No Afghan Refugees Down Under, Please

By Becky Gaylord

Mohammad Sarwary, jailed by the Taliban for the transgression of belonging to a religious and ethnic minority in Afghanistan, plotted his risky escape from prison last year with the help of someone inside the regime. The contact arranged for a smuggler to sneak his family from Kandahar to Pakistan and then to Indonesia, where they waited for a month to make the treacherous three-day journey across the Indian Ocean to Ashmore reef, a small, uninhabited island about 400 kilometers off the northwest coast of Australia. Sarwary (not his real name) traded everything he had, including his farm and animals, for the hope of a safer life in a new land. "I just had to save myself and my family," he says, sipping tea in his adopted city of Adelaide

The flight was not without misfortune: Given little warning by the smuggler about their departure date, the family was forced to leave at night from their town in central Afghanistan while his oldest son was staying with his grandmother in a neighboring village. Sarwary, an articulate, serious man, says he thinks the 14-year-old remains in Afghanistan. The parents and their six other children are trying to settle into this city, whose bustling pace, skyscrapers, sprawling suburbs, and foreign language and ways seem a universe away from their mountainous, rural homeland. Sarwary says that for now, it's impossible to contact his relatives to learn their fate after weeks of bombing and the Taliban's retreat.

Still, his family is one of the lucky ones. Australia may be among the strongest backers of the U.S. war on terrorism, but it's turning an increasingly cold shoulder to asylum seekers fleeing Afghanistan and other Mideast nations. That is sparking bitter controversy over the nation's ideals and its very identity and has provoked outrage, especially from abroad. The debate escalated in late October, when almost 380 asylum seekers drowned after their crammed boat capsized near Indonesia. The 44 survivors clung to pieces of the wreckage for almost 20 hours before Indonesian fishermen helped rescue them. The deaths "highlighted the risks of people-smuggling and the level of desperation," says Ellen Hansen, external affairs officer in Australia for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "It gave the problem a human face."

Such disasters are occurring off the coast of a nation famously settled by immigrants. Just over 200 years ago, Britain began sending convicts and castoffs to the "fatal shore." The discovery of gold in 1850 brought waves of prospectors. After World War II, immigrants from Europe streamed in. Now, about one in four Australians was born overseas, a fact recognized by a verse in the national anthem: "For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share/With courage let us all combine to advance Australia fair."

But just who should combine has long been an issue. Even as Australia relied on immigrants to power the country's farms and factories, the country struggled with its identity in the South Pacific. In 1901, the legislature passed discriminatory laws known as the White Australia policy, and vestiges remained in effect until 30 years ago. Many citizens would seem to long for a return to those days. In 1997, Pauline Hanson, a fish-and-chips shop owner from Woolloongabba, Queensland, who was elected to Parliament in 1996, formed the One Nation Party, which opposes allowing refugees and immigrants from Asia. In 1998 elections, her party drew 8% of the vote.

The current influx of Mideast refugees alarms those who share her views. Last year, the number of boat people increased threefold, to more than 4,000. More are waiting in Indonesia, though estimates vary widely.

RICKETY. In late August, when a Norwegian ship rescued a boat in distress carrying refugees, Prime Minister John Howard toughened his stance against the asylum seekers, forbidding them to land. He boosted by tens of millions the dollars the country spends patrolling borders and scanning for refugees. Since then, the navy has towed several listing craft away from the coast, leaving them and their cargo of 450 people in waters outside the international boundary. Rickety wooden boats continue to approach outlying islands. But instead of being allowed to land, about 1,700 boat people have been ferried by navy ships to tiny South Pacific Islands such as the Republic of Nauru to be detained and, eventually, processed. It's hard to know how those transferred are faring, because the Australian government tightly controls media access.

Many of today's boat people are Afghanis, who constitute the largest refugee population "of concern" to the UNHCR--3.6 million people, or 30% of the global refugee population. This year, Australia has set aside just 12,000 immigration slots for all refugees under the country's Humanitarian Program, according to the Immigration Dept. It's the same number as last year, when many other countries, including Germany, the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland took more applications for asylum, according to UNHCR data. On a per capita basis, Australia ranks 38th among the 71 countries that take in refugees, behind Kazakhstan, Guinea, Djibouti, and Syria, according to the Edmund Rice Center, an advocacy and research group in Sydney. The U.S. takes twice as many refugees as Australia per capita, the center found.

But pointing out such disparities has had little impact. Howard's conservative Liberal-National coalition was reelected to a rare consecutive third term on Nov. 10, with one of the biggest swings to an incumbent government since the 1960s. A full-page newspaper ad that his party ran before the election declared in bold letters: "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." Howard said during the campaign that it was crucial to control Australia's entry policy--otherwise, "you don't know who's coming, and you don't know whether they do have terrorist links or not."

Such talk, which all but crowded out domestic issues from the campaign, resonated with Australian voters. But it frustrates refugees like Faraj, 26, who says he had "nothing to do with any kind of politics." An ethnic Hazara, one of the groups working with the Northern Alliance, he's too frightened for his family still in Afghanistan to allow his real name to be used. The Taliban took control of his district almost three years ago. When representatives turned up at his grocery shop toting guns and spitting demands for him to join their fight, the wholesaler knew he was in trouble. "They used to come to any village, to any district, to any house," he says. "They would pull out people and take them to the war."

"BIG WAVES." Faraj and his family were forbidden to have passports or travel documents in Afghanistan because they are Hazara. But Faraj's father counseled him to flee with his wife and infant son--and gave him gems to help finance the trip, which cost more than $3,500 each. Earlier this year, they set out in a 10-meter boat from Indonesia. "We came through some very big waves." he says. "Somehow miracles happen. We made it." After landing at Ashmore Reef, they were taken to a detention camp secluded in the desert, where they stayed for weeks behind razor-wire fences before being released. Now, the family rents a small brick house outside Adelaide and waits to learn whether Australia will let them stay. To crack down on arrivals, the government recently tightened visa rules. The change makes obtaining a permanent visa virtually impossible for illegal immigrants applying in Australia.

The hundreds of deaths from the sunken boat in October have sparked more criticism of Howard's hard line. In recent weeks, a cross-section of Australian leaders, including naval officers, chief executives, and politicians--some from Howard's own party--have spoken out. But so far, the Prime Minister seems unmoved. "We don't enjoy what's occurring," he said days before the election. "But we are not going to be deterred." Despite their immigrant ancestry, most Australians seem to agree.

Gaylord, an American, lived for two years in Australia before winning permanent residency two months ago.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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