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Why talk about boatpeople when there are more pressing problems

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Monday, 9 November 2009

I support and advocate for asylum seekers and refugees. I write about refugees and asylum seekers. But I don't want to read in the news headlines every day about a few desperate people coming on a boat as if it is a national crisis. If we are going to have a heated debate about anything can't we use our media space to focus on people with disabilities, or brain injuries, or the state of hospitals, or the needs of carers, and on the reasons why they are not getting the attention they need?

Asylum seekers make easy targets for generalised community anger and for desperate politicians. They make for a good stoush and easy headlines for the media. The Liberal advisor whose "Digging Dirt" email was recently reported in The Australian recommended stories worth pursuing as, "Fat cat public servants not caring about taxpayers, pollies with snouts in the trough, special interest groups getting undeserved handouts from tax taken from hard-working Aussies, a favoured pro-Labor contractor who seems to be getting all the work for a particular job etc."

I don't doubt that a minority will see this as yet another justification to denigrate the needs of asylum seekers as less important than the problems of people already in Australia. But it would be naïve to imagine that a dialogue pitting one needy group against another would be beneficial to anyone, or that it would solve any of the problems, or that it was logical. Just think about how much our Governments must have spent over the past ten years just managing the politics of a so called 'debate' about asylum seekers.


I spent most of last year inside a brain injury ward helping a refugee who had been detained in Nauru under the Pacific Solution. This man had suffered enormously over many years, before and during his time in Nauru. When he finally found peace in Australia in late 2007 he was hit by a car crossing the road. He survived against the odds but he has severe brain injuries and he will never be the same.

The inside of a brain injury ward is everyone's nightmare. "Vegetative state" and "nursing home" are the words you just don't want to keep hearing. You are given worst case scenarios and often offered little hope of future recovery. Families and friends spend day after day struggling against what often seems inevitable.

This man was not my son or my brother or my husband. He was a kind man who made me cups of tea when I travelled alone to the detention centre in Nauru. In the hospital I was supporting him not because he was a refugee but because he was a human being in need.

In a brain injury ward everyone is in the same boat. Skin colour, religion, or whether you came on a boat yesterday, or if your ancestors did 200 years ago, is meaningless in here. Any of us at any time could end up in the one of these beds.

Progress for brain injury sufferers can be excruciatingly slow and unpredictable. Patients often can't move and many can't communicate. I often wondered if the luckiest were those I could hear crying out in pain, at least their cries for help could be heard. When three months after the accident my friend suddenly started to talk he spoke in nine different languages all jumbled together. Most of the time he didn't make sense but at least he could tell us when he was uncomfortable.

Nursing staff are often in short supply and physiotherapists struggle to spend enough time with patients, knowing that too little attention could make the difference in someone's future physical recovery.


I was always nervous at what I might find when I arrived at the hospital in the morning. Would my friend have untied himself and pulled out his nasal tube overnight? I had once found him lying in a large pool of his feed and the nurses hadn't noticed. I couldn't bear to think of him tied up when I wasn't there but if he pulled the tube out it was agonising each time they had to push it back down. I often held his hands as he cried out with pain while they tried to get it down his nose again. It was the only time he made noise before he started to say words.

There are waiting lists for rehab, if someone gets that far, and waiting lists for the nursing homes that no-one wants to think about. I was determined that if my friend stayed alive I would try to ensure that he would not go into a nursing home. But many people do end up in inappropriate nursing homes, sometimes at a very young age.

A nursing home can often represent the end of the road when the likelihood of further recovery is considered minimal. I met one woman whose daughter was moving from rehab to a nursing home and she was determined to keep up the physiotherapy herself. But she needed to find thousands of dollars to buy the equipment the facility did not provide.

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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