By Ashley Porter.
“In the future I want to be an engineer, I think it is really interesting.”
She loves school and desperately wants to go to university. It appears she has a plan and a dream, just like most other teenage girls. But first, this 13-year-old has to find a country that will take her in.
“We don’t really want to live here in Indonesia, we are asylum seekers waiting to be accepted in to a country,” she says.
The girl, whose name was withheld for her safety, fled the violence of Afghanistan one year ago with her parents, five sisters and two brothers. They made it to Indonesia where the government allows them to live freely while they wait in transit for a “developed country” to accept their refugee status application.
One of her sisters, who thought she might be “about 16 years old” but didn’t know for certain, said their family had friends living in Australia, and they would love to come to Australia.
But their chances of making Australia home are terrifyingly low. Last year the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency recorded 886,000 asylum seekers applying for refugee status. Australia will take a maximum of 13,740 of those next financial year, according to the 2015-16 Federal Budget. If refugee applications remained the same next year, that rate would mean Australia accepts 1.6 per cent of all people seeking asylum in the world.
Australia’s small intake and strong “stop the boats” message appears to have reached the 200 different countries that refugee claims came from last year. UNHCR recorded that asylum claims lodged in Australia last year decreased by 24 per cent from 2013. This was far from a reflection of the world’s needs. The records show last year was the second highest year of global claims on record, nearing the 900,000 claims in 1992’s crisis. There were 45 per cent more applications than 2013, due to increased conflicts and security fallouts in the Middle East.
But as Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said in federal parliament on Wednesday, Australia is only just getting over a flood of unexpected asylum seeker’s boats. In the five years between 2009 and 30 June 2013, 737 boats arrived in Australian waters, according to the Parliament of Australia.
Those boats carried 44, 156 people searching for a better life. Australian Border Protection Service only reported one boat in 2014.
Vivianne Dawalibi worked with asylum seekers and refugees with the United Nations (UN) for 20 years, earning her a Noble Peace Prize Certificate in 1981. She was in charge of many emergency operations and provided integration services for refugees. Vivianne came to Australia as a refugee from Sudan, after a “risky incident” in the 1990’s.
She has dedicated her life to the welfare of people in need and been in need herself, but she can see the struggles the Australian Government face in handling the high numbers of asylum seekers. She said real refugees who apply for appropriate visas, following the correct process, were not what caused the government problems. Some people, she said, flee their country in a scared rush before even applying “because they don’t know about the right channels.”
“Those people who seek asylum using different methods to jump the line and come to Australia seeking refugee status, are causing trouble to the government, to the community and to themselves because they are not using the right channels,” Vivianne said.
“And that is why this government is looking to ban their approach.”
But Vivianne said this was not always their fault as people smugglers pull cotton wool over their eyes.
“I think that those people who come to Australia are also victims of deceived information,” she said.
“This is people trafficking, it’s organised by business people from the rest of the world, giving false hope to those people to have a better life in Australia and not really giving them the right information about the policy and the system in Australia.”
“And then they (asylum seekers) do whatever they have to do to generate the money and give it to these business people.”
If these people make it into Australian waters they are held in detention centres for an average of 394 days, according to a Department of Immigration and Border Protection report. In March, there were 1724 people in detention centres and 13.7 per cent of them will still be there in more than two years.
Denise Williams is an active part of Buddies, a support group for refugees in South-East Queensland. Buddies visits refugees in Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation weekly and runs English-language lessons on school holidays. Denise said landing in detention centres was not what most asylum seekers expect.
“They come from such awful backgrounds…I don’t know if they’re that fortunate to arrive in Australia,” Denise said.
“They have a very bad outcome here in Australia.”
“Not all of them, but particularly the ones that are being used in a sense as political pawns, stuck out on Manus and Nauru islands instead of being able to assimilate into the community.”
Both Denise and Vivianne said those that do manage to successfully enter the Australian community “struggle” immensely to settle in. Denise said there was rarely support available for them.
This situation and general attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees is one Australia had not anticipated, as highlighted in a 1959 speech from then Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
“It is a good thing that Australia should have earned a reputation for a sensitive understanding of the problems of people in other lands; that we should not come to be regarded as people who are detached from the miseries of the world,” Mr Menzies said in the speech.
“I know that we will not come to be so regarded, for I believe that there are no people anywhere with warmer hearts and more generous impulses.”
Little did he expect that 56 years later, Australia would be found guilty of torture.
In March, a report by the Human Rights Council concluded “that the Government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the Regional Processing Centre (Nauru and Manus Island), has violated the right of the asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
The finding was based on articles of the Convention against Torture. In parliament in May, Peter Dutton MP said there were 100 children still in detention, but the government “wants to reduce that number even more”. This is a dramatic reduction on the 800 children being held in November last year.
Vivianne agrees that indefinite holding in detention centres is torture.
“In my opinion it is not the right decision,” Vivianne said.
“It is not fair on the individuals or families who come (to Australia) as asylum seekers, neither on the government and the tax-payers.”
It appears the treatment in detention centres might only continue to worsen. A Bill amendment passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday to give detention centre security staff increased power to use force on detainees. The proposed legislation would allow a security officer to use any reasonable force against a person to “maintain the good order, peace or security of an immigration detention facility”. It is a guideline but no defining limit is placed on what this means they can act upon.
Security would also be permitted to use reasonable force to “protect the life, health or safety of any person” in the facility.
In the Bill’s second reading in parliament on Wednesday, Mr Dutton explained the bill amendment was needed to guard security staff in situations like the 2011 detention facility riots.
“I will not tolerate the staff within those detention centres being assaulted, and I will not tolerate Commonwealth property being destroyed within those centres,” Mr Dutton said.
Members of the opposition and the Greens party contested the Bill amendments. The Bill consideration came the day after it was announced that refugee and humanitarian assistance would receive almost $10 million more in the 2015-2016 financial year than the current year. $154,501,000 is expected to go into the area, which is estimated to drop by almost $20 million next financial year.
The Budget outlined that the money would go towards fulfilling Australia’s international obligations, resettling refugees, providing “visa pathways” and developing policy.
It also says it will help Australia to remain “a leading resettlement country in terms of number of people resettled”. In order to maintain that position however, Australia must first become a “leading country” in the field, because UNHCR figures show the nation is low on the list of countries that welcome those in need of safety.
With detention facilities being classed as torturous and the struggle faced upon entering the Australian community being deemed testing, the dreams of the Afghan girls in the Indonesian mountains seem somewhat hopeless and pitiful. The future engineer went to school for the first time at 12 years old because there were none at home, and goes to an illegal school in Indonesia because of transit laws. Maybe one day she can have the privilege Australian kids complain about – mandatory education – instead of mandatory detention.