Lessons About Refugees From an Australian Immigration Crisis

Refugee from Myanmar with child, living in Malaysia

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post 18. August 2014.

I am an anthropologist, I live in Australia and I work with refugees in Malaysia. None of these attributes in and of themselves make me an expert on what is happening along the U.S. border at present. However, as anthropologists we try to understand issues from other people’s perspectives and we try to make sense of the world around us. When it comes to the current crisis of children refugees you don’t have to be an anthropologist to want to dig deeper and understand what is driving the large numbers of children to flee to the U.S., you just have to be human.

Living in Australia adds another dimension to wanting to get to the bottom of this. In the lead-up to the 2001 federal elections in Australia the now infamous ‘children overboard affair’ shocked the Australian people. The government announced that the Australian navy had intercepted a boat carrying 223 asylum seekers. This was not unusual, but several government ministers declared that the asylum seekers had threatened to throw and indeed had thrown children overboard. A subsequent inquiry found this assertion to be untrue. In any case, as increasing numbers of children and especially unaccompanied minors arrived in Australian waters the government decided to implement ever-harsher deterrents for asylum seekers reaching Australian shores. The deterrents were implemented ostensibly to stop people drowning on the treacherous sea-journey, but also to assure the electorate that the Australian government was in command of Australian maritime borders.

The protection of the inside, the nation-state and its people, from the outside, usually seen as dangerous and unknown entities, is an age-old preoccupation of governments. To show strength is to lock down the border and let in only those people who are of benefit to the nation: skilled migrants, who will help maintain or construct the nation; tourists who will aid the economy by spending money; and foreign investors, who will employ locals.

As I opened the morning papers in Hawaii recently I was faced with America’s ‘children overboard’ stories — those of children showing up in unprecedented numbers at the Mexico-U.S. border. Over 50.000 children had been detained in just the past nine months. Driving the exodus is what we regard as a basic right for children in the West, safety — to feel and be safe in one’s community, without persecution and harassment. These children are seeking asylum, which should not become a political tool for electioneering, as it has done so often.

As anthropologists we like to get behind the headlines and locate the context of a given event or world issue and examine the issue on a micro level. I have just finished filming for the massive open online course Worl101x: The anthropology of current world issues on the edX platform in which we discuss borders, the nation and refugees in some detail. My own work in Malaysia focuses on how refugees make a home for themselves in a place that does not afford them legal recognition.

The stories I have encountered in Malaysia share crucial elements with the asylum seekers of the ‘children overboard’ affair in Australia and those of the children detained along the U.S.-Mexico border as reported by anthropologists and journalists in recent months. At the core of these stories there are push and pull factors that impact the decisions to leave one’s home and seek out a place for a new life.

The push factors are often violence, conflict and a sense of insecurity, be it personal or for an entire community, ethnicity or other group identity. When life becomes unbearable and too hard it becomes a matter of survival and instinct to seek an escape route to a better place. And here the pull factors come in. The United States of America, Australia and Europe stand out as safe and prosperous places to live, work and make a life for oneself. It is our success in creating stable and peaceful societies that attract others to them. Both push and pull factors are more complex and depend on individual trajectories and anthropology has a wealth of stories to tell about why some people make the journey and others do not.

Anthropology connects stories and makes clearer the reasoning and logic behind decisions that may at first seem counterintuitive. Why would anyone let their children travel thousands of miles, often with strangers or alone, to an unknown country — the dangers seem overwhelming. Especially as in both cases, Australia and the U.S., these children have to traverse dangerous transit countries and inhospitable natural environments (the sea and desert respectively).

This makes it all the more important for everyone, that’s you and me, to be more aware of how our neighbors are living and faring in an ever more interconnected world. The answers can only start with a concerted regional effort that provides aid to our neighbors, whether across borders or within them, and provides new hope for people who often have only the hope of a new life elsewhere to hang on to.

I am a migrant myself, but one of those lucky ones, who can migrate for work with visas that allow me to legally stay in Australia and access healthcare, education and work. Indeed, I can travel freely around the world and have just returned from a trip around the Americas. When I arrived at the U.S. border at Honolulu International Airport I was quizzed by the official about my intentions, the places I was staying at and how much money I had with me. In fact, at each destination I had to present my credentials, my passport, for a government official to look it over and allow me into their country. I am very privileged to have a passport that allows me to freely move across the world. Many people are not that lucky.

3 comments on “Lessons About Refugees From an Australian Immigration Crisis

  1. Mary says:

    I am sorry, I stay in Malaysia and am surprised that you say Refugees from Myanmar do not have a legal presence, as I know several Myanmar workers who say they have refugee status and are legally employed in Malaysia. Also, Myanmar ladies are preferred by many Malaysians, as domestic workers, living and working in their employers homes. To do this the Ministry of Manpower would require for them to have a legal presence. I am just interested, as I found your article to be excellent but would like, if possible, for this point to be cleared. I have just started on the EdX course on Anthropology and after just reading through the first week, am “fired up” with enthusiasm. Thank you for giving your time to undertake such worthwhile work.

    Incidentally, I, like yourself, am a very fortunate migrant, having lived in the Middle East and Far East since 1978, and am able to travel freely around the world, hence my passion for knowledge on all world cultures.

    • anthropolitics says:

      Dear Mary, thanks for your comment. Having refugee status gives refugees some protection as police assure the UNHCR that they do not detain UNHCR card holders. However, this is not true in all instances. Furthermore refugee status is not a legally enforceable status in Malaysia, it may be tolerated, and some refugees have indeed received work rights, such many Acehnese in the early 2000s. I am afraid your friends from Myanmar can only have legal status if they have a passport and came in a legal manner from Myanmar. Refugees have not and they have no legal standing in Malaysia.
      check out this for more info: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e4884c6.html

  2. Ankush says:

    I loved your lecture series and the course on edX. It has made me some sort of a fan of yours 🙂 I intend to write a longer mail to you separately, but here is a comment related to this post.

    I think a passport is not just a simple passport. The passport is looked in so many different ways. The name that appears on the passport, the photograph, the other details added on build on our identification through that simple passport. Therefore, not everyone with a similar looking passport is looked as the same. I remember when I was on one of my recent travels, I had a beard. People thought that I was a Muslim. On one of the security checks, the guard was specially rash to me, till the point came when he saw my passport and read my Hindu name. The complete attitude shifted. I wonder how many people are denied services, entries and privileges based on what’s writing inside their passports.

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