Hope and frustration coalesce in Big Issue asylum seeker edition

By Veronica Sullivan | 24 Jun 15

Safer Shores: Facing refugees and asylum seekers | Big Issue

As a publication whose very existence is predicated on supporting its homeless and long-term unemployed vendors, independent magazine The Big Issue is acutely aware of the need for sensitivity and respect when representing the lives of marginalised groups.

Its recent ‘Safer Shores’ edition, dedicated to the stories of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, upholds this practice while offering a significant insight into their lives and experiences.

Two particular themes recur throughout this special issue of the beloved magazine, in no way an intentional act, but because they constitute the emergent realities of this country’s current refugee crisis.

Firstly, those who flee do so because their life in their home country has become truly inhumane and their living situation untenable.

Secondly, those who reach Australia safely and make a home here, whether it be as a permanent citizen or on a bridging visa, exhibit extraordinary grace and gratitude for the opportunities they’re offered, and are determined to get on with the business of living.

The edition’s respectful reportage draws heavily on first-hand testimonies and the accounts of asylum seekers themselves, rather than editorialising and moralising their experiences, or attempting to transform or diminish individuals into mere symbols for a cause.

In a transcribed interview, Sara, an Iranian woman, describes arriving at a Darwin detention centre as “like heaven”.

“I felt I was in a very safe place… The reason I’m saying the camp was not that bad (is that) I’m comparing my life to that of a dead person.”

Sara gives a frank account of her time in the detention centre – the inedible food, the sick children, the bureaucracy designed to isolate asylum seekers and silence the sheer thought of dissent. Her background was as an interpreter in Tehran, and she worked as an unofficial translator for her fellow asylum seekers, writing letters of complaint and requests for healthcare for those who did not speak English. This part of the experience, Sara says, was a blessing: “I think the best thing I did was helping people. I loved it. I thank God for it.”

The articles in ‘Safer Shores’ constitute a striking body of evidence, demonstrating the need for compassion and proper understanding of the circumstances that displace families from unstable regions. A highlight of the edition is Angelica Neville’s excellent investigative article on the convoluted and obstructive visa systems some countries – including Australia – will instigate in order to prevent refugees from migrating via lawful means.

The awful, Kafkaesque frustrations of the Australian visa process are evoked by the experience of Moheeba, an elderly Afghani man, who fled to Pakistan and then Indonesia to escape the Taliban.

“When you cannot bear it anymore, then you migrate. You migrate to save your life.”

Though Moheeba’s refugee status has been recognised by the UNHCR, he has now been in limbo in Jakarta for four years as he waits for an embassy to accept his application for resettlement.

There is a strong focus on photographic testimonies, including many searing and powerfully composed images of asylum seekers. The edition’s coverboy, 17-year-old Isaach Mach, came to Australia via a refugee camp in Kenya. His advice to Big Issue readers and to other asylum seekers is, “Try your best at everything, don’t let anyone put you down. And hard work pays off.” The arresting photo of Isaach is included in the Beyond Borders project, created by the MAPgroup association of photographers.

Taking a more particular approach, photographer Andy Drewitt’s stunning series ‘Freedom’ is a collection of images of refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia. His photos show the “simple pleasures, hobbies and pastimes” people turn to when they no longer fear for their lives on a daily basis.

“To separate them would be to deny the humanity of those who live on the margins; to infantilise and separate them from the ubiquity and apparent normality of popular culture.”

Drewitt’s work juxtaposes the visual serenity of the images – refugees playing sports, reading and gardening – with their stories of the devastating environments from which they have escaped, from civil war in Somalia and the horrors of Auschwitz to a Burmese refugee camp. His photos are full of contrasts, as the shadows that leak beyond the images’ edges are broken up primarily by bright smiles and open faces. His work effectively conveys the universality of human experiences and motivations.

The ‘Safer Shores’ edition strikes a difficult balance. Harrowing stories of escape from war-torn environments, and tales of the trauma and mental illness provoked by the trial of immigration, sit (sometimes uneasily) alongside the topical humour and pop culture critiques of the Big Issue’s regular contributors and columnists.

If this rapid switch in tone is occasionally disconcerting, it does not detract from the magazine’s significance or impact. In fact, this is also, actually, the whole point: the stories of refugees and asylum seekers – and of homeless, disadvantaged and long-term unemployed Australians, too – exist alongside a review of Mad Max: Fury Road and a feature about the evolution of Choose Your Own Adventure books.

To separate them would be to deny the humanity of those who live on the margins; to infantilise and separate them from the ubiquity and apparent normality of popular culture. The Big Issue affords all people their dignity and humanity, even as it reveals the governments and systems that actively work to deny these rights to asylum seekers.

Veronica Sullivan is Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings journal. She tweets @veronicaahhh

Feature image: Takver/Flickr