Australia has become a land of refuge for people fleeing conflict, economic pillage, and persecution, but as a destination country, its shores have become increasingly unwelcoming to refugees and asylum seekers. Similar to the immigrant-prison gauntlet in the United States, many have languished indefinitely in detention facilities, known for abusive conditions that exacerbate many of the underlying traumas with which they arrive. Suicide attempts are not uncommon in this captive population, trapped in legal limbo as they await review by immigration authorities. The misery and unrest have occasionally exploded in detainee uprisings and brutal police suppression.
Outside the immigrant dungeons, nativist sentiment has fueled restrictionist policies for reviewing refugee applications, as well as racist violence directed at immigrant communities. The xenophobic backlash, according to recent public opinion polls, reflects a growing anxiety about migrants taking up too much “room” in the country–a canard steeped in the same hateful rhetoric deployed by extreme right-wing groups seeking to “close the border” here in the U.S. The fact that asylum seekers make up a miniscule part of the population , do not pose a significant cost to public services, and above all, fall under the humanitarian responsibility of Australia and have a basic human right to seek a dignified life–well, that somehow doesn’t keep people from buying into myths about their supposedly parasitic presence.
So even on the other side of the world, we see a mirror image of the hate-fueled mythology that floods the political arena in the U.S.. The narrow mainstream debate pivots between the capitalist drive to exploit migrant labor and a vicious campaigns to “keep them out” under the racist pretext of “protecting” jobs and public security.
Amnesty International’s campaign for Australian migrants and refugees takes an alternate path to building understanding, focusing on human rights and not on whether migrants are a “positive” or “negative” contribution to Australian society. They’re trying to change the culture of the debate by presenting provocative, often heart-wrenching narratives of migrants’ journeys.
Najeeba, who escaped war and oppression in Afghanistan on a fishing boat, considers herself lucky, but points out that even the fortunate refugees in Australia suffer enormous loss:
“leaving your country for good is one of the hardest decisions you can be forced to make. It means a break with all that you know – your family, your livelihood, your friends. All the familiar sights, sounds, smells and tastes…”
Refugee advocates like Dinh Tran, who fled Vietnam as a child, help elucidate why people seek refuge in Australia, and where they’re coming from:
“When we left, my mum and dad had already accepted that we were all going to die. That is the only way you can do it. You risk everything on a boat, it is so dangerous. So the only reason you do it is that you have no choice…”
Amnesty has also encouraged community-based initiatives through social media. The organization has initiated public education programs on how to “change the conversation” on migration through local dialogues that can counter the myths peddled by mainstream media. (You can also follow the global conversation at #rethinkrefugees.)
Human rights activists have only captured a few snatches of these migrants’ lives, but their stories weave together strands of culture, politics and community that frame the collective story of a nation both fragmented and greater than the sum of its parts. The decision to migrate is a bold move than often involves leaving behind a livelihood, community, or family, but refugees’ stories reveal how they’ve been pushed by circumstances beyond their control.
Storytelling is one way to take control–of an individual life, or of the media narrative surrounding migration. And people can take control of the debate by changing the way communities interact with those who’ve made that crossing. There’s power in speaking and listening, as well as a collective responsibility to engage in that conversation, whatever side of the border you happen to be on.