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AUSTRALIA: For Some Refugees, Not Yet the Land of ‘Fair Go’

Jessie Boylan

MELBOURNE, Australia, May 6 2010 (IPS) - After nearly 10 years of living in Australia, Sri Lanka-born Ramesh Fernandez is convinced nothing much has changed for refugees in the land of the ‘fair go’.

A Tamil who fled his homeland on a boat in 2001, Fernandez spent three years on various islands and outback detention centres before being resettled in Melbourne to start a new life.

“Every day people ask me, ‘where are you from?’” says Fernandez. “Every day they ask me. And if I tell them that I’m from Doncaster, they say ‘no, which country?’ and if I say ‘Australia’ they just give me a weird look.”

When Kevin Rudd’s Labor government took over from the conservatives in 2007, there was much hope that policies would change.

“(But) nothing has changed morally and ethically,” said Fernandez. “It has changed in the paperwork, but not (in reality). Rudd’s government says that policies have changed, but it’s not working. People are still being detained; they’re being kept in isolation facilities for a number of years. So I don’t think the government is looking at a fair go for refugees.”

But for Pino Migliorino of Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, the Rudd government has at least abolished the temporary protection visas that “rendered asylum seekers stateless”.

“A policy of detention of asylum seekers as a last resort has been implemented, although the policy of offshore detention and processing of asylum seekers with reduced rights remains in place,” he said.

Processing takes place at the Christmas Island Detention Centre, which the government re-opened in 2008. Located 1,565 kilometres off Australia’s north-west coast, it is well beyond its official capacity of 2,040 people, as boats from Indonesia, carrying people from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, continue to be intercepted by the navy, news reports say.

But in early April and as it came under fire for being weak on boat arrivals ahead of polls due in December, the Rudd government suspended the processing of asylum applications by Sri Lankans and Afghans.

“These changes send a strong message to people smugglers that they cannot guarantee a visa outcome,” Immigration Minister Chris Evans said. Applications by Sri Lankans were put on hold for three months, and for Afghans, six months.

A total of 4,750 people sought asylum in Australia in 2008, compared to 3,980 people in 2007 and the 13,000 claims made in 2000, based on United Nations data. These numbers are tiny compared to applications in the United States, Canada, France, Italy and Britain.

Asylum seekers wait for months, sometimes years, to be processed on Christmas Island, where there is no time limit for the processing of claims.

Linda Briskman from Curtin University, an expert in asylum seekers, wants processing on Christmas Island to cease. “The government has dug itself into a deep hole with the facility (there),” Briskman told IPS.

“It is expensive, a vast over-reaction to the small number of boat arrivals and requires services to be brought from the mainland including lawyers, migration agents, counsellors, interpreters and even food.”

Australia’s determination to stop human smuggling “does not resolve the issue that people will always seek safe haven when fleeing dire conditions in their home countries,” Briskman pointed out.

“Australia is increasingly being regarded as a wealthy nation, which has no qualms about shifting its responsibilities for refugee protection to neighbouring countries with fewer resources,” said John Gibson, director of the Refugee Council of Australia. “Not only is this perception damaging Australia’s reputation in the region, it threatens to undermine longer-term efforts to build regional cooperation on refugee protection.”

If they are accepted as asylum seekers and not ordinary migrants, refugees do not always find integration into Australian society easy.

“The community faces discrimination all around Victoria. Australia is 20 years behind every other country, I swear… People don’t think this is a racist country, but it definitely is,” said Fernandez, founder of RISE, a Melbourne- based group for refugees, survivors and former detainees.

“Australia is multicultural and has been for a long time,” said Nicky Hyams, who lives in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. “However, there is still a minority that is racist, but it’s not across the board, especially in cities like Sydney and Melbourne.”

“Although Australia is indeed a thriving multicultural society, there is still an underbelly of racism that has been present since colonisation and reinforced by the White Australia Policy,” Briskman said, referring to the policy that restricted ‘non-white’ immigration from 1901 to 1973. Today, Australia’s 200 nationalities have created a rich tapestry of cultures.

Still, it is not always easy to identify with what refugees here go through, concedes Hyams. “The average Melbournian doesn’t have a clue what it’s like to come from a war-torn country, because we’re pretty lucky here.”

“The general view of asylum seekers is that we drain the welfare system and that we can’t help ourselves,” said 21-year-old Nawal Ali, a Somalian-born student and refugee activist. “But it couldn’t be further from the truth…. We study, we work with communities who want to make a better life for themselves.”

“Growing up in Australia, I’ve been exposed to this idea and general attitude in society that migrants aren’t welcome, and if they are, they must assimilate and in doing so become ‘whitewashed’ in the process,” she said. “(We’re) here to challenge those kinds of views and be proud of ourselves and other refugees as well.”

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