Refugees

In late August, it took only a few days for the Taliban to secure control of Kabul in the wake of the final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The breakneck speed of the takeover was accompanied by images of mass terror, alongside a profound sense of betrayal. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, the international airport quickly became the epicentre of scenes of chaos and collective panic, as thousands rushed onto the tarmac in desperate attempts to board the last planes out of the country. Queues stretched for kilometres outside the country’s only passport office. It is still too early to tell whether the Taliban’s promises of a more ‘inclusive’ government and amnesty for former collaborators of the Western forces will be met. What is certain is that Western governments owe them safe passage, though, from the announcements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office in late August, it seems unlikely this will be properly honoured.

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After surviving two perilous boat journeys when he thought he would die, Jaivet Ealom is taken into the control of Australian authorities and given the designation EML019 on an identification card that manages to misspell his name. He will be referred as EML019 for the next three years, having arrived in Australian waters just five days after 19 July 2013, when a policy change meant that asylum seekers coming by boat would be transferred to the Manus Island or Nauru ‘regional processing centres’ to face indefinite detention and with no hope of resettlement in Australia.

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Refugee policies around the globe are under strain. As Alexander Betts recognises in the opening pages of The Wealth of Refugees, refugee numbers are increasing due to conflict and political instability in many countries, a situation that will be exacerbated in the future by climate change and the impact of Covid-19. Betts, a political scientist at Oxford University, also notes that populist nationalism has undermined the political willingness of wealthy countries to accept migrants and asylum seekers.

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People seeking asylum are off trend. As the black and brown people on boats have stopped arriving on Australia’s shores, so has our interest in them waned. In commemoration, a boat-shaped trophy sits in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office, inscribed with the words ‘I Stopped These’. Today, Australians seem preoccupied by the vaccine roll-out and allegations of rape in parliament. With a federal election on the horizon, people seeking asylum and refugees seem passé, a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

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Much political mileage has been made in Australia from the turning back of ‘boat people’. Travel by boat is the cheapest means of getting to this island continent, and the most dangerous. Boat travellers are the poorest and the most likely to be caught and deported or sent to an offshore camp. But their number is less than half of those who arrive by air as tourists and apply for refugee protection: some 100,000 have done so during the seven years of this Coalition government.

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In early October 2017, Thomas Albrecht, the Canberra-based Regional Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), took to The Guardian to register his dismay about the Australian government’s response to asylum seekers. ‘The current policy has been an abject failure,’ he wrote. ‘A proper ...

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Three years ago, Australia was supposedly being overrun by asylum seekers arriving by boat. The situation was considered grave and dominated public debate and the ...

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Two doors, two characters, two colours – black and white – produce a surfeit of grey in John Hughes's short allegorical novel Asylum. Featuring a variety of forms ...

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Confessions of a People-Smuggler by Dawood Amiri & The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs

by
October 2014, no. 365

After an explosion that killed five asylum seekers and injured dozens more on a boat moored at Ashmore Reef in 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described people smugglers as ‘the absolute scum of the earth’ and ‘the vilest form of human life’. Further tragedies at sea during the ‘fifth wave’ of boat arrivals to Australia provoked similar outbursts from politicians across the political spectrum.

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Australia is a country that will not be intimidated by its own decency. On 28 August 2001, as a detail of Special Air Services soldiers was dispatched to MV Tampa, Prime Minister John Howard spoke about the 438 people – mostly Afghan Hazaras – who languished aboard the freighter ...

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