essay: Asylum Seekers


Asylum  Seekers                                                                                                                        3.6.13

For 6 months I’ve been working on Thursdays and Fridays in Joslin Clinic, a community health centre that sees Footscray’s diverse population and a significant number of asylum seekers.  I assess 2-3 newly arrived ones most weeks and about the same number of those who have been here longer and already had their basic health assessment.

Currently most are from Sri Lanka (Tamils), Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, with a few from Burma.  Those from Asia Minor generally travel overland through Pakistan to Indonesia , before hooking up with a people smuggler and making the perilous voyage south by leaky, overcrowded boat to northern Australia.  Sri Lankans often voyage direct across the Indian Ocean.  Many boats have foundered; many men, women and children have perished.  All who make it have spent several months incarcerated on Christmas Island and mainland detention centres in WA, NT, Tasmania and Victoria before release into the Melbourne community on a ‘bridging visa’.  There is then a further wait of several months for assessment as to whether they have a valid claim for asylum and a protection visa.  Most speak little or no English – fortunately in health care we have access to good quality interpreter services.  A small number of men and women remain in ‘no man’s land’, detained indefinitely because ASIO deems them to be a threat to our national security.

Those on bridging visas whose health I assess have access to medicare and free vaccination, but are not allowed to work and survive on charity from Red Cross and government-funded resettlement agencies.  Many are severely traumatized by torture, terror and horror in war zones, including the violent death of family and friends and the rigours and near-death experiences of the perilous  boat trips to Australia.  Some will need specialized counselling for years; a few seem too psychologically unwell to be able to work in the foreseeable future.  One young Iraqi man claims to be in severe physical pain but without obvious cause despite investigations – is he malingering with a pension in mind, or is his pain psychogenic?  Another physically robust young Tamil male tries to kiss my feet in apology for some perceived misdemeanour – his guilt at getting drunk, I think.  Some are physically unwell with exotic illnesses poorly assessed and treated in their country of origin, often because health infrastructure is damaged or rudimentary.  Others are fit and very keen to work.  There is significant mortal risk in trying to reach Australia in an unseaworthy boat arranged by a criminal, and clearly many perish en route, including significant numbers of women and children.

My own attitude to how to deal with these desperate people is sympathetic and evolving.  There will always be war zones and refugees; we are a wealthy country and should be able to settle a large number of genuine asylum seekers, as opposed to economic refugees – it is my impression that relatively few fall into that category.  Clearly everyone involved would prefer a safe, orderly immigration process rather than mortally dangerous boat journeys organized by criminals; but the queues and waiting periods for orderly processing are very long indeed, so there are large numbers of desperate asylum seekers.  It seems a matter of common humanity that claims should be processed as quickly as possible.  I understand that our federal labor government is negotiating with other regional nations to try to create a sound regional framework for assessment and resettlement, with help from the UN to share resettlement with other developed countries.  Criminal activity needs to be dealt with effectively – this raises issues around corruption in Indonesia and Malaysia, and Australia’s relationship with these and other regional nations.  Federal coalition policy to turn the boats back to Indonesia is dangerous and stupid, not least because Indonesia won’t agree to it.

The Australian Red Cross has just released its first “Vulnerability Report” on asylum seekers.  Its findings are that they exist in a painful, protracted state of uncertainty; encounter much difficulty accessing legal help; are often distressingly isolated;  live a precarious poverty-stricken existence once released into the community (some are ‘living rough’); that when adequately supported most  may recover: “the human spirit is resilient”.  Its recommendations to Australian governments, federal and state, are that asylum seekers should spend the shortest possible time in detention centres – that the rapid processing of Protection Visas be adequately resourced; that those living in the community on Bridging Visas be granted immediate rights to work; that basic living allowance and supports must be adequate for their needs, no less than for indigent Australians, and that all facets of community care be improved, especially housing.

Vulnerable asylum seekers are at great risk of exploitation, and there is also a present risk that our insufficient processing facilities will be overwhelmed.  It seems reasonable that granting of residency visas should be subject to probationary arrangements prohibiting criminal or terrorist activities; that those granted asylum should be expected to accept the laws  and customs of this society, and well supported to adapt.



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