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readers' submissions


I try to be a refugee advocate

by Christine Dimmock

September 2003

In Australia, I'm a volunteer tutor in Government sponsored English classes for migrants and refugees. Some of my favourite students are Afghan Hazaras on Temporary Protection Visas. At this point in time, refugees are victims of political machinations in Australia, but at least the earlier arrivals aren't subject to mandatory detention off-shore or in the outback. There are enough young Hazara males in my community to form two soccer teams, but few women or children. Personally I find the Australian Government's policy towards refugees and asylum-seekers unconscionable.

Ironically, Afghans and their camels were first brought to Australia by the British back in the 1830s. They played a vital role in the exploration and opening up of the outback, but always lived in a separate part of town, as did the Aboriginals. There was contact between the Aboriginal and Afghan groups, but almost no contact between the Europeans and these two groups. As most of the Afghans were single or had left their wives at home, many married Aboriginal women but very few married white women.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, I phone the local refugee advocate to ask if there is anything I can do for her while I'm in the country. She's a fiery, committed individual - I've bitten off more than I can chew. First she gives me such a comprehensive scaring that I break into a sweat. She can't possibly be talking about the same Afghanistan I've painstakingly researched. My brain struggles wildly to reconcile our conflicting opinions on security while the conversation continues.

The Australian authorities allegedly have some kind of reception/rehabilitation centre in Kabul for the refugees they send back. Can I find it and check it out? Er…..maybe. Is there something else? Yes. Can I find information or evidence to help convince the Australian Government that it isn't safe for the refugees to be returned? What kind of information? Local newspapers with articles on human rights abuses. Er…..yes, I can look for some. I'm a realist. Proof, I ask? What kind of proof might sway Government policy? Well……. actual photos of human rights abuses, preferably with an identifiable landmark in the background. Right. Yes. OK.

I picture myself, a lone foreign woman, running towards the scene of human rights abuses, camera in hand like a war correspondent. I don't think so, well, not unless I want the human rights abuses to be perpetrated on me. After the phone call, it takes a long time for my heart rate to return to normal. Will the real Afghanistan please stand up?

In Kabul, the futility of looking for a refugee reception centre which may or may not exist, intermittently, at an unknown address becomes painfully obvious. Kabul is a city of 3 million people and what seems like 40,000 taxis. Most taxi drivers can't speak English, are illiterate and can't find a well known landmark in the next street. In fact, getting around Kabul by taxi is quite a challenge. Taxis have no meters and I quickly learn to hand over the right money at the end of the trip and disappear into the crowd, cutting short the driver's angry diatribe.

I look for local newspapers in Kabul, Bamiyan, Herat and Mazar E Sharif finding little evidence of anything resembling a newspaper - except the Kabul times, written by expats, for expats. What did I expect in a country without a fully functioning bank and where electricity comes on only at 6pm? At a German NGO, Media Action, which trains young Afghan journalists, I ask about freedom of the press. Well no, not exactly freedom…………

Human rights abuses? I don't see any. I see Afghans from all walks of life getting on with the business of making a living. Underpaid policemen drive taxis to supplement their income, old men pull heavy loads, children attend makeshift schools in tents, boys look after herds of goats and fat-tailed sheep while women dig potatoes and collect manure for winter fuel. For every man who carries a gun, I see another carrying a shovel. Sprawling bazaars are alive with buyers and sellers while thousands of small manual workshops are busy with woodwork, metalwork and mechanical work. The truck mafia still relentlessly plies the traditional routes day and night, still carrying the traditional cargo.

Life in Afghanistan is hard, very hard. I know this, but to live it on a practical level would probably kill me. In rural areas there was never an electricity supply or running water. There's a rural underclass I can best describe as rough, such as the squatters living in what were once the meditation cells of Buddhist monks in the Bamiyan valley. It's not uncommon to marry one's first cousin and inbreeding is evident in a group of hungry children who share my bread while a bogged truck is extracted. I'm told that in the mountains of Afghanistan, winter is a dangerous time - a time of privation when families have to live on what they've stored away in the summer. It's also a time when desperate men with guns come knocking on doors in the night.

I meet a surprising number of people with passable English. They learned it in Pakistan, although I can't establish under what circumstances. I carry out a biased middle class survey by asking every Afghan with enough English to comprehend and answer the question whether or not they think the refugees in Australia should return home. Answers range from "First they should get an education, then come home to help reconstruct the country" to "No, they should stay in Australia because it's a better life". No-one says "Oh, but it isn't safe". Everyone has an uncle in Australia (Afghans have an inexhaustible supply of uncles) and everyone asks about visas.

As a refugee advocate I'm a dismal failure. Can it be shown that it isn't safe for the Australian Government to send the Afghan refugees home? Despite my attempts to look below the surface of the pond, it's obvious that I would need to dive in to learn "the truth". Besides, the situation isn't stable or predictable. Back in Australia, I hear that the latest returnee was beaten-up and robbed in Kabul. What exactly is the definition of safe? "Free from danger, injury or risk" mocks the dictionary. Secure - "free from risk or anxiety".

The ridiculous, rhetorical question has come full circle. Perhaps the Australian Government could consult its own Travel Advice, which, along with warnings specific to foreigners, states: We advise against all travel outside Kabul. Warlords control many areas and overland travel can be very dangerous. There is the added danger that some Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters remain in parts of the country, thereby creating a significant security risk. You should consider permanent armed protection. Banditry in rural areas by armed groups is common.

If I was an Afghan refugee in Australia, I wouldn't be wanting to go home any time soon.

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