focus changed, and with it, she says, was a loss of a certain naivety: “…I believed blatant injustice, lies and racism from national leaders was something happened mostly in other countries, not in Australia”. Jane believed in a better and different kind of Australia than the one that has emerged in the treatment of refugees. She still finds the Australian government's policies and the seeming lack of concern of many Australians hard to believe. The following are her words and thoughts about what is happening in Australia and the refugee situation:

 I know there has always been racism in Australia's history but I believe in the past we seemed to find leaders who would help us rise above this and who gave some moral leadership at critical times. Today we have leaders who choose to lead by instilling fear and playing on our lowest human traits. Even the Church has let us down and generally fails to raise the voice of the gospels on any issues of morality except for issues of sexual morality. With notable exceptions most church leaders seem more concerned about getting funding for schools and not upsetting their mainly conservative congregations than with promoting the values espoused by Jesus. You have to be a brave churched Christian today to challenge people to the practical living of the maxim "I am my brother's keeper”.

Australian Grief


I think, like many refugee supporters I know and work with, I am suffering grief. I grieve for the loss of an Australia I thought I belonged to. I grieve for the loss of health, sanity and life for so many of my asylum seeker and refugee friends. To see people suffer is always difficult but to see them suffer needlessly and through deliberate policy is sometimes too much to bear.

I am very aware one of the issues with the refugee movement is that we have all, I suppose, been ‘converted' in a way. People who are already are committed to human rights but we are making very little gains into mainstream Australia. I think the media has a lot to do with that, but until we can get more of mainstream Australia tuned in there is a limit to how much can happen. But, I think one of the ways that may change is through education. I think schools have to do more to challenge people to think. My experience of university twenty or thirty years ago was of a place were people could challenge authority, challenge the mainstream, challenge accepted ideas. Somehow that has changed.

We have run information sessions at University and we have put up money to put up posters and advertise when issues have arisen, but hardly anyone turns up. Maybe the three people who put up the posters! A local University have a spirituality team who tried to raise funds and they ran into problems because the refugee support group they wanted to run (not action but support) was deemed as ‘too political' by the board. They had a lot of trouble at first. I thought what have universities come to? Being run by a board and money where people can't think; can't challenge or help those in need because it is too political? It has been so hard for us over the last few years to get any young people interested in the refugee movement. I think time is an issue, for students and for everyone. We don't have the time anymore to do all the things we need to do. Something like this (the refugee movement) needs to be fostered and worked with, it takes time.

I know some people say it is not just the refugee movement, but activism in general. Someone said to me “ well it is because they have fees and rising costs to worry about, they have two jobs and they go to university. Whilst I think that is true, I think that really Australia has become a lot more comfortable. Social mobility has happened for many people in Australia and we have become much more middle class and people are basically, more focused on their mortgages and livelihoods, and less interested in broadening their minds.

I think Australia is an isolated country. So many in mainstream Australia have never experienced what it is like to live a non middle class way of life, they do not have a real notion of why people escape to here. They think it is about money, or an easy life. I do not think that most people in Australia understand what persecution is, or what it is like to live in a society that will persecute you and kill you and your family. They don't know how hard it is for people who come here.

People say ‘Oh they are just here for the money' it is like they have no ability to think outside their own experiences. Partially the blame for that lies with our education system, for failing to instill the skills to think outside their own life experience. They just don't know how hard it is. But even so someone's own hardships doesn't mean they will be sympathetic either: I find that some of the people that have been the hardest to get any kind of commitment from have been people who have come here as migrants or refugees themselves 30 or 40 years ago, particularly the white European group.

Australia has failed to foster a particularly understanding environment. That is not just on a public level but also at a bureaucratic level. I think the culture of DIMIA on the top level has an entrenched prejudice that all asylum seekers are liars and we have to win against them at all costs.

I think the real difference between what happened when the White Australia policy was abolished and now is the difference in leadership. Is not at all that we are more (or less) prejudiced as a country but at that time a little bit of moral leadership made a difference, whereas today our leaders want to drive us by fear rather than lead us into a better community. The Labor party has become a mirror of the Liberal party and the Greens are too far left for some who are more left that the Liberals, yet not as left wing as say Socialist Alliance or the more radical parts of the Greens. So we are left without a real alternative. There is a gap for the ordinary left wing; there is no one there.

Fear & Dishonesty

I believe that fear is at the base of a lot of our prejudices. And if we could expect more honesty from our politicians and really challenge them when they were not honest. If people expected more honesty we could get somewhere. In my experience people say don't expect these people to be honest they are politicians and from there they just accept that level of dishonesty as a given. I think a lack of truth is at the root of a lot of problems. If we could be told the truth and be open to want to look at it I think there would be a different attitude.

Do you think there is an expectation of untruth?

Yes, I do, even talking to local politicians, one in the Eden Monaro (near Canberra) electorate told us don't campaign on truth because people don't expect truth from politicians. They were right, I think, we are not interested enough to demand the truth. What astonishes me is the level of lies that have seeped into government to the point that it has become a culture of lying and the ends justified by the means. This is what I am getting at when I say: We do not have moral leadership.

When Phillip Ruddock was Immigration Minister he tried to discredit a good report on p sychological damage done to asylum seekers. The research was accepted and acclaimed by the researcher's peers. But Ruddock tried to discredit Dr Sultan's evidence, for example Sultan reports that the water was cut off in the detention center during a hunger strike, so that people who were not eating were also denied drinking water over a two-day period. Ruddock attacked this saying that it is just not true, that it was just the detention center: The whole of area, claimed Ruddock, were denied water because of a local problem. So everyone begins to question Dr Sultan's evidence. However, someone thought this could be checked out, so a month later, after checking and getting letters from the council. They received responses from the local authorities proving that there was no water was cut off in the area at that time. There was no road works that damaged water pipes and no water cut off: except to those in detention. That is the level of the kind of lies and misinformation that goes on. I could give many other examples, and it just appalls me that this happens. How do you unearth this, and when you do you go to a media that says “Oh we have to wait for government agency to make a statement.” Where! Where, do we get the truth?

The Refugee Action Committee started around the time of Tampa. I was not in Canberra but came up soon after that. I saw a young woman having a hard time handing out pamphlets about refuges at a shopping center and just sat with her for a while and from there I got more involved. During the Tampa incident I just could not believe the lies that went along with that and the fact that they were turning away people at sea in trouble. I joined the movement because of incredulity I just couldn't believe that this could happen in Australia. I thought this doesn't add up. I kept thinking, well someone will expose it, it will be in the newspapers and something will be done. Then I found how difficult it was to get letters printed in the papers about refugees. At one stage the Sydney Morning Herald wasn't printing any letters to the editor about refugees, because it was not news worthy, so then you have this knock on effect with not enough people knowing enough to get active.

In light of a narrowing media, the Internet is becoming increasingly important. We are going to have to have alternative sources of information, and to disperse it as widely as possible. I think that the media is quiet controlled in Australia, not as much as the United States. But it (the media) can become a tool for government or people who own the media who tend to be right wing. The control of who wins elections, or what kind of information in what forms to the public is controlled.

I feel one of the ways we have to go is to get more people to accessing the non- mainstream media. For example I worry about the ABC since the last election. We had a deportation a few weeks ago and people tried to get the ABC to report on it because it was a Christian asylum seeker being deported to Iran. But when people who were fighting for him tried to get some media coverage on his case the media wouldn't do it. The ABC wouldn't do it unless they had a statement from the Immigration Department. That really worries me that the media is not willing to do its own investigation outside of an OK from a government department before they print something.

For the Refugee Action Committee much depends upon volunteers, and their time and effort. Some of the core people who were involved at the start of the campaigns have had to take time out, children being ill and that sort of thing. We do connect to a lot of people; we have about 1300 on our emails lists and about another 900 without email. There are so many email lists you can find out what is happening in detention centers as fast as it happens because of these email lists. And of course out website. We had a lot more hits on our website during the (Australians) elections. I think that people were just hungry for as there was very little coverage of refugee issues.

Why have you changed the names of people whose stories you have published on your website, people who are in detention?

We do this because the lawyers are afraid that the authorities might act against people who place themselves in the public eye about what has been done to them in detention. One of the other reasons why we do not publish names on the Internet is that that information can be used to persecute friends and family still back in that person's country, particularly for Christians in Iran. If you publish that someone is an Iranian Christian then that may cause problems for that persons friends and family back in Iran. And for the person themselves if they are deported back to their country. Also DIMIA can use what they have said on the website to refute or damage their case. So for these reasons we do not give out real names.

We won't put anything out that will damage one refugee's chance of winning.

In a way the things we have achieved have been because we are just being a nuisance. We have had one-day actions where we called the minister's office and faxed them. Basically, we had hundreds of people call and fax, in order to force them to consider individual issues that are so pressing and important like the deportation of refugees without due consideration. One of the things I found was that it is no good telling people that there is a crisis, without also giving them ideas or pointers of what can be done. I give them phone numbers to ring and background material. The Refugee Action Committee is activist. We are here to lobby the government to change policy. We are here to inform the general public about what is happening to refugees in this country. We are against mandatory detention and deportation to countries that torture. But I can say in addition to this most of us do other things like support people who are in detention.

Other than activism, one of the ways in which Jane and the small communities of concerned citizens across Australia do to help refugees is making it possible for them to live as normal a life as possible out of detention. The Australian government under considerable pressure has provided bridging visas to refugees in detention, after the evidence of the damage done to people under detention became to hard to ignore. This has allowed some of the refugees to live in the community whilst their visas are being reviewed. Bridging Visas as they are called have stringent restrictions and because of those restrictions, it falls on the individual Australians who sponsor the refugee to totally support them. Jane talks about the bridging visa and the ‘bridging visa communities':

I prepared a bridging visa application for one of my Afghani friends who are in detention. I had to get letters of support from people and do a financial report. I had to open a bank account and put money in it and prove that we had enough money to keep them. You have to show where they are living; you have to show that they have access to medical care (your cost); counselors (your cost); and dental (your cost). I got medical people to volunteer their services, now I could have said I will pay for all of this, but because the visa is contingent on the Ministers approval it has more chance the more names (of standing) in the community are on the application. You also have to prove you are a person of good character. It is an application of about twenty pages.

Eventually you get them out on a bridging visa, most have to report in every week, and there is no guarantee they will extend it from week to week so that causes a lot of stress as you can imagine. It can be a huge drain on the community, and what I mean by community is concerned individuals, these circles of amazing people form who support people and allow them to have a degree of freedom from detention, away from barbed wire. But it is a burden on them and it can be really hard. There is a group in South Australia who has set up a fund for support, which is tax deductible and you can donate and claim a tax rebate. All the time and effort that this takes from the community, if there was not such human rights abuses going on by our government then we could be using those resources elsewhere. It is such a tie-up of community resources and energy, because of this government. It is heart breaking for some, to see ordinary people locked up in detention centers like Baxter, to really understand what is happening to these people, it is breaking the hearts of Australians who see this and understand.

What keeps a spark of hope alive in me though is the genuine goodness and generosity of so many refugee supporters all around Australia and beyond. I am inspired by the courage and perseverance of so many, refugees and supporters alike, ordinary human beings who struggle on and at times keep each other a few steps away from despair but, who continually manage to bring out the best in each other.



Psychological disturbances in asylum seekers held in long term detention: a participant-observer account by Aamer Sultan and Kevin O'Sullivan

(Medical Journal of Australia )



About the Author

Jane Keogh is a member of the Refugee Action Committee in Canberra.

The interview by Jennifer Badstuebner for the AsiaRights Journal.


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