Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DOIC) has a new message for asylum-seekers who arrive by boat: “You won’t be settled in Australia”. A controversial media campaign outlines the country’s new policy of transferring refugees and asylum-seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea. Many Australians responded with harsh criticism for both the policy and the campaign.
Australia’s asylum debate viewed from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp
My friend Rashid has been living in Dadaab for 22 years. When we talked about the Australian government publishing pictures of sobbing refugees, he thought it was inhuman
Abdirashid Sheik Mohamed fled Somalia with his two younger sisters in 1991. His parents and the rest of his siblings were killed, and he escaped only with the help of his neighbours. He was five.
About 10 years later, living in the Dadaab refugee camp just across the border with Kenya, Rashid and his sisters were provisionally approved for resettlement to the United States. At the final step – a DNA test – a problem emerged. Rashid’s youngest sister was not his real sister. The neighbours who helped them to escape explained that she was a first cousin; they had been raised as siblings for the sake of simplicity. The family was devastated. The resettlement was postponed. Rashid is still here, in Dadaab. He has been here for 22 years.
As far as life in Dadaab goes, Rashid is making a pretty good go of it. He’s a sharp guy who has made the most of the limited education opportunities available in the camp, and he earns a restricted income as a radio presenter for a locally broadcast humanitarian information program. He gave up the idea of resettlement a long time ago, and is hoping that his country will soon be safe enough for him to return and become a journalist. For the record, the organisation behind the radio program Rashid works for is a group called Internews, and I work for them too. Rashid is a friend and colleague of mine.
Recently I noticed that Rashid had shared a news story on Facebook about the pictures published by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, depicting sobbing asylum seekers who had just been informed they would not be resettled in Australia. I was intrigued as to what someone in Rashid’s position would make of these images, so I asked him about it.
“I was shocked. Truly shocked. It really touched me – like I had taken their shoes. It seemed strange and inhuman to show something like that,” Rashid told me. Many of Rashid’s friends were as dismayed as he was. Others were incredulous to the idea that the government of Australia would turn away asylum seekers like that at all. If the intention behind publishing the pictures was to raise awareness of Australia’s new asylum seeker policy amongst global refugee communities, it seems it may have had some success.
The more immediate risks of sea travel are well known to refugees in Dadaab. If Australians follow the news of sinking asylum seeker boats closely, you can be sure that the people who might consider getting on those boats are paying attention too. “We hear it over the radio, on BBC Somali. We are always hearing stories about boats that capsize. We hear stories about boats that are overcrowded and when they sink the captains throw people into the sea. Not just in Australia, but people going to Europe. It is regular,” Rashid says, “so everyone knows the risks. But they say it is a do or die game. They either make it or they die.”
The reasons behind this desperation are simultaneously very simple and very complex. “Their country is not peaceful. They’re afraid if they go back they will be killed” says Rashid. But that’s only part of it – “Where they are now they have no chance of finding a job, or of making a life for their families. The biggest problem of all is poor living conditions.”
In the camps, or in places like them, people are in limbo. Their ability to work legally is extremely limited, their future is inherently uncertain and control of their lives seems out of their hands. For many, this is enough of a reason to make the gamble worthwhile. The line between “asylum seekers” and “economic migrants” is blurred, and certainly not binary. For those on the edge, the distinction means little.
In Australia we often talk about “queue jumpers”, an expression Rashid has never heard. When I explain it to him he laughs, “Does that happen? People who travel by boat get better treatment? I don’t know.” Does he feel that these people are cheating the system? “To some extent, yes, they are taking advantage, because they are making a clever decision. I suppose they are cheating.” And yes, he acknowledges, mostly they are people who have more money. “But most of all”, Rashid says, “they are very courageous. They have made a decision – a decision for their future – and they have stuck with it.”
Right now the number of refugees who share Dadaab with Rashid is more than 400,000. According UNCHR figures, globally there are more than 45m displaced people, including more than 15m refugees. More than seven million people are living in what are known as “protracted refugee situations”. The average stay in one of these camps is 17 years. At 22 years and counting, Rashid is ahead of the trend, but not by a great deal.
The pull factors which attract asylum seekers to Australia are pretty clear – so much so that millions of Britons want to make the trip as well. By making Australia less appealing to asylum seekers – publishing photos like those that upset Rashid for example – you are trying to control those pull factors. What no one can control, or at least control effectively, are the push factors which make people want to leave where they already are.
As long as the push factors of conflict, resource pressure, population growth and joblessness continue to exist – which is to say, as long as we live in the real world – people will keep finding a way to improve their lot. Movement is often the only option they have. This is why any serious approach to refugees or asylum seekers must be defined in terms of long term management and planning, rather than ad hoc preclusion. It will be a strategy, rather than an “answer”. It will be hard and inescapably inadequate. And, as the world becomes more interconnected, this problem will get worse rather than better. Even if “stopping the boats” does prove to be possible in the short term, to think of it as any kind of enduring solution is misunderstanding the nature of the problem.
In any case, as Rashid says, “most people I know don’t go by boat, they go by plane.”