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Australia's 'stop the boats' policy

One Afghan man does not reject "economic migrant" theory but says asylum laws leave no option for genuine refugees.
Last modified: 27 Oct 2013 14:37
In a bid to "stop the boats", Australia's government is taking an ever-tougher line towards those who make the perilous journey to its shores

Obaidullah Mehak says his father, brothers and sisters were all murdered by the Taliban - and he feared he would be next.

Gunmen tried to kill him, he says. Mehak has a scar on his ankle where he says he was shot.

All this because Mehak worked for a foreign-funded human-rights group in Kabul that the Taliban did not like.

On the face of it, there is little doubt that when he fled Afghanistan, Mehak was fleeing persecution.

You might think that he'd have every right to be considered a refugee, in whichever country he ended up. But Australia does not see it that way.

Mehak came to Australia by boat, and claimed asylum when he arrived. He hoped that, once he was found to be a refugee, he would be allowed to stay and bring his wife and mother across too.

He hoped his life could then restart.

But in a bid to "stop the boats", Australia's government is taking an ever-tougher line towards those who make the perilous journey to its shores.

Tough-policy logic

The theory is that the tougher the policy is towards people who make the journey, the less likely it is that others will follow.

For years, asylum-seekers were detained in prison-like conditions while their status as refugees was assessed. But - even if it took months or years - ultimately, most people were eventually found to be refugees.

As Australia's international obligation is to offer settlement to such people, they got to stay.

Would-be asylum-seekers saw what was happening and, even though they knew they'd spend months or years in detention before they got Australian residency, they kept coming, in ever-greater numbers.

So the government toughened its policy to the point where, now, any asylum-seeker who arrives by boat is transferred to another country - either Papua New Guinea or Nauru - for their claim to be a refugee to be assessed there.

Even if they are refugees, those people will never be settled in Australia.

There was, though, a period of time between the policy of mandatory detention of all asylum-seekers who came by boat and the new, even tougher policy - effectively the deportation of boat arrivals.

In-betweeners

During that period, those people in detention already were let out in order to create temporary space for new arrivals who'd set foot on Australian soil, before they were deported elsewhere.

Obaidullah Mehak was one of those in-betweeners. And he now finds himself in limbo.

Mehak is living in Melbourne, out of detention, on a so-called bridging visa.

He's not allowed to work and is living on a subsistence government grant of a few hundred dollars a month.

All Mehak wants is to have his claim to be a refugee assessed - but there is no medium-term prospect of that.

He is a very low priority for a government that has made it quite clear they wish he hadn't come.

Mehak, a well-educated, well-spoken man who says he spent his life in Afghanistan fighting repression and injustice, now finds himself - in Australia - unjustly repressed.

Yet Mehak does not entirely disagree with the government's policy.

False accounts

An argument often made by politicians in Australia is that many "asylum-seekers" are not actually seeking asylum from persecution but rather from poverty, that they are economic migrants rather than genuine refugees.

Mehak - to my surprise - agrees. Most of those on the boat he took to Australia, he thinks, were planning to give false accounts of their lives in order to qualify for refugee status.

He doesn't think any of them deserved it.

Mehak's issue with Australia's policies towards asylum-seekers is that it leaves no option for genuine refugees.

He finds the argument that refugees should join a "queue" - applying for refugee status in other countries in the hope of being resettled, ultimately, in Australia - laughable.

"There is no queue," he tells me.

His only option was to a take a boat. But he's not sure what life it has taken him to.

Mehak has no idea how long he'll be able to stay in Australia. He feels his life and his skills are slipping away.

And Mehak's wife and mother are still in Afghanistan, still in fear of their lives.

"What is life," he asks me, "without them"?