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Friday, 23 April 2010

Six Men in a Leaky Boat


In the last week I have enjoyed the most amazing conversations with people. Inevitably on these occasions the subject of conversation might cover the work I once did in refugee determination.

I witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly even in the short years I worked there then the further six months studying the area in depth. I had a 95% decline rate by the time I left and I was never over turned on appeal – I saw my share of vacuous claims, up close and personal. Not judging from a safe distance in a suburban home. I was so hardened as a person by the time I left that it took almost a year to tap back into my humanity – the part in you that has tears well up when a stranger shares their pain. Not sitting expressionless while an older woman shares how she was gang raped on several occasions during her escape and was so humiliated to reveal to you that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease as a result of that repeated violation. Another one of my 'declines'. So I don't automatically leap to the defence of those that seek refugee status.

A young Iraqi refugee in Syria: An Iraqi refugee boy stands beside his mother, who holds her registration certificate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Photo by Catholic Relief Services (CC)



That being said even as a 'jaded' ex-officer I can't help but get frustrated at how damaging media coverage of the plight of refugees is. Not just to the target of the vehement reaction but society as a whole. The Australian media drive fuelled by a recent influx of "boat people", politics and immigration policy has very effectively polarised the general public into being either for/against refugees. It isn't as simple as that but given the level of xenophobia in this country it has been an effective strategy.

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and the countries that have ratified it have agreed to receive and protect refugees. There are two types of refugees - spontaneous claimants (those that are the subject of the attention recently) and quota refugees. The major difference is that spontaneous claims are made onshore, i.e. when they have landed in the country where the claim is lodged. That is where I came in – I 'determined' whether the claim to refugee status was legitimate and fell within the very specific grounds of the Refugee Convention. This was done by way of a thorough investigation of the country conditions, the claim made on paper and then intensive interviewing of the claimant to establish credibility and details. The process was intense for all parties. My longest interview ran for 12 hours (not in one go!). I still declined the guy.

Quota refugees, are those that have made it (this is a feat of human endurance in itself) to an UNHCR camps globally and lodge their claims with them. They're often the ones that may receive a 'welcome with open arms'. I often wonder how much of that is actually driven by the legacy of previous refugee intakes following the world wars. Something about a Kodak moment perhaps?

True refugee determination is not immigration, here as across the Tasman, the decision making process has been converged with immigration departments largely because the avenue is heavily used by those "shopping" for means to gain entry/migrate to a country. As an officer there was never anything more rewarding than to write the magic words on a decision "Mr X's claim to refugee status has been accepted". It came so rarely but was so sweet when it happened. We can't forget that refugee status is a RIGHT not a privilege and it is only given to the exceptional few that can actually meet the grounds. It really is not as easy as the media would lead us to believe.

A refugee from Somalia, Mohammed Hussein Abdi, 42, describes how Somalia's Islamic militias assaulted him during their takeover of the port city of Kismayo last month. Abdi is among 14,000 Somali refugees who've arrived in northeastern Kenya since September. (Shashank Bengali/MCT)

What do you think? Is toughening up on "refugees" the same as rigorous immigration policy and preventing the criminal activities of people smugglers?

Saturday 20 June is World Refugee Day

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