Craig Foster speaks exclusively to The Northern Rivers Review about why he is dedicating his Australia Day Award to all the refugees and asylum seekers who have been locked up by our government for nearly eight years

Craig Foster speaks out. Photo by Marc Stapelberg.

Craig Foster speaks out. Photo by Marc Stapelberg.

CRAIG Foster is dedicating his AM to "to all refugees still struggling under the weight of the political stagnation".

He's honoured to have been recognised for his service to multiculturalism, to human rights and refugee support organisations, and to football. It makes his joy at this week's unexpected release of 47 refugees and asylum seekers, who had been languishing in hotel detention, all the more gratifying.

It also means he doesn't have to feel so conflicted about his summer holiday on The Northern Rivers. He loves coming home to enjoy family time but, for the past eight years Christmas has been difficult.

How could he rest while so many of the people he's been campaigning for remain locked up on Manus, Nauru or, since the 2019 Medevac Bill, in two hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane?

Fourteen remain in hotel detention in Melbourne and around 150 across the country plus 250 still offshore on Nauru and PNG.

"There is still much to be done and, as Kurdish refugee, Mostafa Azimitabar, said upon release "until all of us are free, none of us are truly free".

Foster took time out during the summer break to talk to The Northern Rivers Review about his long and varied career, as an elite athlete and media commentator, and why he now uses his profile as a human rights ambassador. He puts a lot of his achievement down to his roots.

You speak of the discipline it required to become an international soccer player and how your parents, as a young boy, would drive you to Newcastle to play in the state competition on Sunday, after your local Saturday matches. How much do you think growing up in 'country' Lismore, and going to Kadina High, shaped the arc of your career?

"How would you feel?" Craig Foster. Marc Stapelberg.

"How would you feel?" Craig Foster. Marc Stapelberg.

"It certainly shaped my character, experiencing the selfless nature of my parents' commitment to their children, all devoted sportsmen and the grounded nature of the region, and people. I feel it every time I'm back. The stripping away of unnecessary layers of life, or barriers between people. One thing I have always carried with me is a sense of civic obligation, borne of my father's duty to his family and community and this manifests in different ways.

"By aiming to play for the country and represent us all in a certain way, to now striving to shape who we are as a nation, and contributing to various social causes fundamental to either living up to our rhetoric of fairness, or to create a country and world where people can have the opportunities I've been provided.

"A childhood on the Northern Rivers, in Lismore in a stable family, without abuse, never having to flee nor live on the street or experience crime and discrimination is a gift and I'm committed to passing on my good fortune to those without a voice, or a platform that sport and television provides."

After debuting on the soccer scene as a midfielder with Sydney Croatia in 1988, you went onto represent Australia at under 16 level, reaching the quarter finals at the 1985 FIFA U-16 World Championships in China. How did playing with Croation refugees shape your view of peoples' plights?

"Multiculturalism, whether understanding the need for people to flee persecution from a humanitarian perspective, or simply the richness of different cultures now living together under our shared Australian values of secularism, democracy, rule of law and let us hope, a renewed sense of community and social responsibility after COVID, has been a central theme of my life since my early teens when I passed into a new world of cultural diversity through football.

"By definition, everyone in football will play with and befriend a refugee, or the descendant of one, even if unaware. Later, I worked on air for 15 years with Laszlo Urge, or Les Murray, a Hungarian refugee and close friend, so I intimately understand the nature of struggle and survival as well as our shared humanity, the commonalities between us all.

"None of us should be able, in good conscience, to work alongside people whose families fled to Australia, and yet allow other refugees suffer endlessly and appallingly. They are all just people. It could have been you in different circumstances and we shouldn't use our good fortune, or privilege, as a weapon against vulnerable people.

You played for the Australian national football team from 1996 to 2000, earning 29 caps and scoring nine goals. Before your retirement from the elite level in 2003, soccer has seen you become an ambassador for our country, how does our refugee and asylum seeker policy make you feel?

"We started, after all, with the white Australia policy and this playbook has been a common feature of domestic politics since the early 1900's. Whether it was the 'yellow peril' from Asia, or hordes of refugees coming to take your jobs.

"In 2013, we had a problem as a country with asylum seeker arrivals by sea however, rather than deal with it sanely and humanely, these people who have been proven to overwhelmingly have fled persecution, have been demonised and a highly effective PR campaign perpetrated on them over a period of decades. It is not surprising that ordinary Aussies have found it difficult to care .. when the issue has been metronomically polluted by lies and propaganda.

"Imagine not knowing when your suffering will end, when you'll see your family again, your child? I can't accept that this represents us as a people...

Imagine not knowing when your suffering will end, when you'll see your family again, your child? I can't accept that this represents us as a people...

As part of the SBS 2006 FIFA World Cup commentary team from Germany and analyst for The World Game, how has your career enabled you to raise awareness for the refugees who remain locked up in Australia?

"Congruence and authenticity, I guess. Not everyone agrees, naturally, but in a sporting nation my representative career and later 20 year connection through broadcast with our football community and broader Australia provides an opportunity to speak with my countrywomen and men in various fora.

Kurdish refugee, Mostafa Azimitabar (Moz), thanks Craig Foster upon his release from hotel detention.

In 2018, you had a huge win, galvanising advocacy groups and FIFA, when the Thai government released Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi. He had been taken into custody, even though he was granted protection as a political refugee in Australia in 2014. What impact did the campaign have on your personal life? Was it worth it?

"That's not a question that I would ask myself. This is how I look at it. I have extraodrinary gifts in my life and have achieved many things that I dreamt about as a young boy at Kadina but life becomes more complex as we age and understand the value of each day, of family, of the balance between materiality and esoteric concepts like love, compassion, empathy and goodness.

"Those in need, and I include indigenous Australians here, need us to speak up, to commit to change, to resolve not to accept the status quo whatever the consequences.

"Being from football, and working with Les along with the #SaveHakeem campaign means that I have put my money where my mouth is, to coin an Aussie term. I've taken the risk, run around the world helping a refugee and become close friends with many still detained, speaking with them daily to keep their spirits up and consider them family members. When I speak about them it is from personal experience and the heart and I think we all resonate with that...

From your contact with the men who have become victims of the political fallout from our asylum policy, for nearly eight years, how are they faring, and especially given the pandemic?

"The International Criminal Court determined last February that what all those who came for medical treatment went through on Manus Island and Nauru constituted 'cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.' That's how bad it was. The conditions were horrendous, more like a concentration camp than a detention facility and people lost their lives, their minds, their health and their families. That's the important point here, that we all need to resolve that there is a standard of treatment of other humans below which we won't descend.

"Remember they've all been identified as refugees, in need of protection, some years ago. Those who have been locked up in hotels rooms as a result of the Medevac Bill have been pat-searched daily despite having few, if any, visitors, treated like criminals and given no indication of how long their suffering might endure.

"I find it staggering that we would allow this, given there is not one Australian, including me, who would allow this for ourselves, our kids, our friends. If we are about basic fairness, it must end.

"Last week, I'm delighted to say that a very close friend and prominent advocate, Moz Amini, was freed along with almost 50 others and, step by step, this horrible period is being consigned to history. But many remain both here and in Port Moresby and Nauru and they all have a right to freedom."

Your leadership in seeing al Araibi released, and consequent voice for other detained refugees, has ultimately led to your AM. How has your #playforlives campaign informed your plans to resolve the issue of those held captive both in hotel detention and offshore after nearly eight years, and how can ordinary Australians make a difference?

"#PlayForLIves was instituted as an opportunity to bring sport closer to vulnerable communities help build resilient communities, stronger social fabric, break down barriers between people and smash prejudices.

"My thanks go to many people and clubs in the Northern Rivers who got involved such as baseball, with my old school Principal, Bill O'Sullivan and many others helping out with OurKids local charity, for example.

"When it comes to raising your voice for refugees, I would ask everyone to research the issue, however cursorily, and you will find a trove of information that will demolish the prejudice you currently have been made to feel.

"There is loads of information on how to get involved at www.gameover.org.au which tracks my visit to Port Moresby in 2019.

Have your feelings for the region changed since you left at 16 to live at the Australian Academy of Sport in Canberra?

"My love for the area, if anything, only grows as nostalgia strengthens in later years. Each visit now I am sure to swim at the Whian Whian falls and visit the old family farm, to see friends at the Channon Markets where my father played tennis, surf at The Pass or swim at the quarry at Bexhill where we used to play junior cricket.

"These experiences connect with deep memories of youth, and innocence and possibilities and it is nice to see my kids enjoy as did we.

"Most importantly, we always stay a few days with Kevin and Deanne in Lismore who, are thankfully, in rude health from a country life they've never left and there's a truckload of other Foster's scattered around the place, so a glass of wine and a feed of fresh bream or flathead, caught on Pop's line, is never far away.