By: Liza Schuster
Here in Kabul, when describing to Afghans in Kabul, the response of European, including British, and Australian governments to Afghan refugees, my overwhelming emotion is one of shame and anger. At least 6 million Afghans have sought refuge outside their country, and more than 5 million of them found it with their neighbours, Iran and Pakistan. Those these countries have become a lot less hospitable, they throw the mean-spiritedness of much wealthier states into sharp relief.
I have studied migration for more than 20 years, spent much of my time interviewing migrants, hosted quite a few in my home, and been hosted in return by their families here in Afghanistan. Understanding the pressures to leave, knowing the difficulties that face people on their journeys, I find the hostility of some people, and their unwillingness to put themselves into the place of refugees bewildering and nauseating. But not everyone is like that.
Yesterday, my mother skyped me from the small fishing port where she lives in Southern Greece. She called to let me know that the night before (October 21) 120 people including 15 small children had arrived on a small boat from Turkey, landing on the beach in front of the campsite. She told me that these people (now being dishonestly, ignorantly and incorrectly labeled illegal maritime arrivals by the Australian Immigration Minister Sean Morrison) had been put up in the recently refurbished cultural centre. Local people had brought clothes and bedding and restaurant owners provided food. Visibly distressed by the condition of the arrivals, some of whom were carrying babes in arms, she told me of their gratitude for the help they were being given by the people of Methoni.
However, she and her friends were upset that the children weren’t being allowed out of the overcrowded centre to play. The police and soldiers who had arrived were enforcing a quarantine – though what disease they feared I couldn’t imagine. I found the contrast between the spontaneous generosity of local people confronted by men, women and children in need and that of the forces of the state depressingly familiar and urged mum and her friends to keep up the pressure, reminding the police that these people had done nothing illegal, that they, like everyone of us, have the right to claim asylum.
For my mother and her friends crowded around her computer screen the situation was clear – these people had fled Afghanistan and Syria – places they saw every night on their television screens, places in which people, including small children, are killed everyday by bombs, bullets and mines, places from which any reasonable parent would want to remove their children. They had come seeking sanctuary, risking drowning, and they deserved sanctuary.
Increasingly, however, the response we see in the media, from pundits and politicians, and some of our mean-spirited citizens in wealthy European states, is that these refugees arriving in boats seeking asylum in Australia and Europe, should stay put – if not in their own countries then in their neighbours’ countries. It is proclaimed that refugees have no right to leave the overcrowded camps in countries like Indonesia or Turkey, which currently hosts almost 500,000 Syrian refugees alone, no right to try and reach countries that that have more resources and would be better able to host them (if less willing).
I find it hard to imagine a British, Greek or Asutralian citizen waiting patiently in one of those camps, finding for food for their children who have no school to go to. I should have thought the courage, and gumption of these people would have been lauded rather than condemned. Why is it so hard to understand that any reasonable person will try to get to a place that is not just away from the bombs and bullets, but a safe place in which their children can grow up, a place in which they can work and care for themselves instead of ling on handouts in camps. Why aren’t there more humane responses like that of the people of Methoni?