Refuge Beyond Reach

Hikmat wore small frameless glasses and a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, and the dark waves of his hair were combed perfectly. He looked as if he might have just stepped out of the office of his export firm in Karachi. In fact, it's been nearly three years since he fled Pakistan. His uncle, a Taliban supporter, had been trying to extort money from him for the organization, and saw him and his wife as "infidels": Hikmat was clean-shaven; his wife wore no hijab. Twice, gunmen ambushed him on the street. The first time, bullets ripped his intestines; he spent two years in the hospital. After surviving a second shooting, he left his homeland.

Hikmat met me at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. The nonprofit works out of a converted house in Surry Hills, a gentrifying neighborhood of bike paths, cafés, and spreading eucalyptus trees. He came to Australia, Hikmat said, because he could to get a short-term business visa quickly and bring his wife and three children with him. Afterward they applied for asylum. They live in housing provided by a church-funded group. He's 44 years old, beginning to gray. Starting over in business requires money he doesn't have. On and off, he works as a security guard.

Among refugees here, Hikmat is a lucky man. He received asylum status, with the permanent visa that brings, just three months after he applied. His scars, perhaps, proved that he met the international legal standard of having a "well-founded fear of persecution" in his home country. A Centre staffer, listening to his account, said this was the "quickest [positive decision] I ever heard of." The Australian asylum process can drag on through years of rejections and appeals.

Besides that, Hikmat was fortunate to arrive by plane. It's refugees who come across the sea in crowded, frail boats who draw public attention, who are again the center of a political storm, who under the latest decisions of the Australian government can be consigned indefinitely to detention centers on remote Islands.

Eleven years ago Liberal Prime Minister John Howard (Australia's Liberals are its conservative party) manipulated the plight of boat people to win re-election. Now boats are coming again, from Sri Lanka across the Indian Ocean or from Indonesia to the north, carrying people from as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq. Labor is in government, facing elections within the year—and trying to prove to voters that it can also get tough on "border control."

Australia's controversy shows how easy it is to stir people's fears that hordes of strangers will flood across their border—since its border is ocean and the number of refugees trying to cross it hardly qualifies as "hordes." Worldwide, most people fleeing their country end up in a neighboring one, often poor and roiling with its own troubles. More refugees have poured out of Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world, and more live in Pakistan and Iran than anywhere else, according to the most recent U.N. report. A few pay smugglers who promise passage to a safer haven. Until this year, the most "irregular marine arrivals" entered Australia in 2001, when just over 5,500 people arrived by boat.

That was enough for Howard to exploit. "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come," became his slogan.  As investigative journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson later uncovered, Howard stuck knowingly to a baseless report that boat people had tossed their own children overboard. The lie stained refugees collectively as unfit for civilized Australian society. After 9/11, Howard suggested that terrorists could be on the boats. He introduced the "Pacific Solution": sending boat people to detention (read: imprisonment) on Nauru, a tiny Pacific republic halfway to Hawaii, and Manus, an island belonging to Papua New Guinea, where they could wait interminably for resettlement, unprotected by Australia's own laws on asylum.

By 2002 the number of boats dropped—more likely because of distant developments such as the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan than because of Australia's effort at deterrence. The fear of invading boats lingered. "People do have a noble, compassionate side," says Steven Glass, a Sydney activist and lawyer who represents detainees pro bono in asylum hearings. "But it does not take much to bring out their mean and nasty side. And [Howard] did it."

When Labor came to power in 2007, it appeared headed for reform, albeit slowly. The Pacific Solution was canceled, even if asylum-seekers coming by sea were still initially consigned to detention in camps on the mainland or on Christmas Island, the sliver of Australian territory closest to Indonesia.

And Howard's policy of linkage remained: Australia has allocated some 13,000 visas a year to asylum-seekers selected from those who apply "off-shore," from a temporary refuge after escaping their home countries. It's a humanitarian program, described with pride by government officials. But for every refugee given asylum "on-shore"—after arriving by boat or plane—one place is subtracted from the humanitarian quota. Linkage creates the rationale for labeling boat people as "queue-jumpers" who should have waited patiently to make the admission list. The label presumes that people far away, fleeing conflict, know Australia's rules. It also presumes they can wait safely. That hardly holds true for Afghanistan's Hazaras, persecuted as an ethnic minority, massacred by the Taliban as Shi'ites, and facing the same danger across the border in Pakistan. Under international law, a country doesn't have unlimited prerogative to decide "who will come … and under what circumstances." The humanitarian program does not free Australia of obligations to protect persecuted people who come uninvited.

Now more are coming. In 2008, less than 200 boat people arrived. Two years later, the number was close to 7,000. More than that came by sea in the first seven months of 2012 alone. In explaining the rise, dangers elsewhere are at least as important as Australia's drawing power. Afghanistan, for instance, is once more the main source of people seeking asylum in the developed world, and of refugees sailing for Australia.

Facing both the boats and opposition fire for being soft on border control, Labor under Prime Minister Julia Gillard has largely reversed course. In August, the government adopted the recommendations of a quickly convened expert committee. By the next month, Australia was again sending boat people to camps on Manus and Nauru, with Labor's Immigration Minister Chris Bowen saying they might stay there as long as five years. The new policy is "no advantage": asylum-seekers will gain the right to live in Australia no quicker if they come by boat than if they apply offshore and wait to be accepted. This, in turn, is supposed to save refugees' lives by deterring them from setting sail on dangerous vessels. So far, deterrence hasn't worked: Between the August decision and late November, another 8,000 boat people came.

With the camps quickly filled, Bowen announced that some new arrivals could live in Australia, but would also have to wait years for permanent visas. Meanwhile, they will get minimal government support but be barred from working—at least from working legally. "I'll tell you why all these disincentives can't work," says Glass. "If you're a Hazara, there's nothing the Australian government can do to make your situation on Nauru worse… than if you drive down the road, you'll get shot by the Taliban."

A leader of the Labor for Refugees faction in the ruling party, Robin Rothfield, told me current policy is "inhumane" and "contrary to the traditions of the party." It's also questionable politics: No matter how tough Labor tries to be, the Liberals will succeed in sounding tougher. Bowen's press secretary, I should note, agreed to answer my written questions for this article, but never responded to them.

For all the intensity of this debate, Australia has been touched only by the very edge of the world's tide of uprooted people. But a global response—including developed countries voluntarily accepting far more refugees—hardly seems near. Meanwhile, the country faces the question of how to see the boats: as carrying danger or hope. Each time he returns from interviewing asylum applicants at a detention camp, says lawyer Steven Glass, "I am absolutely inspired by them as dignified, warm people in terrible circumstances." Refugees, he says, "make the best citizens, because they are determined, and hard-working, and innovative."

Perhaps the politicians appealing to fear need a a new look at ordinary Australians as well. At the Asylum Seekers Centre, Hikmat says he has "never" experienced discrimination. People, he says, "are so loving."

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