‘We can't take them all.’
It's a refrain that we hear over and over from politicians and commentators. With the UNHCR estimating that there were 15.4 refugees worldwide at the end of 2012, Australia cannot
possibly accept all those who wish to come to its shores. And that's before you even take into account Bob Carr's ‘economic migrants’ who are not in fear for their lives, but simply in search of a comfortable First World lifestyle. ‘We can't take them all’, so therefore we must resort to punitive measures to hold them back. The concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru are the only factors holding back a tidal wave of displaced humanity.
It's worth reminding ourselves, then, that most refugees regard resettlement in Australia as a last resort rather than a winning lottery ticket. I was in Pakistan in 2000 and 2001 during a previous round of Australian panic over boat-arrivals. Editors in Australia suggested that interviews with refugees hoping to come to Australia would make a good story, and I assumed that a life in Australia would be high on the wish list of any of my refugee contacts.
I ought not to have jumped to conclusions. When I asked refugees about their hopes for the future, very few of them talked about resettlement in Australia or other first-world countries. Most of them hoped to return to Afghanistan – not the war-torn country that they had fled, but a peaceful Afghanistan where they could farm their land, practice their professions, raise their families in safety. Middle-class refugees – those who most closely fit the template of the ‘economic migrant’ - knew that their skills and qualifications would probably not be recognised here. And farmers, tradesmen and traders knew that they would be torn from the social and economic structures that gave their lives meaning and purpose.
Any Australian who has travelled anywhere overseas has had conversations with people who hope to migrate here. The idea of a fresh start in a new country with all the possibilities it might hold can appeal even to those who are basically safe and well provided for. But leaving behind everything that is familiar, everyone you know and love, the language in which you spoke your first words, and the people who understand you as something more complex and three-dimensional than as just another migrant – most people baulk at that challenge even when it does not involve a dangerous journey by sea and an indefinite period of detention.
Of course, many refugees build successful lives for themselves and their families after migrating to Australia. But we ought to regard that as an achievement they have undertaken rather than a privilege that Australia has granted them.