By Jo Lim
I didn’t arrive by boat.
I didn’t have to leave my family and venture on a dangerous journey alone. My heart didn’t grip itself with fear because I didn’t have to hear news about the latest bomb attacks on my home village. I didn’t have to pretend I wasn’t afraid of the water as I slip on the flimsy piece of orange rubber before stepping on a matchstick boat.
I wasn’t called these names; victim, survivor, prisoner, asylum seeker, refugee, boat people, queue-jumpers.
The only similarity I had with Ahmad Askary was that we’d both come to Australia to seek a better life.
For 18-year-old Ahmad, fear dominated a large part of his life, even when he finally settled in Adelaide.
‘Even though I am living in this independent country of Australia with its friendly and generous people, I still feel like I am living with fear,’ he remembered his family, the people of Hazara, who were suffering from violence and inhumane treatment in Afghanistan.
‘There is little dignity for the asylum seeker. There are people who don’t get to see sunlight for weeks and months because they are locked up in dark rooms. Surely the people who surrender their lives for the chance of freedom don’t deserve this treatment?’ he spoke passionately in front of an audience in Noarlunga, a year after moving to Adelaide.
It was hard to imagine a life where waking up means another day of dreading the safety of your life and the lives of your loved ones.
It was incredible then to see how this dread had morphed into another discourse of fear in this country we often called independent and fair.
Australian media filled its pages and screens with negative instances of refugees and asylum seekers, depicting them as “disaster”, “criminal” and “dangerous”. In the past few weeks, the story of an Egyptian refugee, who was allegedly convicted overseas of belonging to a terrorist group and was living in low security detention, sent the media and politicians into a frenzy. They described the man as a “jihadist” and were quick to jump into hysteria.
This discourse was translated into our policies. The Australian ran with a story on 16 June, headlined ‘Coalition would send home “criminal” refugees’, following the announcement that asylum seekers and foreigners who had been sentenced to more than a year for a criminal offence would have their visas cancelled.
Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, meaning we are forbid to deport any asylum seekers back to their country where they might face persecution. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop said Australia would not breach any international law under the above plan.
An estimated 7.6 million people are newly displaced and 23,000 are escaping from their homes every day, that means by the time you read the end of this paragraph (or every four seconds) a person is fleeing his home. Australia hosted just over 30,000 refugees by the end of last year, a mere 0.3 percent of the global refugee total.
Less than half of that 30,000 arrived by boat and more than 90 percent of boat arrivals are found to be genuine asylum seekers. Under Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, it is legal to seek asylum, even if a person arrived by boat and without documents.
Somewhere along the line this humanitarian issue became a border security one. Somehow these stories of Ahmad became numbers that did not drown in the Pacific Ocean. Somehow we needed protection against these people who were escaping from war-torn violence that most of us had never seen with our own eyes.
The United Nations expressed concern at the ‘sharp deterioration in the quality of protection for asylum seekers and refugees coming by boat and a worrying erosion of public support for asylum in Australia’.
Are Australians really turning our backs on the call for help from those across the seas?
‘There is an Australia not reflected in the political conversation and the desperate competition for “most heartless”,’ Welcome to Australia National Director Brad Chilcott addressed the Adelaide Walk Together event.
Three thousand people walked along North Terrace in support of an equal and diverse Australia. The crowd held up signs that said, ‘If we’re all people, we’re all equal’. The Walk Together initiative across the nation turned out to be a celebration of multiculturalism, in a spirit of welcome and acceptance.
Amidst the crowd were politicians, activists, football players, teachers, mothers, fathers, children, and most importantly those who have joined our community from other nations. Conversations emerged throughout the day as we hear stories of refugees and let part of their culture be sewn onto our social fabric.
‘You and I today stand here as the evidence that a better day is possible, that our future is not lost, that fear will not win the day, that the world’s most vulnerable people will not always have to suffer in our name,’ Mr Chilcott said.
But what was more impertinent that Saturday afternoon was how our attitude towards refugees had made an impact on those who had long been perceived as outsiders in our community.
‘I felt that I belonged to a society and that I was not an evil refugee who is a burden to the society. Never felt so welcomed in my life,’ the Welcome to Australia SA team received numerous feedbacks like this one.
Marziya Mohammadi, who came to Australia as a refugee seven years ago, was among those walking alongside her friends on the Walk Together event. A law student and an avid advocate for human rights, the 21-year-old told her story of reuniting with her father in Australia after a 6-year separation.
‘For a country to progress and prosper it’s important that the communities that make up its nation are appreciated for their contributions regardless of their differences. Walk Together provided that venue for the people to come along to celebrate their diversity as one nation,’ she said.
‘A Hazara man on Bridging Visa came to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Believe it or not sister, since in Australia this is the first time I have felt alive”.’
Stories like Marziya’s and Ahmad’s not only humanised the debate we are having about immigration, but also let us gleaned an insight into most atrocities halfway across the world and how we can help.
The basic rights and welfare of refugees in our nation are constantly improving but needs more consideration. Extending a welcoming hand is only the first, albeit important, step.
Jo Lim was a volunteer at Welcome to Australia. She writes about human rights, marriage equality, the environment – stories that need to be heard but don’t get heard enough.