For a long time I’ve wanted to put my figurative pen to paper & explain my views on refugees, but have been hesitant due to the enormous backlash one receives when decrying offshore processing from either party. Instead of explaining the unethical nature of offshore processing, I thought I’d explain what caused me to reach this conclusion.
Start Where Every Story Starts
From the age of 5 to 16 I lived on & off outside Australia. It was part of dad’s job, initially with Australian Volunteers Abroad (now Australian Volunteers International), then with the International Labour Organisation.
The first place we lived was Tonga, yes, beautiful island paradise & all that. It was great. Almost every day after school we’d run down to the lagoon & fish or swim. The weekends were filled with eating sugar cane, climbing palm trees, & preparing ‘umu (Tongan earth oven, similar to a Maori hangi), then eating them. It was a great life, the Tongans are great people with little reason to think beyond the tropical shores.
This was the first & last place I lived that truly was paradise.
The Hard Road
I remember after we came back from Tonga, dad had trouble finding stable work: overqualified & experienced for almost everything, especially in 1988 Australia. We were struggling so dad thought he’d call in a few favours with the ILO, applying for a short term contract in The Gambia. After 6 months, dad came home with tales of woe & terror, this was not the posting that dad had thought it would be. Even for him as a diplomat his accommodation was basic, food scarce, & security low.
After returning, he decided to apply for a job in the Maldives for the ILO. Tropical paradise, here we come, right?
There’s a big difference between visiting the resorts of the Maldives & living there. We lived on Malé, the capital of the Maldives (seriously, it’s pronounced mul-deaves, not mal-dives, rimes with “pull leaves”), less than 6km² with 100+ people on it today (back then the island was smaller with 80 000 people). This was a horrible place to live, save for Fridays, the day of rest in Islam, where we would visit one of the many resorts for the day.
When I first arrived, dad had been there for a few months, setting up the training program & organising housing for us, a little 2 bedroom apartment for a family of 4. It was considered luxurious there, so we couldn’t complain.
Within a week dad had asked me if I wished to come on a flight/boat trip to Ghan, Addu Atoll, in the south. There was an ex-British airfield, & causeways between the islands. It’s probably the most developed of the outer atolls of the Maldives, & is the furthest south.
A little trivia, the word atoll comes from devehi, the language of the Maldives.
The south, while developed by the British had stagnated since, with little in the form of vocational education, & non-existent factory production from the various factories left by the British. The only factories with workers were the garment factories.
Visiting them was terrible. They were cramped, dusty, humid, & hot. The workers were forced to work long shifts, stay in company housing, buy from company shops, & were not allowed to leave the compound without permission. Most, if not all, were Tamil or poor Sinhalese sending money home to keep their family from falling into poverty. These people were indentured for up to 5 years at a time, paid almost nothing, & treated like lesser beings.
We were forced to return from this trip without travelling from the south to Malé by boat as the captain refused to cross the straight between Addu & Gaafu Dhaalu for fear of missing Ghan & ending up on his way to Antarctica. He had only a compass to guide him for 12 hours out of sight of land.
So we flew back for a week in Malé before our second trip, to the north, started.
This trip was fun, our first night was to the northern tip of Kaafu Atoll for our first night. We stopped at a barely inhabited island, dropped off some supplies & took on some dried fish.
While travelling to the north, similar stories of slave-like conditions for Tamils & Sinhalese who sent all their funds back to their families. It became apparent that this was normal practice among garment factories in the Maldives, with many of the sweat shops turning out clothes for labels like GAP.
Then there was the local Maldivians own suffering under their dictatorial ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. No one liked him, but would only speak up if there were no other Maldivians around. Why? Gayoom had the country’s only protective service, the National Security Service (NSS), under his direct command.
Stories such as people being chained hand to feet for drinking alcohol, or beaten because they “offended the President”, were commonplace. I’ve never felt so scared to talk openly than in the Maldives. Not because it is an Islamic country, this really didn’t bother me, but because of the way the President wielded his political toy: the NSS.
I really couldn’t blame any Maldivian wanting to seek asylum under Gayoom’s rule.
Holiday In Cambodia
Once we came back from Maldives, Australia was in the “recession we had to have”, making it close to impossible for dad to find work. He did some work with Hunter Volunteer Development, working the cancer & AIDS patients in their dying days. A depressing job at the best of times.
Dad kept trying for projects in South America, but was roundly refused by the ILO due to his lack of Spanish language skills. He persevered & landed a job in Cambodia heading up a project.
He started out in Kampot in the south, running a vocational training centre there. Again, very basic accommodation, & little in the way of amenities. Buildings still had bullet holes, many still do to this day, from Pol Pot’s reign. Even some of his generals still existed, one dad affectionately called One Eyed Willie, a hardened general that still held Bokor Mountain that overlooked Kampot.
Dad was shot at regularly, once while standing near a window. The bullet embedded itself in his air-conditioner. The local market was regularly mortared, killing many, & worst of all, the trains would be bombed. A simple setup of a 108mm shell buried below an anti-tank mine on the tracks. On one such occurrence dad went to help recover bodies & assist with treating the injured. It was so bad that a British army officer who attended the scene broke down.
This was daily life for Khmer people, death was at every turn.
I went to live with dad when I was 15. I was an out of control teenager & my mum couldn’t handle it, so off I went.
In my time in Cambodia I experienced things I thought I would never. I saw people shot in the middle of the street in broad daylight, I heard stories that would make even the hardest bastard feel sorry for the person, & I saw the aftermath of genocide.
One day, my father’s driver, Vantee, decided to take my family for what he called a “holiday”. A short trip to the countryside to meet his family. For him, it was a great honour for my father to accept this & pulled out all the stops.
We chatted for a while, dad speaking to Vantee’s family in broken Khmer, Vantee translating things for us. One thing was strange, non of Vantee’s immediate family were present. His aunts, uncles, cousins, children, & wife, all there, but no brothers, sisters, etc.
My father asked why this was. Before I explain what happened next, one thing I’ve learnt from Khmer culture is that they do not get offended if you ask about people who died during Pol Pot. If anything, they want to tell the stories, they want people to know so it doesn’t happen again.
Vantee told us the story of how his family died. They were rounded up by Khmer Rouge soldiers & chained to seats in a truck, the truck was then driven into the Mekong river with everyone inside.
During my time there I heard many stories like this, & after visiting Tuol Sleng, a concentration camp for “recalcitrant citizens”, I can understand the desire to seek asylum.
After years of living in Cambodia, working in East Timor after independence, & contributing to South East Asia’s vocational training systems, dad has finally hung up his boots (kind of) & settled down in Thailand with my stepmother. My stepmother is a Thai national who spent years working in the refugee camps along the Cambodian border. The stories of the poverty, crime, & disease are heart wrenching.
Through mine & my family’s experiences, I cannot agree that refugees should be processed offshore. They are not economic migrants, they are fleeing persecution. If they are not genuine refugees, then the refugee convention does not apply, but we can’t treat genuine refugees who come by boat like criminals because a small percentage are not found to be genuine.
I am by no means a refugee activist, nor am I an human rights expert, but I am a voter, I do have a voice, & I am thoroughly sick of the childish politicisation of people’s suffering.
It is not illegal to want safety. It is not illegal to want respect. It is not illegal to seek asylum.