The first thing I learned in a refugee camp: There is no queue.
At a crumbling mudbrick hut, our jeep was halted by a pair of weather-beaten soldiers. With a glass of tea in one hand and a battered Kalashnikov in the other, one of the men approached the car. His dusty fatigues flapped in the wind as he made his way across the road. Shouldering his rifle, the soldier checked our papers, scalped a cigarette off my turbaned driver then waved us through. The jeep shuddered to life as the soldier sat down next to his comrade, who was lethargically dropping chunks of sugar into a tiny, plump teapot perched on a pile of embers.
As we passed the checkpoint, it hit me; I had just arrived in one of Africa’s oldest refugee camps. Out in the middle of the Sahara desert, between 100,000 to 150,000 ethnic Sahrawi refugees live in sprawling makeshift camps. Although there is always a steady stream of new arrivals, most of the refugees settled here in the 1970s. For decades, these forgotten refugees have lived out of tin shacks and mudbrick huts in one of the most inhospitable parts of the Sahara. Nothing green grows on the flat, stony, windswept wasteland that these thousands of Sahrawi call home. During my time in the camps there were water shortages, sandstorms and only rarely any fresh food. Then of course, there was the scorching heat during the day, and the freezing cold at night.
Amongst all this, I spoke to children who had never seen green grass, and men and women who had grown up living in conditions that most Australians couldn’t imagine.
Many of the refugees I met were permanently scarred from the war that put them there. Some had grotesque, debilitating battle wounds, while others were permanently disfigured by torture. Living in close proximity to the continent’s largest minefield also meant that, thanks to drifting sand, one wrong step out in the desert could mean a horrific, painful death.
These people live just like the protagonist in Johnny Got His Gun– a film about a returned soldier kept in a secret hospital ward, with no limbs and no face. Like the soldier, these refugees have no voice, and limited contact with the outside world. For decades, the United Nations has failed to resolve the political deadlock that put them there. So, the UN staves off famine with a steady flow of basic rations, while the refugees are left to live out lives of boredom and isolation.
After decades of neglect, in April UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon drew attention to Western Sahara, warning that the territory could face a “ticking time bomb”, if radical Islamists gain a foothold in the refugee camps.
This is something that Sahrawi leaders have been trying to warn the international community of for years now. When I visited the camps, I met refugees who were understandably angry. The UN has been promising a resolution for two decades, in the form of a referendum of self-determination that would allow them to return to their homelands in the east of Western Sahara. Many of the refugees fought against the Moroccan invasion of their homeland, but agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire that promised a peaceful resolution. That was in 1991. Since then, the UN mission in the territory hasn’t achieved its goal, and many of the refugees I met a year ago felt sold out. Almost everyone I spoke to resented the UN for failing to deliver, and some even criticised their own leaders for agreeing to the peace deal in the first place. When some refugees pined for a return to guerrilla warfare, I found it hard to argue against them. For over twenty years they have trusted the UN, and in exchange they have been brushed under the carpet, abandoned in the middle of the Sahara.
Despite Ban’s (somewhat belated) warning, the chances that the political crisis in Western Sahara will be resolved any time soon are low.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of May 2013 there were approximately 475,000 displaced persons as a result of the political turmoil in neighbouring Mali.
Like in Western Sahara, the conflict began with a popular, secular movement arising to demand independence. Also, just like the Sahrawi in Western Sahara, for well over a century the Tuareg have been intermittently riling for self-determination in northern Mali. Over the last century, there have been at least five major uprisings. On May 15, Ban issued a statement that the UN is committed to “tackling deep-rooted political, social and development challenges” in northern Mali. The same day, French president Francois Hollande announced that over $4.22 billion had been pledged by international donors to assist Mali’s recovery. It sounds great- the international community appears as keen to resolve the causes of the Malinese conflict as it was to end the crisis in Western Sahara in 1991. Whether or not this enthusiasm will last is another question altogether. After all, if the Tuareg want to see a prime example of UN handiwork, they only need to travel a few hundred kilometres north to visit the Sahrawi camps. Needless to say, such an excursion would make for a lousy confidence-building exercise.
Nonetheless, to his credit at least Ban is trying. The same can’t be said for the Australian Government. The day after Ban’s statement, Parliament passed new legislation excising the entire continent from the migration zone, ensuring that the dreaded “boat people” will all be condemned to indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus Island.
Although this was inarguably a resounding victory for opponents of human rights, as usual the Labor Party didn’t do quite enough to satisfy everyone. Two weeks earlier, Adrienne Millbank penned a soft-hearted opinion piece for The Australian titled “Ditch the UN Refugee Convention”, which argued for the Federal Government to strip refugees of their most basic rights under international law.
Better yet, we could always pray that asylum seekers who don’t wait patiently in the mythical resettlement queue simply die on their way to our shores, as FIVEaa host Bob Francis seemed to suggest last June.
“Bugger the boat people I say. As far as I’m concerned I hope they bloody drown out there on their way over here,” he told listeners of his show.
An explanation for the Australian Government’s growing apathy towards refugees (to put it politely) was proposed by Millbank.
“Australians see how European countries struggle to integrate large, unplanned inflows of economic migrants and refugees,” according to Millbank. Unplanned? Millbank seems to forget that less than 3% of Australia’s annual immigration intake are undocumented maritime arrivals.
In any case, if this is true, then perhaps Australians should stop paying attention to Europe, and start looking at where refugees actually come from.
So far this year, figures from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship indicate that the most common country of origin for asylum seekers arriving by boat is Iran, followed by Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, those categorised as stateless, then Pakistan and Iraq. Coincidently, Australia is a fervent supporter of economic sanctions that have dramatically reduced living conditions in Iran, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the Government of Sri Lanka, which continues to oppress the Tamil people. Canberra has no qualms with the US drone war that terrorises the people of North West Pakistan, and after a decade of war Iraq remains a failed state.
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about how refugees reach Australia, and start considering why. Whether by boat or plane, people don’t flee their homes for no reason; war, oppression and poverty drive people into lives as refugees. If the Australian Government pursues policies that perpetuate these factors, then the least we can do as a nation is try to pick up the pieces afterwards- we can’t rely on others to clean up our own mess. As was immediately apparent when I arrived in the Western Saharan refugee camps, the UN is extremely limited in what it can provide. Even in well-organised camps like the ones I visited, there was no resettlement queue; it was more like a lottery.
A few weeks later, on my flight back to Australia I was seated next to one of the “lucky” ones. She was a Congolese refugee who had spent most of her life in refugee camps, moving from country to country. At long last she had been granted asylum. Even after what I saw in Western Sahara, the suffering she had experienced was enough to bring me to tears. At least when she arrived in Australia, she would be spared the further indignity of mandatory detention, and that awful title of “boat person”. However, apart from the simple fact that she had won the lottery, she was no different to the dozens of refugees I had the honour of speaking to. No more entitled to live in peace, and no less deserving of a voice to tell her story, eyes to see the world and limbs to make a life for herself.