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Where do refugees stand on the asylum debate?
As the Federal government's expert panel prepares to hand down its findings, Australia's refugee communities provide their insights to the debate that has divided policy and public.
Against a backdrop of political deadlock, a divided public, and sometimes limited media perspectives, boats carrying asylum seekers keep arriving in Australian waters.
But what of Australia’s existing refugee communities? Their voices in the asylum-seeker debate often go unheard, maybe because they lack strength of voice, or are shy of criticism, or perhaps they simply have not been asked.
In the weeks before the Federal Government’s expert group on asylum seeker policy hands down its recommendations, SBS has sought a range of opinions from members of Australia’s refugee communities.
Their surprisingly different stands on the issue reflect their individual experiences and the diversity of opinion within their communities.
VIETNAMESE “We were the boat people of the 1970s”
As a five-year-old, Tri Vo was one of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people who fled after the Communist victory in the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
Today, he is the President of a community group calling itself the Vietnamese Community in Australia.
“The Australian political parties, especially the major political parties, should try to find a long-term solution to the asylum issue and they should treat this issue as more of a humanitarian issue, rather than one of political point scoring.
“And when we do that the neighbouring countries will be more willing to discuss ways that they would be able to help Australia in solving the asylum issue and the people smuggling issue,”
But Vietnamese Australians have in the past been the target of criticism over their silence on the issue of asylum seekers, even from within their own ranks.
Hội thoại về thuyền nhân/Hear this debate on SBS Vietnamese Radio:
The former President of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, Phong Nguyen, says there's widespread support for asylum seekers among Vietnamese migrants in Australia.
“When the (Federal) leadership are confusing, contradictory and even aggressive towards refugees, then quite understandably, the rest of the population are divisive and confused.
“That is what I believe [has caused] the confused situation, the fear of people to contradict the government, to contradict the so-called perceived Status Quo of the majority, [of] a number of rednecks, people who are racist and anti-migrant, anti-refugee, has caused this confusion and fear and hesitation within our community,” Mr Nguyen said.
Mr Vo says most Vietnamese Australians believe asylum seekers who arrive by boat deserve to stay in Australia.
“We know how hard it is to leave everything behind and get on a small flimsy boat with about 100 or 200 people on board going out into the vast ocean without being certain of the future,’ Mr Vo said.
“Therefore, the people doing it, in our view, must have a good reason and deserve to have a proper hearing and careful consideration about their cases and while waiting, whether on shore or off shore, they must be treated humanely,’ he said.
Listen to part one of SBS Radio's three-part podcast:
Asylum Voices: More refugee voice
AFGHAN: “I am for off-shore processing because it’s safer”
Afghan-Australians are a more recent group of humanitarian arrivals, and some have come by boat.
The Director of the Afghan-Australian Development Organisation, Dr Nouria Salehi, says earlier generations of Afghan-Australians strongly oppose Australia's acceptance of asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
Dr Salehi says Australia's continuation to do so is a source of frustration within her community.
“From 2001 boats arrived full of people claiming to be Afghans and in reality they are not Afghans and you can't find among them Afghans. Maybe two or three per cent. Not more than that.
“These people, they came from Pakistan and from Saudi Arabia and also from Iran pretending that they are Afghans and pretending that they suffered inside of Afghanistan and something unfortunate arrived that the Australian government knew and knows again that they were not genuine refugees, but they started accepting them.
Director of the Afghan-Australian Development Organisation, Dr Nouria Salehi, says she has written many times to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen expressing her willingness to share her community's views on how Australia should approach the asylum seeker issue.
She says she has even personally handed a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The Afghan-born nuclear physicist argues that the way so-called 'boat people' have dominated the political debate shows how all the major political parties are keen to divert public attention from what she believes to be more pressing humanitarian issues.
“I hope that our prime minister establishes a policy to help the people that really need help, a policy that the voiceless people can benefit from it, a policy that they say look we put some money and sent these refugees back inside of their country and gave them a shelter.”
CAMBODIAN - “The issue is actually a security concern”
Some of Australia’s Cambodian Australian community were among the thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees who fled the region by boat in the 1970s and 80s and ended up in Australia.
Katie Sokunthea Phon is the Director of the Melbourne-based Cambodian Association of Australia.
Ms Phon says some Australian Cambodians see the recent arrival of asylum-seekers by sea as a potential threat to security.
“They fear that our country (Australia) is at risk because so many asylum seekers keep coming and we don't know is going to be a genuine asylum seeker. That's the issue. So the issue is actually a security concern for our country,” Ms Pon said.
SOUTH SUDANESE – “We didn't have money like refugees who are jumping the queue”
The South Sudanese community is one of the nation’s youngest and fastest-growing migrant groups, with many of its members arriving under Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
Daniel Lee is the President of the Council of South Sudanese Communities in Queensland, a community that's said to widely subscribe to the view that asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are so-called 'queue jumpers'.
“Most of us or all of us didn't have money to do the same stuff as the refugees who are jumping the queue, if that term is correct, who are coming by boat,” he said.
“We understand that most of them pay thousands of dollars to jump on the boat and to get on Australian’s shores by all means,” Mr Lee said.
“It doesn't really cause us anger, but it's the fact that we are trying to see if the Australian government can try to find a solution to how to process the cases in a fair way, when we look back at our own struggle,” he said.
Community spokesman Mading Malek says he believes there's a prevailing sense among the South Sudanese in Australia that a more humanitarian approach should be taken.
“I can see my community are now well connected to their local members so that they can push these things through and can also understand the political context of Australia itself,” Mr Malek said.
Listen to part two of SBS Radio's three-part podcast:
Asylum Voices: What refugees think about asylum seeekers
POLISH - “Everyone should come the same way like our emigration”
Thousands of European refugees were accepted by Australia after the Second World War, and refugees from Poland were one sizeable group.
According to the vice-president of the national body representing Polish community groups in Australia, Leszek Wikarjus, the asylum seeker issue is not a priority for Polish Australians, but they do have an official stand on the issue.
“Generally, the feeling is that everyone should come the same way like our emigration came after post-Solidarity movement in Poland,” Mr Wikarjus said.
“We went to various camps in Europe and I think some even in Asia and we applied to the Australian government for the visa. And we have been political refugees and we asked for asylum and we believe that is the proper way of entering the country,” he said.
IRAQI – “I wouldn't do it again”
Iraqi-born Mueen al-Breihi says if he were faced with the choice of boarding a boat to Australia today, he wouldn't make the journey again.
“Just last week I met with an Iraqi young man, an asylum seeker who arrived in Australia 16 months’ ago, who lost his uncles and aunts and other relatives in the boat that at the time was called the SIEV X tragedy in 2001, but he didn't stop from coming to Australia,” Mr al-Breihi said.
محنة لاجئي القوارب Hear this debate on SBS Arabic Radio:
“This means there are desperate reasons that make people to come” He said.
But he says he sees reason why, despite the danger, many others still do, and he believes any attempt to deter boats from coming to Australia is destined to fail.
“We strongly believe that John Howard's government won the elections over the issue. And we don't want that to happen again,” he said.
Instead, he believes, the Australian government should look at ways to help more asylum seekers get to Australia.
Listen to part three of SBS Radio's three-part podcast:
Asylum Voices: Excluded from the debate
WHAT REFUGEE ADVOCATES SAY
ChilOut spokeswoman and refugee advocate Sophie Peer says the current asylum seeker debate has mostly lacked a strong voice from these communities.
“Certainly on a national scale, there is some strength of voice missing and amplification certainly needed to get across, unfortunately, what are complex stories and don't fit into soundbites,” she said.
The peak body representing Australia's ethnic communities says it is concerned about the nature of the political debate on asylum seekers, and has not hesitated to make its views known.
Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia deputy chairman, Dr Sundram Sivamalai, says it fears the well-being of people seeking protection in Australia is not a political priority.
Dr Sivamalai says he would like to see more avenues made available for Australia's migrant and refugee communities to have their views on asylum policy more widely heard.
“Not to forget, I think the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia is for the migrants who, when we were to classify, is slightly divorced from the definition of refugees,” he said.
“Certainly the refugees are partly as migrants, but certainly when they have the refugee status we like to make sure that the Refugee Council of Australia has the peak role in these issues,” he said.
According to refugee advocate Marion Le, it's the stories of why people risk boat journeys on perilous seas to reach Australia that should be the focus of a federal parliamentary inquiry.
Ms Le says the Vietnamese community could help people better understand the experience of asylum seekers that arrive by sea, but she believes it has largely remained silent on the issue.
“There are indeed thousands of Vietnamese people who came here by boat and are now in the community,” Mrs Le said.
“They are Australian citizens. They are raising their children, and I haven't, unfortunately, heard them speaking up in favour of people getting a fair go when they are putting to sea the way that unfortunately these people are having to do.”