MELISSA MACK
The Independent Weekly
06 Aug, 2010 11:49 AM

Hassim Rahmani took his first hopeful step onto Australian soil in 2001.

He left his village in Afghanistan desperate to escape a country where he was not safe.

Hassim didn’t know he would be incarcerated when he got to Australia. He hoped only that when he reached the end of the boat trip his life would no longer be in danger.

He didn’t want to go on a boat. He didn’t want to leave his parents and siblings, but he needed to flee.

“When you are in the war, it’s very, very hard,” he said. “You are always thinking: ‘What would happen to my future?’ There’s no human rights.”

His parents escaped to Pakistan, where they continue to live illegally. Hassim made it to Australia, but ended up in the Baxter Detention Centre. When he was released three years later, he was a changed man.

“I lost my mind,” he said. “Now when I’m working around here, sometimes when I pick up my measure, my tools, I forget because I lose my mind. It’s hard.”

Hassim spoke to The Independent Weekly at a building site in Munno Para. Nine years after he arrived in Australia, he has become a citizen and owns his own tiling business. His vote counts this election and he says he’ll vote Labor because it is “good for the worker”.

But Hassim said media reports regarding asylum seekers were misleading.

“They are saying Afghanistan is safe, but it’s not safe not for Hazara people.”

When skimming the news, Dutch tourist Eline van der Vaart was initially sympathetic to Australia border-protection policies. Asylum seekers are an issue in the Netherlands, where last year almost 15,000 people applied for asylum.

“I thought there were millions of refugees coming to Australia,” she said.

But just 6206 people applied for asylum in Australia last year, and 3441 were given refuge – 1 per cent of the nation’s total migration.

Only 0.5 per cent of the 631,000 asylum seekers recognised internationally as refugees were lodged in Australia last year. More sought refuge in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Kenya and France.
Under Julia Gillard, Labor’s policy has swung to the right. Voters will now choose between her proposal to establish a regional processing centre, possibly in East Timor, and Tony Abbott’s pledge to “stop the boats”.

“Anybody who says that there’s a quick fix here is simply not telling the truth,” Ms Gillard said. “What I have said is I want strong border protection, and we’ve moved to strengthen our border protection.

“I want to stop people smugglers leaving shore and setting sail in the first place.”

Mr Abbott has taken a hard line, claiming: “Only the Coalition can stop the boats.”

The Liberals will reintroduce offshore processing in another country for people arriving illegally by boat. It will reintroduce a temporary protection visa, and presume asylum seekers are not refugees if it is believed they have disposed of their identity documents. It would also attempt to turn back boats.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has said that turning boatloads of asylum seekers around would not be an easy policy to implement, but is the best way to tackle people smugglers.

“We’re not just going to give into the people smugglers and allow them to just determine the terms by which we allow boats to arrive and people to arrive,” Mr Morrison said.

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) said United Nations statistics showed political scaremongering about asylum seekers had little to do with facts.

“It’s disappointing that Australians’ natural scepticism of political spin is not being applied to politicians who are trying to create fear and misunderstanding about the number of people seeking asylum in this country,” RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said.

The council has always disagreed with offshore processing of asylum seekers, which it says is inhumane.

“Frankly, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to process refugees in a way that costs much more money and is less humane.”

But the council said that developing a regional development plan, which would be implemented under Labor, was essential. It said Australia needed to focus on international co-operation on refugee protection.
“This would help reduce the numbers of asylum boats as we assess claims for asylum and provide protection earlier on in the chain of asylum flows,” Mr Power said.

“But Australia must not send back asylum seekers that have reached our shores; we have an obligation to process them here.”

The Australian Refugee Association’s SA director, Peter Laintoll, said there was not enough funding to resettle refugees for whom English is a huge barrier. They need help to access services and become independent.

“We need to look at what the options are for people settling in Australia, particularly (those) from a refugee background fleeing from persecution or worse,” he said.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to feels so lucky that they have a chance, and any opportunity they are given they seize.”

Margaret McGregor won an Order of Australia Medal this year for her work with refugees in South Australia. She started a branch of the Circle of Friends, which help asylum seekers settle into life in Australia. At its peak in 2001, there were 100 groups.

“We are very concerned about both parties’ attitudes and policy. We are pretty disappointed with the way Labor has swung to the right,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone knows the answers, but how can Tony Abbott say we will beat the boats? Well, come on: Are you just going to send back a leaky boat that’s sure to be sunk. That’s just nonsense talk.”

Hassim was lucky. The Circle of Friends helped him get a job and learn English. He’s been able to build a life for himself. Last year he married and brought his wife to Australia from Pakistan. Their son will grow up Australian.

But most importantly to Hassim, his son will grow up safe.
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