By Jane Cattermole
March 5, 2013
I recently attended the Perth Writer’s Festival and heard heard refugees tell their own stories and describe the mistrust and bitterness they felt from some Australians. Laura Tingle moderated the forum on ‘Refugees: Where do they come from?’ and the panel was:
Robin de Crespigny, Author of The People Smuggler and winner of the 25th Human Rights Award for Literature
Kooshyar Karimi, Refugee, Author of I Confess: Revelations in Exile and General Practitioner
Carina Hoang, Refugee, Author of Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnamese Exodus and a Special Representative of Australia for UNHCR
Robin’s book tells the true story of Ali Al Jenabi, who fled Saddam Hussain’s torture chambers and became a people smuggler to get his family to safety. He became known as the Oskar Schindler of Asia.
Kooshyar’s story began in the post-revolutionary bloodshed of the Iran-Iraq war. He practised medicine and helped desperate women and girls who had been raped terminate their resulting pregnancies. He was kidnapped and tortured over 65 days and then had to spy on his own people or be slowly tortured to death. He smuggled his wife and children out of Iran into Turkey where he hid for more than a year before the UNHCR granted him refugee status. He now lives in Sydney and works as a GP near Newcastle.
Carina was the eldest of seven children living in Saigon during the Vietnam war. After four years living under communist rule and not knowing the whereabouts of her father, Carina, still a teenager, set out for a new life with her younger brother and sister. They had seven gruelling days at sea, ran out of food and saw people die, were attacked by pirates and tossed around by violent storms. They landed in Indonesia and taken by authorities to an uninhabited island where they lived for a year. Carina was finally granted refugee status and lived in America before settling in Australia with her husband and daughter.
As you can imagine their stories of persecution, war, torture and escape were harrowing, but I will focus on their responses to these questions from Laura:
We have a federal election coming up. If there was one thing you could get changed about refugee policy in Australia what would it be? Would it just be increasing the humanitarian intake? Also there are questions about processing and all that sort of stuff, or would it be onshore versus offshore. What would be the one thing, that if a politician was actually going to be brave in this debate, what would you like to see them do?
Carina Hoang’s Response:
‘I have been processed in the jungle without food, without medicines and I was still happy with this because I was processed so offshore or onshore is not a main problem for us as long as we were given a chance and given an indication of what our future would be like. I think that would be the most helpful for us. For the refugees in the camp it would be to increase the quota…
‘I’m learning now about the situation of the past, but we all can learn from the past which is detention centres in Hong Kong for the Vietnamese refugees then caused riots after riots for years. There were incidents where they had to call in 3,000 policemen one night to put out fires. In fact one night 26 women and children were burned to death. That was the kind of situation you had in detention centres. It didn’t happen in Malaysia who showed kindness when the Vietnamese boat people were there.’
Kooshyar said he first had to convince the United Nations authorities of his story. ‘You have to show the United Nations something so they believe you. They ask you what you have, what evidence you have.You have to prove to the United Nation officers that if you go back to your country you will be executed. So all you have is a story. You have to tell them and if they’re convinced and they believe you, they will support you. My story is in the end I was lucky.’
He said he met a Turkish man who helped him find accommodation and who believed his story and understood his need for anonymity. He was at the mercy of this stranger he had just met who turned out to be his saviour.
‘This man believed me that I am a doctor, that I’m a decent person, that I’m not a criminal, and he went with it and he trusted with his heart and he helped me. No argument, he really saved my life. About ten months later when I was leaving Turkey – I was in a different town then because police send you to different parts – he came five hours drive back to that town to say goodbye to me. We are still in contact. Turkey is a poor country and he just gave what he could.
‘He really trusted me so why can’t Australian people be as hospitable and take that risk. That’s the thing I do not understand about Australia. In Turkey I was free to go and live with other people and go to the police station and sign a paper every day so the police knew that I’m in town. But why in Australia they put people in a detention centre. I feel really lucky to be in Australia, I love this country. If in Turkey they put me in a detention centre I would be definitely suicidal, I can guarantee now. I would have lost my sanity. That isn’t fair to do that.’
‘Well I was going to say to stop mandatory detention but Kooshyar just said it. My second one would be that we take ten thousand, twenty thousand off the immigration quota which is 200,000 people a year. So we do hear people complaining that we don’t have the infrastructure to support these few thousand people who come here by boats yet we very casually and happily take 200,000 a year of people that emigrate here. I would take at least 20,000 off that and add it to the quota of people who come here. Maybe 10,000 on the quota that come here with the United Nations, and that’s six and a half thousand that we take a year which is so small. So that’s 26,000 and then up the humanitarian quota which is 17,500 and add another 10,000 to that and we would probably find that we would clear Indonesia in one year. They think there’s only 7,000 in detention there and another 3,000 on the run that they could capture so it’s a very small amount to take off 200,000 but it’s a huge amount to add to the number of refugees it would take. I just don’t think that we can stand up in the world and have justification for the numbers that we do take and think of ourselves as fair.’