Dear Australia, from where I’m standing, your immigration policy looks like it’s walking upside down
Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Australia’s controversial refugee policy is based on the premise that off-shore detention centres will dissuade refugees from coming. That’s not how desperation works.
In the past three years, Australia has spent $9.2 billion on its offshore detention facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, according to a report by Save the Children and UNICEF. That’s $1570 per day and per detainee – enough to comfortably house the asylum-seekers in five star hotels, whilst still paying them a healthy salary. The logic behind it is that Offshore detention centres dissuade migrants from coming, ultimately saving money. Except asylum-seekers haven’t been dissuaded yet.
I live in Paris, where refugees aren’t numbers on a piece of paper but very real human beings living in camps on our streets. Over the past months, I’ve had many occasions to talk to them about their lives here, and what they left behind, and one thing became very apparent: they’re not chasing a dream, they are fleeing a nightmare. A nightmare they will flee at any cost.
I met Mahmoud this weekend outside his tent next to a canal in the north of Paris. Dozens of refugees have set up a makeshift camp here, and they have little protection from the murky sky and September drizzle. Mahmoud tells me he is from Darfour in South Soudan, and that he left his country after losing his entire family. “Nothing was left for me there but fear and death,” he told me in broken French. The journey wasn’t easy, he added. He’d taken boats, trains, cramped vans and buses, and paid thousands of euros to reach Paris. A long way to come to live in a tent in the street, even if he does have a far off view of the Eiffel tower.
Refugees will come, whatever obstacles they have to face, because the other option is death or persecution. 70% of those in the off-shore detention centres are ultimately recognized as refugees, according to Amnesty International, meaning they are genuinely at risk in their home countries. Amongst them are for instance the Rohingya community, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, that is recognized by the UN as being one of the most persecuted peoples on the planet. On Nauru, there are currently close to a hundred Rohingya refugees, according to official statistics of the Parliament of Australia in June 2016.
Last year in a shanty-town in Delhi, I met several Rohingya families. Amongst them was Munera, a young woman around my age, holding a baby tightly in her arms. She told me that she had come to India with her entire family a few months ago. They trekked through the jungle into Bangladesh, before paying a people smuggler to take them across the border. She was pregnant at the time, and so they had decided to this route, which was safer than getting a boat into the Pacific towards Australia, as some of her friends had done. She hasn’t heard from them since. Haziz, Munera’s neighbour, earns money working as a day wagerer. It’s a hard life, but for him, it is almost paradise. “I feel so safe, like I’m in my mother’s womb. I would have done anything to leave Myanmar.” He won’t elaborate on what he had experienced back in his homeland, and only says, with haunted eyes: “in the beginning, there were bans, on phones, on kitchen knives … and then people started disappearing.”
“No-one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark…” Somali poet Warsan Shire writes in his poem Home. “No one runs for the border unless they see their whole city running as well…. You have to understand that no one puts children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.”
Picture little Aylan, lying dead on a Turkish beach, face down in the sand. Every day parents are being forced to risk the same fate for their own children. That is the real risk they are taking. Do you think the prospect of ending up in an offshore detention centre will ever convince them to stay home ?