A person, feeling that their life is danger, makes the difficult decision to leave their home, perhaps with family, perhaps alone. Perhaps they merely start to travel, meeting people along the way who give them information on how to continue. Perhaps they accept money gathered together quietly among family and friends to pay for the journey. Maybe they discuss who should attempt this voyage towards a safer and better life. Rumours and advice: both are relayed about where best to go to meet facilitators for the journey, how much it will cost, how to navigate this or that dangerous territory to get to the next transfer point, how to act at airports and around police. Friends and family may tell this person that they are brave or crazy, but they believe that if they make it, they will be safer than they would be at home. Nobody really knows if they’ll be safe, if they’ll make it or what will happen if they’re sent back. People pray. These decisions are never frivolous, never easy, never uncomplicated.
A person, feeling that their creativity is being stifled by the social mores of their home, feeling worn out by full-time work and part-time creativity, needing an adventure to shake things up, sells their stuff on eBay, books a ticket, has a big going-away party and moves overseas. Rumors and advice: both are relayed about where best to find a room or studio space, good coffee, useful connections, free internet, cheap dinners and language courses. Friends tell them they are brave or crazy but everyone knows they’ll be safe and can always come back if things simply get too hard. And they’ll come and visit next time they’re overseas, for sure. Such decisions are complex, but definitely possible.
As a two-time beneficiary of cultural emigration, a dual citizen of both Britain and Australia and a resident musician in Berlin, I am reminded of my many privileges when confronted with the results of the Australian Government’s policy towards asylum seekers. These people, especially the majority found to be genuine refugees through the government’s background checking process, and most without my privileges, still risk the journey to Australia seeking something I can afford to take for granted: a secure life.
After waiting months, sometimes years, in grim refugee camps or at transit points, a small percentage of these asylum seekers step onto perilous craft, usually from Indonesian ports and, after exchanging significant amounts of money, make the dangerous crossing hoping to land in Australia.
If our country was invaded, if we were engaged in civil war or unrest, if we found ourselves the target of ethnic cleansing or genocide, if we lived under crushing international sanctions, if our everyday lives meant dealing with corruption and abject poverty or if by some turn of events our country become a totalitarian state, we would undoubtedly make the same decision that others do now; we would leave our homes and seek asylum elsewhere.
We would seek family and community connections in other parts of globe. We would quietly sell off our assets and book ‘holidays’. We would pack only the essentials. Perhaps we would be fortunate enough to have retained our passports and identity documents. We would be protected under the rights of asylum as detailed in international law as we pass through countries that are signatories to such post-war declarations as the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We would in no way be acting illegally. We would not be illegal immigrants or queue-jumpers. We would get to an airport in another country and bravely declare ourselves to immigration officials as asylum seekers in fear of persecution at home.
We would expect to be taken by the authorities and have our request examined and processed in a reasonable amount of time and with appropriate legal and living assistance provided by the state until our case was decided. If we had useful skills, children, medical issues, psychological problems, if we had connections or no connections in that country, we would still hope to be treated humanely and advised quickly as to our status. We would hope to be released quickly so that we could begin the process of settling into life in that country- learning the language, finding work, daycare, schools and healthcare. Eventually, we might start businesses, pay taxes, contribute to our newfound community, integrate, play the local sports, and even run for political office.
What asylum seekers are currently permitted when they reach Australia is entry to a minefield of bi-partisan domestic politics. They find that they have become dog-whistles, vote-winners and subject to increasingly tough measures that poll better with ‘the battlers’. They have become smokescreens and distractions to hide other less popular policy changes. Australia is losing its humanity and its soul – gleefully and publicly.
I currently rent a flat in Berlin and the 500€ that I scrape together every month allows me to live comfortably. I perform and organise concerts. I go to rehearsals, gigs and drinks with friends. I catch trains to other cities for the weekend for work or recreation. It is not a fat life but it’s a satisfying one in which I am allowed to pursue my artistic goals. I am welcome here and free to live the kind of life I want because, even though I am not rich, I am the ‘right kind of person’ with the ‘right kind of passports’ – an accident of birth for which I am grateful. My movements were facilitated by international agreements that allowed me to pass through immigration unhindered and barely questioned. I certainly did some work to stay in Berlin – visiting various bureaucratic offices and filling in reams of barely-decipherable paperwork, but my presence in this country is secure.
I wish Australia would offer this same security to the people who arrive there seeking asylum. I wish they were processed quickly, with the medical and legal assistance they need. I wish they were released into the community to learn the language, find their bearings and be able to work until their claims are processed. I wish for failed claimants to be sent home in as dignified a manner as possible and for successful claimants to be welcomed into our towns and into our lives to settle and start rebuilding their own.
I wish for them all to become productive, engaged, secure Australian citizens. I wish for each and every elected Government to have the will and wisdom to work effectively with other nations to mitigate dangerous people-smuggling operations by increasing the effectiveness of refugee processing. I wish for Australia to hold to its obligations to the international conventions it signed following the horrors of two world wars. The Australian government will continue to dodge these obligations unless we Australians, in Australia and abroad, remind them loudly, intelligently and frequently that anything else is inhumane and unacceptable.
Our democratic privileges require our vigilance. We have the privilege to gather, organise and demand that Australia treats asylum seekers with the same care with which we are treated as we travel the world. We have the luxury of telling the Australian Government that we will not accept for asylum seekers less than we accept for ourselves. We have the responsibility to say to them that this should not happen. NOT IN OUR NAMES.