Refuge Beyond Reach

Gershom Gorenberg

And now, from somewhere else. My new article on Australia’s controversy over boat people is up at The American Prospect:

Hikmat wore small frameless glasses and a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, and the dark waves of his hair were combed perfectly. He looked as if he might have just stepped out of the office of his export firm in Karachi. In fact, it’s been nearly three years since he fled Pakistan. His uncle, a Taliban supporter, had been trying to extort money from him for the organization, and saw him and his wife as “infidels”: Hikmat was clean-shaven; his wife wore no hijab. Twice, gunmen ambushed him on the street. The first time, bullets ripped his intestines; he spent two years in the hospital. After surviving a second shooting, he left his homeland.

Hikmat met me at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. The nonprofit works out of a converted house in Surry Hills, a gentrifying neighborhood of bike paths, cafés, and spreading eucalyptus trees. He came to Australia, Hikmat said, because he could to get a short-term business visa quickly and bring his wife and three children with him. Afterward they applied for asylum. They live in housing provided by a church-funded group. He’s 44 years old, beginning to gray. Starting over in business requires money he doesn’t have. On and off, he works as a security guard.

Among refugees here, Hikmat is a lucky man.He received asylum status, with the permanent visa that brings, just three months after he applied. His scars, perhaps, proved that he met the international legal standard of having a “well-founded fear of persecution” in his home country. A Centre staffer, listening to his account, said this was the “quickest [positive decision] I ever heard of.” The Australian asylum process can drag on through years of rejections and appeals.

Besides that, Hikmat was fortunate to arrive by plane. It’s refugees who come across the sea in crowded, frail boats who draw public attention, who are again the center of a political storm, who under the latest decisions of the Australian government can be consigned indefinitely to detention centers on remote Islands.

Eleven years ago Liberal Prime Minister John Howard (Australia’s Liberals are its conservative party) manipulated the plight of boat people to win re-election. Now boats are coming again, from Sri Lanka across the Indian Ocean or from Indonesia to the north, carrying people from as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq. Labor is in government, facing elections within the year—and trying to prove to voters that it can also get tough on “border control.”

Read the rest here.

Gershom Gorenberg