A Crack in the Immigration System

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Amber Glass by my Front Door

My home was built in the late 1960s, a federation-style house with amber glass, faux gold fittings and slate floors. For a middle-aged entity, this double-bricked beauty is holding up pretty well. But, of course, cracks are starting to show.

A crack in the mosaic bathroom floor finally flacked off. That loose tile let down several of its neighbours and they scattered everywhere. I gathered them into a snap lock bag, intending to google ‘How to fix a mosaic floor’, and added it onto my to-do list.

I procrastinated. A week later, I inadvertently vacuumed up another little tile. I notice that the fault line getting longer, the hole bigger, uglier, dirtier. And it all started with a single crack in the system.

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A Crack in the System

On 4 August, a leaked phone transcript between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull revealed what the two leaders talked about in January. Turnbull asked Trump to honour a refugee swap deal, but Trump said he didn’t want the US to become a dumping ground and demanded to know why Turnbull hadn’t let them out.

Turnbull explained that the refugees on Nauru and Manus were not bad people, but ‘in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of a product.’ But Trump is not convinced about the kind of people he is being asked to consider. Later in the conversation, he says, ‘I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.’

Trump may have vocalised a growing public perception. After all, it is hard to believe that a civilised government like Australia will lock people up indefinitely unless they were bad or dangerous in some way.

As a result, some ordinary, compassionate Australians now fear associating with refugees or helping them because because of the taint of illegality, of being on the wrong side of migration law.

People who would have previously said hello to a stranger, or invited a new neighbour for dinner, now think twice, and maybe walk on by. (Not all refugees are in detention, many are in community. It depends on their date of arrival in Australia, whether they came by boat, whether they received legal help, whether they had a friend to explain a letter to them, a whole host of factors that can sometimes seem as random as the roll of a dice.)

Indefinite mandatory detention was introduced to fix a crack in the immigration system but is threatening to introduce a crack in society and a crack in humanity – how we view one another and how we treat people in need.

It’s an ugly crack. It’s growing and if left unfixed, is going to be our undoing.

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Eyes to See

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Carmen as a child in Romania, 1960s

Carmen grew up in Romania during the Cold War. With her young schoolmates, she used to pay homage to Ceausescu, chanting at rallies: Long live the President who gives us a good life. But long queues for bread told her she was living a lie; the entire country was living a lie.

Carmen was fascinated by psychology. As a Christian, however, she could not study it at university – professions in teaching and psychology were only for Communist party members. Instead, following her father’s footsteps, she enrolled in Mechanical Engineering.

By 1987, during her third year of studies, Carmen became deeply dissatisfied. She saw no future for herself in Engineering or in Romania. She wondered if she could escape; she saw a better future for herself outside Eastern Europe.

After interviewing her about her amazing journey to Australia, we both stood at her kitchen bench. She was describing her plan to turn her house into a place where she could offer counselling and prayer.

‘It’s a bit woolly out there at the moment,’ she said, looking out the back window, her gaze directed at a carpet of weeds, ‘but my husband and I will landscape it. It’ll be a garden where people with troubles can come and sit. Can you see it?’ She peers at me through her spectacles.

Almost thirty years since she embarked on her own journey of hope, Carmen has launched Hope 4 You House, which aims to ‘assist families experiencing extreme hardship, by offering food parcels, emotional and Christian spiritual support.’

Carmen’s story is about having the eyes to see potential, a kind of vision that gives us hope and enables us to keep working until possibility becomes reality. We all need such eyes – how else could we raise children, build houses or write books?

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish…’

Proverbs 29:18a

The Bible, King James Version

Foreign workers, foreign languages

Each time I return to Malaysia, I eat dim sum, or as it’s known in Australia, yum cha. Pushing trolleys of bamboo steamers and plastic plates, waiters and waitresses call out har gaw (prawn dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), dan tat (egg tarts).

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Jen

Without looking up at their faces, I cannot distinguish if the speakers are Chinese or Burmese, so perfect is their pronunciation. As I travel through Singapore and Malaysia, the language acquisition of foreign workers never ceases to amaze the English teacher in me. In class, my worksheets and role playing exercises cannot achieve the same results.

It was with lofty ideas of learning how to improve resettlement services that I embarked on this story collecting journey – forty years of refugee resettlement and six stories, the stories winding through thirteen countries. But as I near the the end of it, I realise my folly.

Heck, I’m not even an hourly paid instructor at TAFE anymore. What hope do I have of improving the delivery of English in Australia? To persuade employers to give migrants a chance? Use an apprentice system, perhaps coupled with tailored English lessons. Language has to be used to be acquired. Classroom teaching alone will never deliver.

In interviewing people and writing their stories of forced migration, I was, I think, at a deeper level, looking for an excuse to seek out such stories because my students had made my predictable life more interesting. They were unemployed, being paid to attend math and English lessons, but they made me laugh and put my daily inconveniences into perspective. I felt more alive, more human, more in touch with the world for having known them.

Graves at sea, graves on land

Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper
Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper

Today, May the 29th, officials from 17 countries are attending a “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean.” Myanmar had threatened to boycott the meeting if the term ‘Rohingya’ was used in the official title.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that there are 2,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya still stranded at sea. The Australian Prime Minister has flatly ruled out resettling any of them.

A few days ago, a cartoon published in a Thai newspaper, The Nation, depicted horrified Malaysians uncovering a mass grave – a reference to a grisly discovery in the northern Malaysian state of Perlis – with a twist on Malaysia’s tourism slogan: ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ to ‘Malaysia Truly Embarrassed’. One Facebook comment was, “Yes, well, who is doing the smuggling? And would The Nation dare print anything like this about the situation in Thailand?”

I feel a deep and abiding sadness within me and recall the Malay proverb, “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati ditengah-tengah“, which translates: As the elephants fight, the mouse deer dies in the middle.

It so happens today that a few hundred Rohingya are stuck on a boat out at sea, a handful of officials are meeting in Thailand and I am blogging at my writing desk. If we were born at a different time or in a different place, all of us could easily have traded places.