Putting faces to the tragic stories of asylum seekers

Friday, July 13, 2012

By Barrie Cassidy

To say that it is not a “very Christian thing” for an asylum seeker to try and reach Australia by boat, as Tony Abbott did, is, by definition, a ridiculous criticism of a Muslim.

But the wider debate provoked by the remark – whether those who make the dangerous journey are queue jumpers – is worth having.

Tony Abbott says they are; that by paying a people smuggler, they do the wrong thing and they should not be encouraged.

Barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside disagrees, and had his say on The Drum, drawing more than 1000 comments in the process.

He argues there is no queue when you run for your life, and the idea that desperate people conduct themselves as if waiting for a bus is not only ludicrous, but reveals a lack of empathy and understanding.

And understanding is the key word. How do any of us really understand the situation when the stories behind the asylum seekers are so often hidden from view? Politicians have never encouraged putting human faces to the often tragic stories.

Kirstin Murray’s excellent Australian Story to air on ABC TV Monday night places one such case in context for the audience to judge.

She tells the story of Jaffar Ali, who made the journey from Indonesia by boat as an unaccompanied 14-year-old.

Jaffar’s oldest brother and sister were massacred by the Taliban, and his father urged him to flee the country.

With the help of a smuggler, he made it to Malaysia and then got on a boat to Indonesia. Once there, he was detained behind barbed wire, the only child among adults, and facing the prospect of living like that for years.

One day, while out on a day pass, he decided to “put his life in the hands of the smugglers”. He had run out of money by then, but the smugglers took pity on him. The boat he boarded was intercepted near Christmas Island and Jaffar was eventually granted permanent protection.

Jaffar was lucky. He had somebody to look after him in Australia. A young lawyer, Jessie Taylor, had passed him her details when she saw him in detention in Indonesia.

Ms Taylor was the lawyer who helped six members of an Afghan soccer team in Melbourne for the Homeless World Cup hide out until they too sought asylum.

Jessie’s mother tells the program that she came from a conservative family and thought asylum seekers were queue jumpers; that the country was being overrun by Muslims and that Australians were “entitled to kick them off their shores.” Not anymore.

Opinion will divide on whether, by passing Jaffar her details, Jessie was encouraging him to make the dangerous journey. She insists she was merely offering him hope and prospects in the event that he eventually made it to Australia.

Without question these journeys are dangerous, even foolish to those who live comfortable lives in Australia. But Jaffar’s journey was hardly un-Christian, un-Muslim, un-Australian, or un-Anything very much. It was to him, in all his terrible circumstances, simply a risk worth taking.

He puts it this way: “I am free now. I can live like a human being.”

This is an Australian story to be proud of – and not a politician in the program.

‘Stranger on the Shore’ will air on Australian Story Monday night at 8.00pm on ABC1. Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of ABC programs Insiders and  Offsiders.


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