Who would be a refugee?

The kids I work with that come from refugee backgrounds have my full admiration. They are a delight to teach and show strength,  flexibility,  bravery, enthusiasm  and the ability to embrace the country and people that has offered them this chance of a new life.

It amazes me that there is so much negative imagery and messaging about people who have had to flee their homeland. For most of them, there is no going back to the places from where they have escaped in fear of their lives – at least not for many years. If we could really empathise and put ourselves in their shoes (if they have any) then perhaps we might show more compassion.

In 2017, 68.5 million people were forced to flee their homes. Of those, 40 million were internally displaced, 25.4 million were refugees and 3.1 million were asylum seekers. They were forced to flee because of war, persecution, natural disasters, environmental crises and poverty. We see so many people seeking asylum around the world and the so-called ‘first world’ countries are quick to complain that many are simply economic migrants and their status is nothing to do with fear. In a time when money speaks louder than compassion, countries like Australia spend more money on protecting their borders than welcoming refugees. People often believe that their country takes a fair share of refugees; those who arrive through the ‘proper’ channels and are proven to be refugees, a process that can take many years while living in a refugee camp where they can be susceptible to bribery and ‘favours’. Yet it is less affluent countries who are more likely to host refugees.

‘Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda host 31 percent of the world’s refugees. The highest concentration of refugees is in Lebanon, where one in six people is a refugee, primarily from Syria.’ UNHCR 2018.

Those quick to complain that refugees are simply economic migrants, fraudsters and ‘shouldn’t be travelling without documents to prove who they are’, seem indifferent to the circumstances that force someone to flee their home. If your house is burning, guns are firing, women and girls are being raped, or there has been extended drought and you and your family are starving, wouldn’t you flee? Would you pause to make sure you have your documents, even if you actually possessed any? Wouldn’t you use all your money and capacity to move yourself or your family somewhere safe?

It is a complex and political problem. Wars and persecution on the grounds of religion, ethnicity and race will always happen. Drought and internal displacement of people will increase with climate change, and there will always be refugees and migrants. Yet there is an inequality in who is allowed to travel to a country for a new beginning. Why is a doctor from Vietnam lower down the pecking order than one from France or Australia? Is it because their qualification is seen as lesser or are there other factors at play?

If we could support the countries where these so-called economic refugees come from, namely poor developing countries, rather than spending millions on ‘border-control’, surely that would make more economic sense. If their homeland offered prospects for them, micro financing for small businesses, a living wage and safety, wouldn’t they prefer to stay there? Would that be enough to prevent many of the fatalities we are witnessing in the Mediterranean and other seas?

My thoughts go back to the children, the lucky ones who made it to our shores, the lucky ones who escaped violence and war, the lucky ones who weren’t sent to languish on island prisons in the pacific ocean.

Who would be a refugee?


Refugee children in Australia – the ‘lucky’ ones.



Platitudes and Silence

Staring through the window I sit
nursing a mug of tea.
The swish of tyres after recent rain
and the squawks of  parakeets
foraging in the flame tree
are background noise to my thoughts.
Thoughts of disbelief.
Thoughts of anger.
Colours mute as the sun descends.
Long shadows fall across the yard.
My phone beeps, more news.
I don’t look.
Enough bad news for one day.
‘Atrocities believed to have happened on Nauru.’
Believed to?
How can a government be so callous,
so cold,
so lacking in compassion?
I don’t want news.
I want answers.
But I don’t get answers.
All we get are platitudes
and silence.




Finding Outrage

I watched the news and like so many other Australians, I was outraged. Three Al Jazeera journalists, including one Australian, have been imprisoned for seven (and ten) years for doing their job. How could this happen? Wasn’t Egypt supposed to be moving towards democracy? Everyone is saying the verdict is, ‘Wrong,wrong, wrong.’ There is widespread international condemnation.

 Amnesty International monitored the trial and said, ‘the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence.’

Injustice, rage, shock, horror. So much empathy pours out to these three men, and deservedly so. Yet I wonder at where this empathy has gone when we look at an equally unjust and merciless treatment of others who are labelled as criminals when all they have done is escaped from war and terror. The country they choose as sanctuary, one that was once prided itself on ‘giving everyone a fair go’ has become one that deals out punitive measures. We aren’t talking about a poor developing nation, far from it. And we aren’t talking about high numbers of refugees. The Australian government’s policy on asylum seekers that arrive by boat is to imprison them in offshore detention centres.

These detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru are grossly overcrowded, lack adequate health services and have inadequate water and sanitation.  Amnesty International and the UNHCR have criticised them as they do not meeting legal protection standards. These refugees can be held for years while their claims are processed and in 90% of cases they are found to be true refugees. In all these detention centres, those seeking asylum, people who are not criminals, are forced to live with less and less hope. Detention has led to deaths, self-harming and attempted suicide. The asylum seekers are subjected to

 “…cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment,” according to Amnesty International.

Where is our outrage?

Where is our sense of injustice?

In trying to make asylum in Australia an unattractive option, our government is neglecting its obligation under the refugee convention and it seems that it isn’t just our sense of fairness that is at stake.

I wonder at how our perception of justice and injustice can be moulded to suit our politics, economies and nationalistic self-preservation.




There Are No Queues

seeking sanctuary

seeking sanctuary

I wrote this in February this year and I am re-posting it for Writing 101

Last week I felt as though my head was going to explode with all the wonderful ideas and thoughts resulting from listening to and entering into a number of conversations. It made me believe that there are perhaps some changes afoot in a world where, for as long as I can remember, people have become increasingly egocentric, hedonistic and materialistic.

It all started the day before the Writers Festival. I attended a seminar on Writing for Change. I had no idea what exactly I had signed up for, but my mind was open to ideas and the conversations that ensued. That put me in the right place for the next three days. The Writers Festival held the promise of stories being shared by poets and politicians, acclaimed authors and adventurers, comedians and critics. And it lived up to that promise.

The final evening I walked through the magnificent gum trees and grounds of the University that ranks in the top 100 in the world, a place for the privileged perhaps, to the now almost empty car-park where I brushed aside the tears of anger, compassion and frustration. Richard Flanagan’s closing address ‘On Love Stories’ had moved me so. No, not because I had thoughts of love canyoning around my brain, but because of his link to compassion and humanity – however tenuous some may say this link was.

The part of the address that struck home went like this:

“… Crowded into love stories between the discovery of ourselves in others and of others in ourselves, we glimpse something else, a boat, and on the boat, jammed between the polytarp thrown over the shivering, the sunburnt and the silent, caught between the briny largeness of the sea and the sky, terrifying and hopeful, breathing in the nauseating oily drifts of diesel fumes, stands a tall 23-year-old Iranian called Reza Barati who dares dream that freedom and safety will soon be his as the boat approaches the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

But the sky darkens, the idea cannot hold, the ocean shimmers and transforms into something terrible, and all that remains of that dream for Reza Barati is a white plastic chair he now holds up in front of him, seeking to ward off the inexplicable blows of machetes and bullets and boots – a white plastic chair, all that a rich nation that prides itself on a fair go, on its largeness of spirit, has left for Reza Barati to defend his life against those who have now come to kill him.

In this desert of silence that now passes for our public life, a silence only broken by personal vilification of anyone who posits an idea opposed to power, it is no longer wise for a public figure to express concern about a society that sees some human beings as no longer human; a society that has turned its back on those who came to us for asylum – that is, for freedom, and for safety. And so, with our tongues torn we are expected to agree with the silence, with the lies, and with the murder of Reza Barati.”

Richared Flanagan.• 24 February 2014

Maybe it was the culmination of those thoughts and emotions surging around in my head after sessions on ‘Loss’, ‘Climate change’, ‘Memoir’, ‘Misogyny’, ‘Translation’, and ‘Asylum Seekers’, or maybe it was the sheer beauty of his words, but I sat in my car unable to move. 

Where had our compassion gone?

And now I once more reflected on those negative thoughts.

How had we come to a time where pejorative words like ‘alien’, ‘illegal’ ‘queue-jumper’ replaced ‘someone who is fleeing from terror; where there are no queues’. How important language is in shaping our thoughts. By normalising these words through continual use of them, they become a part of our psyche and people simply accept and reiterate the hyperbole.

Like the words and images implanted in our brains on a daily basis through advertising, whether it be for a food product, the latest phone we must have, the latest technology we need to buy immediately, or the car that shows we’ve really made it in life. Do these materialistic things define us in the way we perceive through the marketing? If then a person is seen as a queue-jumper we immediately lose our compassion, believing they have done something wrong. For many who have already fled their country, with or without travel documents, there is no queue to join. Even for those lucky enough to find refuge with the UN or similar body, the wait can be undefined and perhaps be up to ten years. It is not uncommon also for sexual favours to be solicited, from those in power, as a way of getting on to such a list.

So if you are one of a thousand people in a burning building behind a locked door and only one of you has been allowed to leave through that door, what do you do? Join the queue in the hope that they might open the door again before you perish, or do you jump?

I know what I would do.

behind the wire

behind the wire

Artwork courtesy of ‘Seeking Sanctuary’ by Bea Clifford in collaboration with refugee students at Parkwood PS Intensive English Centre. 

‘On Love Stories’ – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/on-love-stories-and-reza-barati