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"We shouldn't be teaching our children to fear people who are different."

Five years ago I first saw Australians protesting against asylum seekers being imprisoned in their local community.

Frighteningly, they weren’t protesting about these innocent humans being locked into detention indefinitely; instead, these citizens were annoyed that the detainees were locked up so close to their comfortable, quiet neighbourhood. News footage at the time even showed a young child holding a sign that said, “sink the boats”.

Related: Two more asylum seekers have attempted suicide on Manus Island.

 I decided that I didn’t want my own children growing up in a nation where it is socially acceptable to teach our children to fear and to exclude people who are different to them.

I wanted to do what I could to help people live as the tangible evidence of the Australia that I believe is possible – welcoming, compassionate, inclusive and fair. That’s why a few friends and I began Welcome to Australia.

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People are willing to use the world’s most vulnerable people as expendable pawns in their political games. They’ll use fear and prejudice to gain popularity. (Image: ABC News)

 My dream is that thousands of persecuted people can find protection, belonging and opportunity here in Australia. I despair of that dream being realised as long as our leaders are happy to manipulate public concerns through misinformation, baseless hysteria and the demonisation of people they’ve robbed of a right of reply.

Such people are willing to use the world’s most vulnerable people as expendable pawns in their political games. They’ll use fear and prejudice to gain popularity. They won’t hesitate to erode both our social harmony and our humanity in order to win elections. And I believe that as long as fear, prejudice and xenophobia attract voters, these people will employ them as weapons.

More on this: Two more asylum seekers have attempted suicide on Manus Island.

So, for the sake of the children we read about recently in the Forgotten Children report, for the sake of our national character and for the sake of the thousands of refugees that we could be offering protection to — the opportunity for this anti-asylum seeker dog-whistling and baseless fear-mongering must be removed.

For more detail: This is the horrific effect of keeping children in detention.

There are two pathways to this outcome. The first is Welcome to Australia’s ultimate goal of radical social change – creating a society in which prejudice is unpopular and cruelty hurts at the polls.

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When images of asylum seeker vessels on the evening news elicited our collective empathy rather than our contempt, we’d know we’d arrived at this goal.

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Manus island detection centre (Picture: ABC)

Sadly, while 70% of Australians approve of our treatment of asylum seekers despite well-publicised reports of rampant abuses of human rights, it seems we are many years away from the kind of cultural transformation we continue to strive for.

Related: This is the front line of the REAL asylum seeker emergency.

The second pathway to our goal, then, is a bipartisan commitment to closing the ocean route to seeking asylum in Australia.

 I don’t like this conclusion anymore than any other progressive activist. But unless we acquiesce to this uncomfortable reality, we’ll be stuck in an endless cycle of elections that measure leadership in cruelty, continuing to take our asylum seeker policy on a downward spiral of injustice and inhumanity.

 Asylum seekers, refugees and our national character will continue to suffer for as long as the arrival of boats can be used as a political tool.

Related: Finally, some good news for these young asylum seekers.

It’s time to build a policy framework that gives thousands of people protection in Australia every year – and protects the asylum seekers who have already arrived – while robbing the fear-mongers of the opportunity to ply their trade.

This framework would include closing the ocean route to Australia; protecting people from the damage done in detention centres through transparent independent oversight; protecting people from the mental anguish of indefinite detention through legislated mandatory processing time limits; and – essentially – offering a better life to thousands more people every year by dramatically increasing our annual intake through the UNHCR’s humanitarian resettlement program.

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It’s time to build a policy framework that gives thousands of people protection in Australia every year – and protects the asylum seekers who have already arrived – while robbing the fear-mongers of the opportunity to ply their trade. (Photo via EPA/STR)
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 This is the “safe alternative pathway” that we have demanded our government provides for asylum seekers – the safest pathway for thousands more people to find a home in Australia, and the quickest way to stop the rapid erosion of our social cohesion accelerated by every injection of anti-asylum seeker vitriol.

Our leaders have taught us that brutality is the only possible way to address a complex global issue, dehumanising us, and the people coming to us for protection, as part of the lesson.

 They’re wrong.

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Manus island refugees. (Image via AAP)

An asylum seeker policy is possible that sees many thousands more people finding projection in Australia without being welcomed by a cacophony of dog-whistling – or children holding up signs calling for their death at sea.

 To achieve that, it’s time to move beyond the indefinite, mandatory debate that has led us to this point and realise that despite today’s ugly social and political realities there are realistic, humanitarian outcomes that can be achieved.

 Tens of thousands of refugees, and the communities they’ll live in, will thank us for doing so.

More information on Welcome to Australia can be found here.

You can like them on Facebook here.

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