Here in Australia we are inundated with reports from our government of a supposedly unsustainable deluge of asylum seekers. The government hastens to implement morally and legally questionable policies to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia. It is obsessed with trying to “stop the boats”, ignoring the fact that the Refugee Convention does not penalise asylum seekers for their mode of arrival, whether by plane or boat.
The United Nations and Australian refugee advocates have repeatedly condemned the government’s asylum seeker policies as cruel and unlawful, especially in relation to mandatory detention and its offshore detention regime.
Symptomatic of the government’s irrational preoccupation is changing the name of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This is not merely semantics, but evidence of the government’s psychological paranoia regarding asylum seekers and their demonisation as “criminals” seeking to wreak havoc on our society.
Last year I caught a glimpse of what an actual deluge of asylum seekers looks like.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a mass exodus of Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. In Syria itself, there are over seven million internally displaced persons. Lebanon is hosting over one million Syrian refugees, despite having a population of just over four million.
Comparatively, between the years of 2011 to 2013, Australia received a total of 40,863 onshore applications for plane and boat arrivals. That is not even five per cent of the entire number of refugees who have gone into Lebanon since the start of the 2011 uprising.
In 2012 I volunteered with a few Syrian asylum seekers who had been able to make their way to Australia. The harrowing details of their stories were heartbreaking and their courage in the face of great adversity was inspirational.
I travelled to Lebanon in August last year to celebrate a cousin’s wedding. I could not begin to fathom that just over the border, mass atrocities against humanity and a huge loss of life were taking place. It was easy to forget, as I was staying in a rural village cocooned from a war that was happening only a few miles away.
On our way back from the city on one occasion, my uncle pointed out an informal refugee settlement. A rubbish-infested river ran alongside the makeshift camp. I was disturbed by the conditions that the refugees had to live in. I could not remove the image from my mind for the rest of that day.
I also vividly recall one sweltering day in Beirut. It is towards the end of summer, but the heat is still relentless. We are once again stuck in a traffic jam. I see a little Syrian girl on the street weaving in between stopped cars attempting to sell tissues. She is either ignored or given a dismissive wave. She looks no older than seven or eight years old.
The traffic moves along and I lose sight of her. As we stop yet again I happen to catch the eye of a young Syrian boy working on the street. He smiles at me. I am a little taken aback. I tentatively smile back. He starts to giggle and casts his eyes down. I laugh with him. Our car moves along and I keep my eyes on his smiling face until I can no longer see him.
This small exchange is seared in my memory. I could not believe that this child had the capacity to be joyful in such a situation. He filled me with hope. He had not been completely broken.
“Australia cannot even handle a few boats without proclaiming that we are being flooded. It is time the Australian government put its fears in perspective.”
Grave fears are held for Syrian children who will be the ones to rebuild their country one day. Many of them are unable to access education and are forced to participate in child labour to support their families. They are deeply traumatised from their experiences of the conflict and have seen first-hand extreme violence and the death of family members. The numbers are staggering; 6.5 million Syrian children are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Later on, I attended a children’s party at a local restaurant. Here the children were laughing, playing and having fun with each other. The Syrian children on the street did not escape my mind. This was what they should they be doing. The unfairness of it all struck me.
I picked up on the brewing tension between the host population and the Syrian refugees during my stay. This conflict has generated a multiplicity of complex questions and there are no straightforward answers. Lebanese people are also experiencing financial destitution and the country’s resources are being depleted significantly.
Lebanon does not have the capacity to host over one million extra people but is forced to. International agencies and local non-governmental organisations are working tirelessly to relieve the stress of such a severe burden on this tiny country, but they are struggling to face the immense challenges.
I returned to Australia, but not without a profound feeling that something had shifted in my world. I kept thinking about the young boy. He represented the lost generation that is said to be the future of Syria.
I also felt more ashamed of our Australian government than ever before. The introduction of the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment bill and the continuing operation of offshore facilities in Nauru and Manus Island are proof that the Australian government is out of touch with the rest of the world.
Lebanon generously opened its doors to the fleeing Syrians in the beginning. Now, however, dire economic and security issues plague the country from the unexpected serious influx of over one million people. Australia cannot even handle a few boats without proclaiming that we are being flooded. It is time the Australian government put its fears in perspective.
For now, I will go back to my privileged existence, like so many of us, and forget just how lucky I am. Until, that is, I am reminded that far beyond our peaceful shores, a real refugee crisis is occurring.
Jinane Ghazale is a recently admitted Australian solicitor. She currently volunteers at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne and has a strong interest in refugee issues, especially within a Middle Eastern context.
Feature image: Rashaya, Lebanon by Jinane Ghazale.