PNG solution harsh, but fair – ex-refugee

Focus, Normal

The National, Thursday July 25th, 2013


SEEING the Australian government and the opposition grapple with the perennial and vexing issue of how to deal with the asylum seeker impasse has prompted me to reflect on my experiences as a former refugee and what it would have meant for my family had Australia not given us asylum, had it left us languishing in a refugee camp in eastern Europe and instead given our “spot’’ to those arriving via boat.

My family and I came to Australia as refugees in the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. 

We were Orthodox-Christian Serbs living in a predominantly Catholic Croatia. 

In 1994 the Croatian government decided to “ethnically cleanse’’ all Serbs from the country; our home was torched and bombed, our livestock incinerated, our possessions pillaged. If that was not tragic enough, my father was killed while fighting to keep us safe, and the lives of countless relatives, friends and neighbours were lost too.

It is likely I would have been in Australia much earlier and could have avoided the horrors I faced in the centre in Serbia if my spot hadn’t been taken by a boat arrival. 

We fled our home under live gunfire in the dead of night taking nothing with us but the clothes on our backs as we scurried onto a tractor about to make a perilous journey under bombardment to a collective centre on the outskirts of Kosovo in Serbia. 

Along with more than 500 other refugees, we lived in this factory, sleeping next to one another like sardines, young and old, sick and healthy, men, women and children – we shared one bathroom, one toilet. Suicide, hunger, disease, crime and rape spread throughout the camp like wildfire.

We were non-nation citizens, no country accepted us and we felt as if we did not exist. As days turned into months and months into years, we found ourselves living in this squalor for nearly five years, until the day our dire desperation led us to apply for refugee status under the UNHCR convention and seek the protection of any developed nation that could give us a new life.

After multiple failures and rejections and after a long period of languishing in the centre, we succeeded in getting a spot under the UNHCR’s resettlement regime and Australia agreed to take us.

Today we are proud and productive Australian citizens. 

One of my family members runs his own business building Australia and employing young tradesmen. Another runs a car manufacturing plant. Myself, I work in the union movement helping to improve and protect the conditions of workers.

Since our arrival on Australian shores we have been contributing to Australian society hand over fist with our labour, our taxes, our dedication, our work ethic and our positive mentality of appreciation and gratitude.

But we waited a long time in deplorable conditions in the Balkans for a spot in the UNHCR’s Australia resettlement programme. Had Serbia been closer to Australia, out of sheer desperation we may well have paid a people smuggler and taken a chance on a leaky boat, but that was near impossible, so we waited.

While I am of the view that all genuine refugees deserve a degree of asylum and protection, I also vehemently reject the notion of ‘’queue jumping’’ because this term gives the issue a semblance of order in what is anything but orderly.

However, I do believe in fair and equitable processing of asylum applications. The UNHCR estimates there are 40.1 million refugees languishing for decades in refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia, many living in the same deplorable conditions I endured in Serbia.

But nonetheless, these people are following fair and due process waiting in transit for a spot to open up to come to countries such as Australia. 

It is unfair and unjust for these refugees to have their spots taken by those who forcefully make their way onto Australian soil by boat.

It is welcoming to see the government increase the UNHCR refugee intake from 13,000 to 20,000 per year with the view of increasing it to 27,000. 

Australia accepts a negligible number of refugees in comparison with other nations and there is definitely scope for an increase.

The PNG policy is undoubtedly a harsh policy as many genuine refugees will not get an opportunity to resettle in Australia and contribute to our society in a positive way. But in the interest of fairness, equality, equity and due process the PNG policy is the right policy. – The Age  

  • Danijel Malbasa is an industrial lawyer and a former refugee.