We Are All Boat People

Shira shares her view on the fate of asylum seekers in Australia

Shira SebbanShira Sebban

Australians are a caring lot. We’re so worried about asylum-seekers risking their lives on leaky boats that we want to dissuade them from taking the dangerous voyage in the first place.

If they make it to Australian waters, the Opposition wants to turn the boats around “when safe”, while the Government’s current ideal is to send the “queue jumpers” to Papua New Guinea (PNG): “If you come here by boat without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia”.

But why not improve the efficacy of “legal” channels used by “genuine refugees” to reach Australia “legitimately”? We could start by speeding up the processing of the millions of refugees languishing in camps. To quote the Coalition: surely we want “to give Australians the confidence that only those invited … to our country will enjoy the safe haven of our nation”?

What about those who can’t seem to wait for an invitation and simply show up? Don’t tell anyone, but there isn’t an orderly line of refugees waiting patiently outside an Australian embassy.

The refugee world is chaotic. Usually it’s only those urgently needing to flee immediate danger, who would be desperate enough to ignore any deterrent to make that dangerous journey or to send their children to freedom. I should know: my family history is full of boat people, as I’m sure, is yours.

My father’s father was fortunate to settle in Toronto, Canada, after escaping the Ukrainian pogroms, arriving in 1913 as a teenager with his widowed sister and her children. No one “invited” them. His future wife had previously docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after fleeing Lodz, Poland. They grasped at the opportunity to make a better life – still the aim of most boat people today.

Saba's first Australian passport issued 20:6:46

My grandfather’s first Australian passport, issued on 20 June, 1946

In 1925, my mother’s parents had the foresight to leave Poland for Palestine, avoiding the fate of much of the family, decimated by the Nazis. When my grandfather couldn’t find work, he went down to the Tel Aviv harbour where he found two ships destined for South America and Australia respectively. Fortunately, he ended up in Melbourne in 1938, finding work as a laundryman. Today, he’d be called an economic migrant, who left his home in search of a better life elsewhere. Isn’t that how your family progressed too?

The society my grandfather encountered was closed. The White Australia Policy was in full swing, and in 1938, Australia’s Trade and Customs Minister, Thomas White, spoke against large-scale Jewish immigration at the Evian Conference: “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”.

After World War II, however, my grandfather took advantage of the start of the immigration waves to bring out the other members of his family by boat.

Others were not so fortunate. Who remembers the M.S. St. Louis? I recently retraced the infamous ‘Voyage of the Damned’ at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. The story of the ship dispatched by the Nazis on 13 May 1939, carrying close to a thousand German Jewish refugees, only to be rejected by Cuba and then the US and Canada, remains seared in my memory.

After 40 days hovering off the coast of “the free world”, all avenues were exhausted, and the “ship of shame” returned to Europe. Hitler had apparently been right: people seemed indifferent to the fate of those “filthy parasites”, despite the thousands of dollars they had paid satisfying visa requirements. While several European countries were persuaded to provide the refugees with temporary shelter, close to a third would eventually perish in the Holocaust.

A memorial Wheel of Conscience, erected in Halifax in 2011, blames their rejection on hatred, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The passengers had been expected to “wait their turn” as the US, increasingly resentful of refugees, who were seen as competing for jobs, didn’t even fill its restricted quotas – a fact only officially acknowledged 60 years later.

Sure, Nazism on the whole is dead and those asylum seekers we reject today won’t share the same fate. But most of those who reach Australian waters are eventually found to be genuine refugees.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. To deter those who, according to the 1951 UN Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, have the right to seek protection from us and all other 147 signatories, is to ignore our democratic obligations. We would be returning people to the real risk of persecution, or transferring our responsibilities to a third, usually poor country. Sadly, refugees have come to be seen as a “burden” rather than as contributors.

Naomi as a little girl with parents

My maternal grandparents with my mother as a little girl

We don’t choose our families or where we’re born. A quirk of fate can mean the difference between freedom and subjugation. All we can do is make the best of the cards we’re dealt. Human effort is key to survival and improvement.

This year, a Ukrainian family joined our Passover celebration. It was their first experience of the festival of freedom. “The Soviet Government tried to make us like everyone else,” the father said. “They destroyed our synagogues. We didn’t have any Jewish books.” He was born near Kiev, the same city as my grandfather, who had escaped to Canada about a century ago. Had he not done so, my life experience could have been very different.

My children recently attended a chess competition in Sydney’s west, along with more than a hundred others of diverse cultures – a microcosm of modern Australian society. So many of the best Australian elements were evident – friendly rivals united by common interests, learning new skills and aspiring to improve – that it’s impossible not to feel proud.

Surely whether born here or only recently arrived, we all share goals to make our way in this still relatively “lucky country”, which has given our families such a precious opportunity. Let’s not deny that opportunity to others.

I’m not saying we should shoulder all the world’s refugees alone. Nor should those people smugglers, who take unscrupulous advantage of the vulnerable, escape prosecution.

What I’m asking for is a little kindness for those less fortunate than ourselves. After all, there but for a quirk of fate go I … and you … and indeed, the majority of Australians. And if you were that desperate, wouldn’t you want someone to extend a hand to you, as was extended to your family?

Shira Sebban – Life Issues
Shira is a Sydney-based writer and editor, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. The mother of three sons, she also serves as vice-president on the board of her children’s school. You can read more of her work at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/
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