A divided world – depicting the lives of refugees

June 19, 2016 at 11:31 pm | Posted in Australian memoir, refugee writing | 1 Comment
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Australia to Z

‘Refugees live in a divided world, between countries in which they cannot live and countries which they may not enter.’ Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said this. He believes that it is the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide.

After World War II the international community set up a system for helping refugees, those who could not return to their countries ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion’ (United Nations).

Australia signed this 1951 agreement and our country is now in breach of this and several other conventions that it has signed and ratified. Australia outsources its international obligations by holding asylum seekers in extremely remote detention centres. Amnesty International has stated that ‘the unlawful and arbitrary detention of these men in such destititute conditions is inhuman and degrading.’

Reports of sexual abuse of both children and adults on Nauru has been confirmed, with 24 doctors, nurses, social workers and others signing this statement: ‘We would like to be absolutely clear: The Government of Australia and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have tolerated the physical and sexual assault of children, and the sexual harassment and assault of vulnerable women in the centre for more than 17 months.’

In response to public revelations about the brutal conditions in the detention camps, both for men on Manus Island and for men, women and children on Nauru, the Government has legislated that anyone revealing information about them will be liable to up to two years in jail.

Courageous people

Even so, some courageous people are speaking out. In Eva Orner’s recently released documentary Chasing Asylum about Australian detention centres we see her hidden camera record the damp, mouldy tents on gravel and hear the complaints from those who must live in them that they get filled with mosquitoes and sometimes water and frogs. We see inside the better accommodation: World War II tin huts with concrete floors.

The security firm personnel refer to the people by number, not by their names, as if they are criminals in a high security prison. They do not know what crime they have committed and wait for years in total uncertainty about their future. Some brave writers and filmmakers, doctors and social workers, are telling the story of this shameful time in Australia’s history.

I believe that we all need to tell our stories. It didn’t take long into my research on this topic to see that most writing on asylum seekers is about them, not by them. This is unsurprising, since when people are incarcerated in brutal detention centres and denied the basic needs for living a dignified existence, there will not be the psychological space for self-expression. They even lack the basic implements necessary for it: when the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Jillian Triggs, visited Nauru the children were begging to borrow any pens and pencils she had with her.

And when and if they are released (as we know, some of them die) it takes a long time of safety to be able to reflect and to come to terms with any traumatic experience. It can take years. There are some memoirs by refugees of their experiences on boats and in detention centres, and I discuss some of these below, after a sample of some powerful books about asylum seekers.

Writer Rebecca Lim has also observed that most writing is about asylum seekers rather than by them and she also writes that because first world voices are mainly the ones heard ‘in the general silence surrounding asylum seekers – because asylum seekers lack the skills, language, resources and machinery to reach us and be directly heard – our interpretations of their stories, by default, become their stories.’ (Newswrite, April-May 2016, p. 4)

Powerful words

That said, the powerful words of asylum-seekers still make an impact, even though quoted in someone else’s book. In Madeline Gleeson’s Offshore (NewSouth, 2016) it is hard to forget the poignancy of asylum-seekers’ words, such as the following from people detained at Nauru.

‘In our country the Taliban will come onto the bus and they will slash our throat and finish your life. It will take maybe ten or fifteen minutes for us to die. But the English-Australian men are killing us by pain, taking our soul and our life slowly… This is mental torture and soon all of us will be mad.’

A fourteen year old boy said, ‘let me admit that I wish I was dead in the ocean. At least I would die once in my life, not every second in these detentions.’

A man on Manus Regional Processing Centre said, ‘Let your government to kill us. We are human beings. We are not bad people. We are educated people. Please help us. Please help. We’re begging you, help us. Our minds don’t work any more. Please help us.’

‘In Burma, the government shoots us. Here, they kill us mentally.’ Roshingya, Manus Island transit centre.

In their book Refugees: Why seeking asylum is legal and Australia’s policies are not (NewSouth, 2014) Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong make the point that asylum seekers are real people with individual stories, not statistics and not dangerous criminals.

They quote asylum seekers who explain the impossibility of being a ‘queue jumper’ – such as Sharif: ‘If there were any places that we could apply for, we wouldn’t have come this way. Tell me which embassy was open for us and how could we even get to an embassy? In Tehran? If we tried to go there, we would have been arrested by the Iranian police. We came here because we had to, we didn’t have citizenship in Iraq and we didn’t have legal documents in Iran. If we had legal documents in Iran we wouldn’t have left it, and if Saddam let us stay in our country, we wouldn’t have left it either.’

Hamid, an Iraqui asylum seeker, said: ‘I looked for that queue when I was in North Iraq and they told me that I couldn’t apply for asylum in my country. I also looked for it in Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia. I didn’t have a place to stay and believe me, if I could find a safe way to come, I would have waited, but the truth is, there aren’t any queues.’ (p. 63)

Happy and sad refugees

This blog is already too long so the following is a brief list of selected titles by refugees.

The Boat by Nam Le (Penguin, 2008) is a collection of short stories told in a sophisticated style. The protagonist’s father was a survivor of the My Lai massacre, on 16 March 1968, when he was fourteen. When his mother was shot by the American soldiers she fell on top of him and he waited ten hours – till it was dark – to get up. The author studied law and was employed in a Melbourne law firm until making a successful transition to writing.

After the Vietnam War Anh Do’s extended family sold all they had and called in every favour with friends and relatives to buy a boat on the black market. It was old and creaky and stank of fish. At 9 by 2.5 metres, it had to support 40 people. They survived storms, starvation and two pirate attacks on their journey to Australia. Anh Do tells that story and about their life in Australia in his entertaining and accessible The Happiest Refugee (Allen & Unwin, 2011), which won the Australian Book of the Year for 2011, among other prizes. Russell Crowe asked Anh Do to write a screenplay of his book; Crowe is interested in making a film of it and I look forward to that.

Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis, with Patrick Weaver, (Allen & Unwin, 2014) tells the riveting story of a young doctor from a privileged background forced to flee war-torn Iraq and coming to Australia via an extremely overcrowded boat. The author spent nearly a year in Curtin detention centre and went on to become an outstanding orthopaedic surgeon, transforming the lives of amputees and of patients who needed hip and knee replacements.

Alwyn Evans wrote Walk in My Shoes (Penguin, 2004) and even though library copies had all fallen apart (an indication that it was well-read!) and I couldn’t read a new copy in the time available, I couldn’t resist including it – if only for its brilliant title.

Australia to Z (Allen & Unwin, 2016) by Armin Greber, who migrated to Australia from Switzerland and now lives in Peru, is a brilliant satire of biting wit that reveals the kind of country that Australia has become. His images reminded me of those great satirists Ralph Steadman and Tomi Ungerer but they are far from derivative – Armin Greber’s trenchant vision is unique. Some of the children’s books he has illustrated, such as The Island and I am Thomas (Allen & Unwin, 2007, 2011 respectively) present powerful metaphors for xenophobic policies and attitudes and the tragic consequences of them.

The whistleblowers in a doctor’s waiting room…

I’d already finished my blog on this topic for CAPITAL LETTERS – https://actwritersblog.com – when I was flicking through a Marie Claire while in a doctor’s waiting room. Suddenly, amidst the glossy fashion photography I came upon paediatric nurse Alanna Maycock’s article on conditions in Australia’s remote detention centres. Read it in the September 2015 issue (p. 68-72) or at www.marieclaire.com.au/whistleblowers

In the article, according to former Save the Children child protection support officer Kirsty Diallo, Somalian women on Nauru had fled their war-torn country and endured terrifyingly violent refugee camps in Yemen and Kenya. But they described Nauru as their worst experience. ‘They were physically safe from the violence of war, but the mental torture was extreme. They felt profoundly helpless. They wanted to die’ (p. 70).

Nicole Judge saw people beaten to unconsciousness in the camps. ‘I won’t forget that, ever. But the worst thing is the cover-up. Papers are shredded, big companies collaborate on incident reports. It gives you a sense of injustice’ (p. 72).

Workers there saw that the toilets were overflowing with sewage. The nurses said that women they tried to help had been issued with falling-apart underwear full of holes and had to make do with no sanitary pads. They had broken shoes strapped to their feet. Children when hungry between meals were only given chocolate and soft drinks and their teeth were rotting.

Secrecy and nightmares

As Ben Pynt, lawyer and human rights activist, was quoted in the article above, ‘Secrecy enables human rights abuses’ (p. 72).

Professor David Isaacs, a visiting paediatrician to Nauru, stated, ‘After five days I went home and had nightmares. I didn’t expect to be so traumatised by these people’s trauma. These are people, ordinary people, and we are treating them with incredible cruelty.’ (Gleeson, p. 367)

The Human Rights Law Centre and UNICEF Australia has stated: ‘The reported abuse and violence did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred in the context of policy arrangements which are inherently harmful, breach international law and are cloaked in secrecy.’ (Gleeson, p.320)

What we can do

In spite of the best efforts by a long succession of Governments some of these breaches are on public record. And Madeline Gleeson closes her book Offshore with the empowering reality that since it is, it’s down to the public now.

Find out what you can do at any of the following sites:











(You can read a shorter blog a little later on writing about and by refugees at the ACT Writers Centre’s CAPITAL LETTERS  blog at http://actwritersblog.com)




1 Comment »

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  1. This is very moving Penny. Sally

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