Refugees travelling light

Sri Lankan refugees – photo flickr

As I was packing a bag for a few days away at the beach, news items I had just read about refugees began to trouble me. Most of the articles were about people being shunted out of Calais, not knowing where they were going next.

We’ve all read about ‘The Jungle’, a ramshackle refugee camp at Calais, located close to the cross-channel tunnel which carries commerce between France and England. Since 1999, the camp has developed in an ad hoc way, attracting refugees and migrants from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. People in this camp attempted irregular entry to the UK via the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel, stowing away on lorries, ferries, cars, or trains travelling to the UK. The French began evacuations in late October 2016, with 170 buses carrying people to French towns and villages. Predictably, this has galvanised people from the near and far right to form Not in Our Village groups.

There has been much consternation about the fate of 1,600 or so unaccompanied minors (mostly teenagers), who have been rehoused temporarily in converted shipping containers. News reports about this aspect of the evacuation are quite bleak.

Many volunteer groups have formed in the second half of 2016 to fill the void left by a lack of state support from Britain and France.  Grassroots campaign Calais Action updated the state of play in the Jungle on its Facebook page.

About 1,600 minors remained, with more than 100 sleeping rough in the burned and demolished camp, fed only by groups of volunteers. Calais Action said 1,626 minors were transferred on November 2 to reception and accommodation centres across France.

The thousands of people crammed into the camp at Calais had been given almost no notice they would be moved and few seemed to know where they were bound.

This is not something we first-world Australians tend to think about, although our 105,000 homeless people might disagree. The latter, their accumulated belongings in storage, maybe, the vital stuff in carry bags, or trolleys; they are a bit like refugees in that they are often on the move, rarely able to plan ahead.

So yes, it makes you think, when packing for a beach holiday. She Who Signed up for Airbnb managed to snaffle a beach-front villa for a few days of R&R. By definition, R&R means take almost nothing from your regular life. A few changes of clothes, a smart casual set on a hanger in case we go out, a pair of shoes, a pair of sandals, togs and a hat. And the tote bag with one’s toiletries and medications. Best not forget that.

Discretionary items might include books, DVDs, e-reader, laptop, iPod and a scrabble set.

I’m eyeing my 12-string guitar, sitting in its case with shiny new strings.

“They’ll need bedding in,” I say, taking up a degree of space in the back of the wagon, “the strings, that is.”

We have to take our own linen,” She said. “There’s still the eskies and boxes of groceries.”

Brits who took up the sponsored immigration option in the 1950s and 1960s will know that luggage was restricted to one sea trunk per person. You can get quite a lot of stuff in an old sea trunk, but inevitably bigger items like bicycles, billy carts and pianos got left behind.

It is far worse than that for so many refugees. The lucky (and smart) ones have a mobile phone and charger, a portable and powerful ally for people on the move. But for the rest, it’s a daily ritual of washing and drying their scant supply of clothes and bartering with others – a cigarette for a Band-Aid.

You may be surprised to learn the subject of what refugees take with them on the road has been well documented. Quite a few of the people depicted in this Mercy Corps article fled with just the clothes on their back. If they had personal items like jewellery, watches or beads, they were often gifts from family left behind.

These vignettes include a photo of Muhanad, 7, whose family had lived in Jordan for two years. The seven-year-old is holding a robot toy, a birthday gift from his grandfather ‘who is now in heaven’.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) interviewed 30 refugees in its 2015 feature “What’s in my Bag”.

In 2015, nearly 100,000 men, women and children from war-torn countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia fled their homes and travelled by rubber dinghies across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, Greece.

“Refugees travel light, for their trek is as dangerous as it is arduous. They are detained, shot at, hungry. Smugglers routinely exploit them, promising safety for a price, only to squeeze them like sardines into tiny boats. Most have no option but to shed whatever meagre belongings they may have salvaged from their journeys.”

Aboessa, 20, a mother from Syria, left home with a packing list almost wholly dedicated to her baby, including a hat, an assortment of medication, a bottle of sterile water, and a jar of baby food.

Iqbal, 17, from Afghanistan, at the time stranded in Lesbos, brought a tube of face whitener cream.

“I want my skin to be white and hair to be spiked — I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee.”

The contents of Iqbal’s kit: one pair of pants, one shirt, one pair each of shoes and socks, shampoo and hair gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, nail clipper and bandages. He also had 130 Turkish lira, US $100, a smart phone and back-up cell phone and SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.

So just for the sport, I’m drawing up an emergency list of stuff I’d need if I had to flee without notice: medications, glasses, hat, one change of clothes and a jacket, wife, one pair of shoes and a diatonic harmonica on which to play Aussie campfire faithfuls like ‘The Road to Gundagai’. Of course I’d take a smart phone and charger, and a small laptop with which to read online and write and broadcast the news.

February 24, 2019: “Conditions are bleak here in Moree, where we have been herded across the border. Since the Make America Great Again Act of 2018, Queensland and the NT have been annexed as the 57th and 58th States respectively, quarantined as key US defence and resources protectorates. Marines and ‘volunteers’ have built a wall, to keep us out and essential workers in. A source tells me a nuclear power plant, fed from new mines in western Queensland and the NT, is being built at Port Douglas. The Great Barrier Reef is being dredged to provide new export shipping channels. Anyone ethnically or culturally suspect or over 50 and not employed in essential industries has been deported.

So thousands of us are squatting here in the dusty showgrounds, Muslims, grey nomads and a few hippies, squabbling over water and shade. The dump point has overflowed, it is 38 degrees and a storm is brewing. No-one knows when we will be moved on. I’ve run out of Lexapro and the chemist is boarded up. More later. Battery dying.”


A few myths about refugees

Sri Lankan and Tamil refugees
Sri Lankan and Tamil Refugees image by

My conscience would be burdened if anyone went to the polls on July 2 believing some of the persistent myths and misunderstandings about asylum seekers and refugees. First, let’s set out a few facts in the interests of perspective:

  • Asylum seekers are people seeking international protection but whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined;
  • Australia is the only nation with a policy of indefinite mandatory detention for people it has identified as illegal or irregular arrivals. This policy was introduced by then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 (it had bipartisan support);
  • Refugees receive the same social security benefits as permanent residents, although they are exempt from the standard social security waiting period that applies to migrants;

These facts sit uneasily amidst the seriously heated debate between refugee advocacy groups and supporters of groups like Rise Up Australia, the Australian Liberty Alliance and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Many Australians believe (and resent) the story perpetuated by hoax emails that refugees receive more Social Security payments than permanent residents. You might also hear that refugees are given (free) houses, cars and big screen TVs, the latter one of the first things spotted on A Current Affair’s expose on Nauru. (Gasp. They have microwaves too).

There is also a persistent myth perpetuated by talkback radio jocks and right-wing commentators that our shoreline (all 25,670 kilometres of it), will be over-run if the current border protection policy does not remain in place.

Over-stayers outnumber boat people

In Australia, visa over-stayers greatly outnumber asylum seekers. According to an Immigration Department report, Migration Trends 2012-2013, 44,800 visitors and 10,720 students overstayed their visit, led by people from China (7,690), Malaysia (6,420), the US (5,220) and the UK (3,780).

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s statistical report for April 30, 2016 says there were 1,695 people in immigration detention facilities, including 1,509 in immigration detention on the mainland and 186 in immigration detention on Christmas Island. However, the report also states that there were 469 people, including 56 women and 50 children, at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre and 898 men at the Manus Island RPC. So in sum, the total numbers of people in detention (including on and off shore) at the behest of the Federal Government is 3,062.

Of the 1,695 people in detention on the mainland, 60% (1,025) arrived in Australia lawfully but were subsequently taken into immigration detention either for over staying or breaching their visa conditions. 548, or fewer than 40%, were ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ (some terminology refers to these as ‘Illegals’).

On face value, Labor’s asylum seeker and refugee policies are not that far removed from those of the LNP.  Both remain committed to offshore processing, regional settlement and stopping people smuggling by turning boats away. However, Labor has a plan to provide $450 million over three years to support the UN’s refugee agency. Labor will abolish temporary protection visas, re-instate access to the Refugee Review Tribunal and abolish the Independent Assessment Authority.  Labor states it will also reinstate a statutory requirement for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to report on how many claims were processed within 90 days of a completed application being received. This ‘90 day rule’ was removed by the Abbott Government last year.

Labor also wants to increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake from the current 13,750 to 27,000 per annum by 2025. The Australian Greens want to ramp this number up to 50,000, while the LNP aims to increase it to 18,000 ‘within a couple of years’.

In September 2015 the Abbott Government responded to the Middle East humanitarian crisis by announcing that Australia would take an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.

In February this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Canada’s exceptional response to Syrian refugees, resettling 20,490 in just three months. Labor called on Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to explain why, as revealed in a Senate Estimates hearing, that Australia had resettled only 26 Syrian refugees since the emergency intake was announced. A spokesman for Mr Dutton said the government was conducting rigorous security and other checks that could not be rushed.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter has since told the ABC (on April 6), that 187 refugees had now been resettled in Australia and an additional 1,600 visas had been issued overseas. Meanwhile, Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria topped 26,000.

The indefatigable Refugee Action Collective is staging one last peak hour vigil next Thursday outside Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office on Gympie Road Strathpine. The aim is to bring the Minister to account and remind people of comments made on Sky News when he criticised Labor and Greens’ proposals to lift the intake to 27,000 or 50,000 respectively.

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English,” he told Sky News.

“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.”

Greens lead refugees reform agenda

The Australian Greens is the only political party with a truly reformist answer to the asylum seeker/refugee question. The Greens say it is a better (economic) proposition to allow refugees to live in the community. The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the average cost of allowing someone to live in the general community at $35,000, compared to $225,000 on Manus Island or Nauru.

The Greens’ plan to close down offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru and to close ‘the worst’ Australian detention centres on the mainland and on Christmas Island. They would establish 30-day time limits on detention in Australia, with ‘periodic judicial review’ of any detention thereafter.

A few of the minor parties are less forgiving: The Rise Up Party says it would implement legislation that will send all illegal asylum seekers back to where they came from’.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has a policy of ‘zero net immigration’. By that is meant, if a migrant goes home, you let another one in. Sustainable Australia also has a ‘low immigration’ policy.

The Australian Liberty Alliance is running candidates in the Upper and Lower houses for the first time on a platform which includes stopping the ‘Islamisation of Australia’. You can read about the ALA here and watch their 15-second advertisement which has been banned from television. *

All you need is love (ra-ta-ta-ta-tah)

Sigh. It’s Refugee Week, did you know? I often wonder how this country lost its multicultural way after we welcomed and resettled 57,700 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1982. Of these, only 2,100 or so were unauthorised arrivals by boat, although many more set out by sea and never made it to shore. The 1971 Census revealed there were just 700 Vietnamese in Australia.

Fifteen years later it was 80,000 and at the 2011 Census, the numbers of Vietnamese-born living in Australia rose to 185,039. Despite language barriers and religious differences (the main religion is Mahayana Buddhism), these new migrants were widely accepted.

Imagine an Australia without Luke Nguyen (chef and TV presenter), Anh Do (comedian), Nam Le (author), Caroline Tran (Triple J announcer), Hieu Van Le, (Lieutenant Governor of South Australia) or Vincent Long Van Nguyen (Parramatta’s Catholic Archbishop).

The Beatles were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, or rather, western involvement in it. At the peak of the conflict, John Lennon wrote a famous song, which in Vietnam is known as Tất cả những gì bạn cần có là tình yêu.

*policy points drawn from the websites of political parties