There are many reasons why people seek asylum, but following the previous post on the U.N. Convention (see below), the reasons enshrined in the Convention and International Law (and following Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are: political and non-political persecution (persecution over sexuality, race), religious persecution, economic persecution, war (conflict), torture, barbarous acts, oppression, tyranny.
In the majority of cases people do not take risks to leave their family, community, nation and take further risks leaving savings and worldly goods to others, take the risk of unsafe travel, risk discovery and return, in order to just enjoy a western lifestyle. The reasons for someone to actually take these risks are substantive.
Self reflection here might be helpful. When communities are faced with bushfire or earthquake there is an understanding that one might need to leave home and belongings to escape danger. It is not easy to do that even when faced with danger, and people have recounted how they have left late, or have even stayed and risked death, rather than leave and face something new, no matter how temporary. For many, leaving what they know and control and make sense of is not an easy or simple matter. There are whole sets of relationships, opportunities, cultural connections, identity, and world view, that are so much a part of each person they cannot easily be junked at the drop of a hat or on a whim.
The Story of ‘Gus’ is familiar to a certain generation. His family fled Austria after Hitler’s Anschluss. The family didn’t rush into it but eventually they fled in 1939, to arrive in Australia and safety. Gus’ father was Jewish, but this meant that even his mother wasn’t safe even though she was not Jewish. (see this and other stories at http://www.ras.unimelb.edu.au/refugees_australian_stories/). There is the story of Maimun who fled the civil war and utter chaos of Somalia for a UNHCR camp in Kenya and in 1999 came to Australia. There is the story of Pierre who escaped certain death in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) and who came to Australia in 2006. The story of Ayuel from Sudan whose family fled persecution and certain death, moving around camps in Ethiopia, Uganda (where the Sundanese militias pursued the refugees) and Kenya before being brought to Australia and safety. These are just some of a small collection of stories from refugees who have settled in Australia through the UNHCR program.
My own interaction has included working with “C” from Sudan (and “J” “J2” and “J3”, “D”). “C” was sent out of his village in south Sudan by his mother as the rebels entered shooting. “C” escaped the hail of bullets and wandered for days in the bush until entering Kenya. The story of “A” and his family is amazing, he escaped academic, religious, and political persecution and death in Iraq, he gave up a career, security, parents, and money to get here.
Najeeba from Afghanistan reflects that for her to leave her friends and family and culture was the hardest thing she has ever done, but escaping the Taliban and oppression, abuse even death was a must that finally pushed her parents to come by boat to Australia.
Three years ago Ashane escaped by boat from Sri Lanka as a young man who the Tamils or even the government were attempting to press-gang into fighting in the guerrilla war (and please note that although the war is over, the government has continued its persecution of Tamils). (see http://www.rethinkrefugees.com.au/real_stories/).
From Europe in the 1930s to Afghanistan and Syria currently, there are substantive threats to the security and safety of ordinary people. The threat of death, persecution, oppression, torture, religious persecution, and the loss of human rights in general is real.
Why do they come? Because in many cases the people would die if they did not try. They are willing to die trying rather than remain and be killed by others. I would do that too! They clearly struggle to come to the conclusion that they should leave, but leave they must if they wish to live or even have rights.
My contention is that we have fallen into the trap of tribalism whereby we harp on about border protection and population control without really looking to see that we are a global people. We are all human and we all have inalienable rights. we need to educate ourselves more on why they come and what it is like to live in the shoes of refugees and reflect on how we might react and respond through hearing those stories.
For further reflection I would recommend the book and film “Kite Runner” which tells the story of how Russian intervention brought the collapse of the Royal family and enabled the rise of the Taliban (with U.S. help) and how the Hazara are persecuted by other groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. I would also recommend Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut “In The Land of Blood and Honey” a romantic (sic) story set in the midst of the Serb-Bosnian war and tells of ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, concentration camps and love. “The Killing Fields” and “Schindler’s List” are also valuable in alerting us to ‘why.’
And very confronting is the 2011 short film “Unwatchable” which was commissioned by charities to shock western audiences into action over the human price of gold for mobile phones and the destruction of lives to obtain that gold. The story uses a fictional English family who are raped and murdered to tell the true story of a Congolese family who went through this (interestingly the Guardian journalist Jane Martinson whinged about its brutality saying it made her faint and others sick – but that was the point, this was real for someone who couldn’t just wander down to the video store and choose a Disney film or go to Maccas for lunch!) The official site is now closed but the video is available on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flePzz_CEuQ or engine search for “Unwatchable” within Youtube. It is six minutes long but a hard six minutes!
Why do people come? Because they live in fear and face death for many different reasons.
The U.N. Convention is a commitment by all countries to honour the rights of those who come to us as asylum seekers. But I have also already suggested that we shouldn’t hide behind the convention, we should respond humanely without recourse to laws.