Leaving home forever.

Migrant refugee experience
The migrant/refugee experience; leaving home forever;


We were in our mid twenties when we left Australia in 1954 for the big wide world.  As well as life and love, growing up and learning about architecture and the world, we made a special pilgrimage to the small island in the Mediterranean where Marea's father had been born and where she had an uncle, aunt and cousins. 
Andikythera is located between Crete and the bottom part of mainland Greece, and is a small rocky island you can walk across in half an hour.  There were three or four extended families all intermarried and the population was only around a hundred people. They grew wheat and some vegetables, herded goats and fished, it was a poor subsistence economy and the only future for the young was to leave; the island could not support any more people.

I've always been haunted by this photograph taken as we were leaving to return to the Greek mainland.  All her relatives were standing silently on the jetty, and I had a flash that this was exactly what it must have been like when her father and all the other young people had left the island, all of them destined from birth to be boat people, destined to be economic refugees, forced to leave that beautiful barren island with its whitewashed buildings, sending money back to provide dowries for their unmarried sisters, never to return and never to see their families again. 

That photograph summed up what leaving your home forever must have felt like, and it always reminds me of the current boat people, that like Marea's father, most of them had no choice but to leave their homes.

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It's not as though it's our problem alone or that our problem is bigger.
In fact it's quite small compared to countries such as Italy where as many boat people from North Africa land every couple of days as attempt to come here in a whole year.  A constant daily flow of people from Mexico attempts to enter the United States despite an electrified fence patrolled by guards with dogs, but nothing deters desperate people; they just keep coming everywhere; we are not alone.

Ever since the Gold Rush in the 1850's, immigration has been a sensitive issue in Australia, and during all this time, for better or for worse, immigration policy had been bipartisan.  But during their 1996-2007 terms in office the Liberal govern-ment took a tough populist approach to the increasing number of refugees arriving in leaky boats, with Prime Minister Howard playing the 'We will decide' card to prevent Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party taking away Liberal votes in an upcoming election, and ever since the major parties have vied in a race to the bottom in how to 'stop the boat people'.  

 Along with civil wars in Sri Lanka and Africa, these refugees were largely the result of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in which Howard was the prime mover in involving us.  The refugee issue resonated badly with an on-the-whole tolerant Oz public and the Labor governments which followed Howard, pandered to this element by being even tougher and sending asylum seekers to New Guinea, never to be admitted here.  Our new Liberal PM simply asserts that he will 'turn back the boats', a doubtful claim at best and one that risks serious confrontation with our nearest neighbor.

 In fact, there is nothing illegal about claiming one's rights under inter-national law or making an application for refugee status under Australian law.  Over the last 15 years, ninety percent of boat people have ultimately been assessed as refugees entitled to our protection. The bureaucrats call them IMA's or Irregular Maritime Arrivals, and use words like 'fairness' and 'queue jumping' when talking about them.  It's all part of a conscious process to dehumanize them so they aren't real live people struggling in the water any more and become faceless IMA statistics. 
I refuse to use this loaded language and think they should always be called refugees or asylum seekers.

They are also often called 'illegals' but the idea that in war torn Kabul you can simply rock up and get a visa is laughable.  Australian embassies overseas will not accept direct applications from refugees, we don't even have diplomatic missions in some countries and in any case the location of our consulate in Kabul is apparently kept secret to avoid Taliban attacks. And in a Catch 22, airlines won't let anyone board a plane with-out a valid visa; it's our system that forces desperate refugees onto boats.

The underlying assumption of our zero tolerance approach is that people's behaviour will change if our laws are severe enough. But in the same way that trying to stop drugs by totally prohibiting them doesn't work, trying to stop the boats in this way makes the same mistake.  And as long as the asylum issue is framed as a crisis, politicians will see no mileage in trying to defuse the issue; to be 'against' border protection has become political suicide.

In the twelve months to June 30, 2013,  25,000 asylum seekers arrived in boats.  More or less in the same time we received 168,685 permanent migrants and over six million visitors. Some of the visitors were young Brits who illegally overstayed their visas and have never left, but no one worries about that.  There is also no restraint on New Zealanders coming here to work whenever their economy takes a turn for the worse. To enable us to balance out our total immigration  each year, it's not unreasonable that they should have to immigrate like everyone else. Boat people simply do NOT present a demographic problem.  And what's more, to add insult to injury, it's estimated that it will cost us about $4 billion each year to lock up men, women and children who've done nothing worse that ask for protection. 

 We have to find a way to make this problem work to our advantage rather than the way it is now.  Appealing to the latent 'White Australia' elements in our society on this issue is not only unseemly and cruel, but it's also clear that the current solution is both very expensive and in the long run, unworkable.  While we cannot accept totally unrestrained immigration, we also have a much smaller issue to deal with than the rest of the world and it will not go away.  We must develop a compassionate and practical, bipartisan approach to this intractable long-term problem. We must stop persisting with an unsustainable political bidding war to see who can be the toughest in appealing to these 'White Australia' elements.  It will not be easy and will involve some compromise, the problem will be with us for a long while so we had better agree to get it right.


Now go back and look carefully at the picture again for a minute, and try and imagine what leaving home forever is like.  It's time for us to grow up,  Australians must stop feeling so put upon and remember that our forefathers and mothers were all boat people, and that the greatest number of unauthorized boats to arrive here in a single day was on January 26, 1788.

 It's not our problem alone.  Right now people are being forced to leave their homes for climatic, political and economic reasons all around the world; we are part of the world and these people will not go away if we try to become an island fortress.   Thirty years ago Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam showed simple human decency by resettling 85,000 Vietnamese boat people without much fuss, and Bob Hawke did the same with Chinese students who feared for their lives after Tianmen Square. The acceptance of the Viet-namese refugees was justified because they were seen as anti communist, whereas the Afghans are perversely seen as potential terrorists.

Remember Vietnam and how we showered that country with toxic Agent Orange, destroyed their towns and villages and that between one and three million people died.  We have forgotten why those Vietnamese fled the land of their birth, just as we conveniently manage to ignore the effects of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The flow of refugees that is such a hot button political issue for so many Australians stems largely from our role in these unfortunate wars.

 Incoming Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has asserted that the government's policies …'will not breach Indonesia's sovereignty. We're not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding,' she says.

 Bishop is being totally naïve if she thinks that turning boats back to Indonesia and setting up an intelligence gathering network and operating a boat buying business inside that country will not be regarded by the Indonesians as interference in their internal affairs; just imagine the uproar if the situation were reversed.

And the latest out of sight, out of mind proposal by Immigration Minister Morrison to conceal how many boats and refugees are arriving in the cynical hope that we won't notice what dreadful things are being done in our name is more reminiscent of the first steps towards a Final Solution rather than an open democracy.  Employing the defense forces and trying to impose censorship on all those involved furthers the comparison with the early days of the Third Reich. Will the next step be to require those on Temporary Protection Visas to wear a yellow star on their backs?  But Australians wouldn't do that … or would they?

 It is hard to know what you and I can do about all this in the face of the equally inhumane and costly policies of the two main parties. And while personal protest seems so inadequate it's all we can do until the next election.  As the situation unravels further we must continue to make our abhorrence of the current policies known to our politicians, in the hope, that if enough of us care enough, and are vocal enough, it will give them the courage to reach out and find better, bipartisan and hopefully more humane solutions.  Look at the photograph again.

 Don Gazzard

October 2013