A Patriotic Refuge
By Alex Kats
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the premiere of a documentary film called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It tells the story of a group of mostly Afghani individuals and families holed up in Indonesia, waiting for the right to come to Australia. It follows their journeys through bureaucracy, separation, frustration and terrible living conditions, often in detention centres akin to jails or makeshift temporary accommodation that’s not much better.
It explores the mindset of people in impossible situations and what drives some to become the much-maligned ‘boat people’. Often these are people who are desperate and have been waiting for months, if not years, for a visa to Australia. All they want is a better life for themselves and their families, and though they know the risks and potential consequences, some still choose to put their life savings into the promise of a better life by boarding a leaky boat.
As one of the Afghani protagonists said, he would rather die pursuing freedom than be killed trying to survive the brutality of his own countrymen. This was his fate in Afghanistan, and that is how he ended up in Indonesia in the first place waiting for a chance to come to Australia. That line and many of the images from the film still haunt me.
The underlying message of the film is that the refugees only want a better life for themselves and their families. That is their one true desire, but it seems that all the politicians and most of the public have lost sight of that.
Watching the film made me sad and angry, particularly after seeing that so many people featured in the film are either still in limbo in Indonesia waiting to be granted a visa or drowned at sea after taking the plunge to sail to Australia. Seemingly only a handful actually made it to our shores, legally or otherwise, and these people seem to be intelligent, ambitious and productive members of Australian society, especially Zainab, the 12-year old girl who was the focus of the film, and seemed wiser and more mature than her years would suggest. I suspect she will do well in her adopted country.
Despite these overwhelming feelings of disgust and frustration, in a small way the movie also made me patriotically proud. I have long been accused of being a proud Australian, and this is something that I wear as a badge of honour. I mention this here because I felt that pride again when each of the people interviewed said that they were willing to go through the hell of incarceration, long-term separation and worse, just to have the opportunity to come to Australia. Having not been here, they see our country as a utopian safe haven, and though I’m sure they know they will still have significant issues and challenges if and when they arrive, these will be what we might call first world problems compared to the real life existential battles each of them faced before making their heart wrenching decisions to leave.
With two boats full of potential asylum seekers capsizing near Christmas Island over the last fortnight, all I have heard from our politicians is bickering and buck passing about which offshore or onshore processing solution should be implemented. They argue about this whilst saying that the boats should be stopped, and then many of them cry crocodile tears saying that this situation is hopeless and should be above politics. Yet this has been the rhetoric for more than a decade, and though some of the so-called solutions have been implemented, all of them and all the ideas have been far less than ideal.
They keep arguing about processing solutions rather than actual solutions. And when parliament rose before the winter break, they still hadn’t come up with an agreement, except that both sides keep saying something needs to be done. Only the Greens have called for a somewhat sustainable plan, but on their own their idea will never pass. What I am yet to hear from any politician or from any commentator with even a modicum of respect is a real alternative.
My personal opinion that I would love to hear echoed by someone, and the reason why the film made me somewhat patriotic, is that I think Australia should lead the world by embracing the asylum seekers. These people are choosing to risk their lives to come to our country, and I think we should welcome them openly. Sure, they need to be vetted and cleared for security and other reasons, but that need not take as long as it does, and considering how much Australia spends on keeping them out of our country, that money can be far better spent attracting them in. Maybe then people waiting in Indonesia for months or years wouldn’t have to board boats, boats wouldn’t have to be stopped and there would be no boats overfilled with asylum seekers sinking near Christmas Island or elsewhere.
If the policy makers changed their focus, this so called crisis could be easily eliminated, and we might even be richer for it. After all, after their time battling the bureaucracies and detention centres in Indonesia, Australia or elsewhere, and after somehow eventually making it to Australia, the vast majority of genuine asylum seekers are granted asylum and ultimately become refugees, then permanent residents of Australia.
Sometimes I am amazed that they are still keen to come to this country after everything they have been through, yet many go on to become citizens and proud, law abiding and productive contributors. Apart from what I have read and seen on the news, I know this in an anecdotal way because for the last few months, together with a number of other young Jewish people from our community, I have been volunteering each week in Dandenong, teaching English and chatting to those from Afghanistan or mostly other Middle Eastern countries who have recently arrived.
This gratifying experience has confirmed to me in a tangible way that all that these people really want is a better life, one that they hope Australia can provide. This is relevant to us today and particularly as Jews because this was the same dream many of our parents or grandparents had just a generation or two ago.
In my case, it was the dream of my parents just before I was born. They grew up in Russia, and though their lives were not in physical harm necessarily, they were certainly persecuted for being Jewish and they knew people who were threatened or incarcerated. Just before I was born they started filling in the paperwork to come to Australia.
Like the current asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, they chose Australia based on reputation alone. And like their predecessors from Eastern Europe who came by boat to this country just prior to or just after the war, they wanted to seek refuge in a place far away from Europe that offered them the potential they could only dream about in Russia in the 1970s.
Because it was already the 70s, like most asylum seekers that we don’t hear about today, our family arrived by plane. For us this was fortuitous timing because it was just a couple of years before the USSR closed its borders, and a decade or so before the fall of communism. Each day when my sister and I think about it, we thank our parents for the foresight and providence that befell them 35 years ago, and hope that we are living up to the potential they dreamt about.
I also wonder if we would have been welcome today, given how strict and unwelcoming the bureaucratic and political system appears to be these days. When I saw the asylum seekers in the film talk about Australia and their dreams, it reminded me of the wide-eyed exuberance of pioneering young Jews from all over the world, when they talk about aliyah and their dreams of a new life in Israel. The scenes and dreams are the same; just the characters are different. I think that as Australian Jews, almost all descendants from refugees and even boat people, we should take a stand, or at least show some more compassionate understanding. That is why I wanted to see such a film, and why I am so passionate about this issue. I urge you to also take a stand.