30 July 2014

No money? No asylum

Somalians displaced by drought queue for refugee registration, in the heat of the sun.
Somalis displaced by drought queue for refugee registration. [DFID/Flickr]

My ancestors were refugees from the Armenian Genocide. Chart is the Armenian word for massacre; it’s also one of the first words Armenian kids learn today. When I was five, my father explained, "In 1915 the Ottomans killed 1.5 million Armenians." He spoke of death marches across the Syrian Desert and systematic killings of women and children—a great
bedtime story, especially when accompanied by photographs of bodies in ditches and severed heads on poles. More than one million Armenians sought asylum in neighbouring countries.

My mother’s uncle was a doctor in the Ottoman army and his work buddies tipped him off about the planned massacres, so he got his family together, packed some clothes and their savings—bags of gold and jewellery— and got the hell out of there. They bribed their way to al-Bab, Syria, where they used their wealth to start over.

Armenian refugees, tents and horses in Syria, during World War 1.
There were over 800,000 Armenian refugees from Turkey in 1922.
[Near Est Relief/Wikimedia Commons]

My father’s grandfather owned so much land that it took a whole day to cross it on horse. When he escaped to Greece, he didn’t have much trouble starting over either. Money is always useful when escaping humanitarian crises, but most refugees have nothing. They end up in far-flung refugee camps in countries bordering their own. And as they wait for resettlement, their freedom and their hopes and their bodies slowly fade away.

They face a daily struggle for food and water, and health and safety. In Benue, Nigeria, facilities of one camp are so overstretched that refugees sleep in the open, vulnerable to snake and mosquito bites. With a lack of facilities and potable water, disease is common and in June last year over fifty deaths were reported.

Somali refugees in Dadaab camp in Kenya.
Life in refugee camps is a constant struggle. [Grace Blue/Flickr]

In January 2013, Amnesty International announced that seventeen people—mostly children—died in Afghan refugee camps due to the cold. A spokesperson said the deaths were due to the ‘inadequate coordination of winter assistance’ to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people. In 2011 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that ten Somali children under the age of five were dying every day of hunger-related causes in an Ethiopian camp.

These are refugees who cannot safely return to their home countries, and unlike boat people they can’t afford to travel any further than the refugee camp next door. According to parliamentary research, people smugglers charge between $11,750 and $17,650 for an all-inclusive fare from Afghanistan to Australia. But when the average annual income is US$528 per capita, it means it would take most Afghans years to afford a people smuggler’s fare. Not everyone has a bag of gold at their disposal.

Refugees standing between refugee tents in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Many refugees live in makeshift tents. [isafmedia/Flickr]

Many refugees have to sell their houses and all their possessions to pay such fees; perhaps they sell the only thing they have, their bodies; or maybe a village will pool its resources to help someone in imminent danger. But there are many others without anything to sell, and many villages can barely afford to feed themselves, much less pay for a ticket to Australia.

What happens to penniless refugees in this boat? They get stuck waiting in refugee camps with a one per cent chance they’ll be resettled. And death in camps is more complicated than drowning. It’s slower. If refugees don’t starve to death, they risk disease, violence, rape, child soldier recruitment, terrorist recruitment, depression and suicide.

Syria, Aleppo. Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field within sight of help and safety at Aleppo.
After the genocide, thousands of Armenian refugees were being scattered over the desert to starve or die of disease in burning heat. [Near East Relief/Wikimedia Commons]

Leaving this hell through the proper channels can be near impossible. Refugees must undergo background checks, verifying the legitimacy of their claim to asylum; they must pass a series of interviews, where saying the wrong thing may earn a black mark against their name; and they must undergo medical examinations, to ensure they don’t bring diseases into their country of resettlement—good luck being disease-free after years in a squalid camp. The whole process can take years, sometimes decades. Many die waiting for resettlement.

A lucky few have money, and you can hardly blame them for paying huge sums and risking their lives on shoddy boats to escape all this. Anyone would do the same. If you’ve got the gold, use it.

Afghan refugee tents in the snow.
In 2013, seventeen people (mostly children) died in Afghan refugee camps due to the cold.
[Tracey Hunter/Flickr]
These refugees are not economic migrants. Many are people whose education, profession or political opinions have resulted in their persecution. Often they are middle-class people who have drawn the attention of authorities. Middle-class people face humanitarian risks too.

These refugees are not acting illegally. Australia became a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention in 1954, recognising the right of refugees to enter the country in any way, whether or not they have valid travel and identity documents.

And there is no queue to jump. One does not reach the front simply by waiting long enough. Priority depends on the fluctuating need for resettlement: if conditions in the country of origin improve, there is less need; if the conditions deteriorate, there is more. A refugee waiting for one year may be prioritised over someone waiting ten years.

A close-up view of the Za'atri camp for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, from a helicopter.
Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan was first opened to host refugees from the Syrian civil war. In July 2013, the population was estimated at 144,000, and growing at up to 1,500–2,000 refugees per day.
[US Dept. of State/Wikimedia Commons]

At the beginning of 2013 there were 10.4 million refugees in the world, seeking safety in another country, with one-third living in refugee camps. The UNHCR submits only about one per cent for resettlement. Refugees either wait it out or wait until it’s safe to return to their home country—either way, it could be years.

I’m lucky my ancestors were able to use their wealth to seek asylum; otherwise, it’s likely they too would’ve been killed in the massacres of the Armenian Genocide. At best they would’ve ended up in refugee camps. These days, that means an indefinite wait with the risk of disease, starvation, violence and death. When this is the alternative, paying your way to asylum is the moral choice.


  1. Great post, Ara. You obviously spent a lot of time researching it. Your personal family connection to refugees was interesting to learn about, too.


    1. Thanks Theresa! I really appreciate the feedback.


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