This month I have been focused on refugees and asylum-seekers, here in the Australian office at DW Magazine.
Prior to the upcoming Australian elections, the current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced a new refugee resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea that affects all refugees and asylum-seekers arriving at Australia’s borders by boat. The ‘no advantage’ policy states that all refugees, whether man, woman or child, travelling to Australia by boat and without a visa will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and, if found to be a legitimate refugee, resettled in another country – but not in Australia.
There are many reasons why this new policy has caused such widespread controversy around the world, as outlined in DW’s recent article “Australia Changes the Rules on Refugees”. Referring to the UN Refugee Convention, this latest move by the Australian Government has been condemned as illegal under International Law.
I had the opportunity to visit Amnesty International Australia’s Headquarters this month to discuss the new policy and why activists are rising up to lobby for change. I was amazed by the passion and knowledge of the staff at Amnesty International, and listening to stories of their successes, and their ongoing missions, DW decided to award Amnesty International our Charity of the Month title for August 2013.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there were an estimated 15.4 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2012 and, with ongoing conflicts raging around the world, that number is dramatically increasing. Just last week, the supposed chemical weapons attack in Syria saw the amount of refugees spilling into Lebanon soar from an average of 500 – 1000 persons per day since the fighting began two years ago, to 6,000 people in just one 24-hour period. You just have to turn on the TV to see the horrific images coming out of Syria at the moment – wouldn’t you flee too if that was you? If that was your children in the crossfire?
You most likely would… But where would you go?
Developing countries currently host over four fifths (80%) of the world’s refugees. Pakistan hosts the largest number, which is estimated to be around 1.6 million people. Most of these countries are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, meaning they don’t have the legal framework in place to ensure your basic human rights are upheld. You can’t work legally, your kids can’t go to school, you live in tent cities, and the persecution and human rights abuse has spilled out across the border with you.
So you might go to Malaysia or Indonesia, for example, and join the hundreds of asylum-seekers who wait outside the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) everyday to try and register for refugee status. The weeks pass, but you are there daily, and eventually you get to the front of the line and make your application. You are being processed and are told to wait for a decision. So you wait. You wait for years. Years without being able to work legally, without school for your children. Years of living in no-man’s land, displaced, unsettled, afraid of being rejected and sent back to where you came from.
A man tells you he can take you to Australia and that you can tell them you’re a refugee when you get there and they will let you stay. You believe him and give him every last dollar you have to get you there. In the middle of the night you board a fishing vessel with hundreds of other people, and you pray that the boat doesn’t capsize in the stormy weather. Come morning, you can see land ahead. You are close. An Australian defence boat comes towards you and your heart warms at the prospect of a warm welcome.
Next thing you know you are in an off-shore detention centre. You are treated like a prisoner. This isn’t Australia, and this isn’t a new home to settle in. More waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Displaced. Unsettled. Afraid.
If you can put yourself into the shoes of a refugee or asylum-seeker and imagine how you would feel after years of just seeking the basic human rights that most of us take for granted. Education, work, our homes. How would you cope if that was all taken away from you and your family?
Last year, 46% of refugees were under the age of 18 years old. Could you bear to see another country turn their back on your son or daughter if they ever needed to seek refuge from persecution, violence or probable death? And were desperate enough to get there by any means, even by boat? Could you sit back knowing that they have been to hell and back, and yet still aren’t being treated humanely even in refuge?
I highly recommend watching the award-winning docu-film “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and the hit TV show “Go Back to Where You Came From” for some amazing insights into the journeys of refugees and asylum-seekers from around the world.
I hope that our Refugee Week has given you food for thought. Please feel free to join the debate by hash tagging #refugees on twitter, or leave us your thoughts on our facebook page.