Tag Archives: Migration

Attention all disadvantaged asylum seekers: No advantage for you

Submitted anonymously by Jane (not real name), who is an experienced worker in the Australian refugee sector.

The Australian Government’s idea that there is a deterrent effect to being tough on boat arrivals only really makes sense if those trying to leave are not “real” (in fear of their lives) refugees.no advantage

Having met and worked with hundreds of asylum seekers, the most common story I am told is that asylum seekers don’t choose Australia. An agent (asylum seekers and refugees do not call them people smugglers) organises everything for them and they flee, very often without time for goodbyes, an ability to inform family members (for fear of reprisal), preparation or research. They just leave in fear of their lives hoping to reach a safe place.

In order to live, they flee their country without time to watch the Australian Government’s Youtube video telling them that entry via the ocean is the ‘wrong way’ and to ‘go back’. And, as the Australian Government attempts to spread their ‘No Advantage’ message to remote areas of the world, believe it or not there are still many isolated villages of the world without WiFi to access this message.

In fact, a number of asylum seekers I have met said they only realised they were going to Australia as their boat left Indonesia. They didn’t have an opportunity to request a final destination, as this is usually decided by the agent. Some thought they were going to the UK, Canada or Europe, and most people wouldn’t mind being placed in any safe country, so long as they are protected and given rights to participate in society and become active members of their new nation.

The Australian Government’s ‘No Advantage’ slogan from their latest policy on immigration is out of touch with reality on numerous levels. The policy is supposed to neutralise the ‘waiting period’ between those asylum seekers who have arrived to Australian territories or the mainland since August 13th 2012 and those who live in places like Jakarta, seeking out protection and relocation to a third country.

I have been told by asylum seekers living in Indonesia that resettlement via UNHCR in Jakarta takes approximately 12-18 months and resettlement via Kuala Lumpur takes approximately 24 months. So, why is the government threatening asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru Island that they will be living in Regional Processing Centres for up to five years?

Some regional host countries, and many host countries around the world (Kenya, Pakistan) do not have the capacity, finance, human resources or lack of corruption and commitment to transparency to fairly process refugees, which are real challenges that contribute to longer processing times. They may also have a lot of their own national social concerns that they are struggling to deal with and hosting and processing refugees is not their priority. Australia, on the other hand, has the organisational capacity to process asylum seeker claims in a timely manner, but chooses not too. Why? To be tough. To deter.

Which brings us back to the original point of frustration; deterrence only works if those who are fleeing danger are not refugees. If Australia kept finding out that those who they processed as asylum seekers were not refugees, the policy may have some logic behind it in the eyes of policy makers. However, the fact that around 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be refugees proves that people are fleeing their homelands because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

Despite regurgitated messages from tabloid media that we are being flooded by so called evil illegal economic migrants, we simply are not. Why should we deter refugees who have suffered fear, persecution, kidnapping, bombings, murders of family members and other horrific human rights violations? When somebody tells you that the Taliban have kidnapped their family members and threatened to kill them and they fear for their life and they are fighting for their life and freedom, on what grounds does Australia stand to tell asylum seekers to go back to where they came from? Maybe when Australia wants to turn the boats back they could provide each asylum seeker a shovel to dig their own graves? Is Australia really that compassionless? By the current state of refugee issues, unfortunately, I fear so.

no one chooses...

The principals of ‘No Advantage’ should be based on fairness and equity. Why then is the Australian Government sending handfuls of people to languish in remote offshore detention facilities, while other people that arrived on the same boat as these asylum seekers from a similar background and story are granted bridging visas, living in the Australian community?

Where is the transparency and explanation about why particular people are being sent to Nauru and Manus islands while others are not?

“The Pacific Solution” and the “Regional Frameworks” for dealing with refugee issues are empty policies. They are not solutions or genuine multilateral approaches that are working together in the region. If the government genuinely wanted to produce a fair and equitable approach to dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific region then they should be providing more support in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, India and other regional hubs with high numbers of asylum seekers living in limbo; not dumping asylum seekers in remote areas of the Pacific.

under the carpet

The Australian Government could use its political influence to persuade these regions to make life more tolerable for those who have escaped their countries by allowing work rights, education for their children and greater access to health services. They could even finance this type of support by stopping outlandishly expensive remote detention facilities.

Finally, Australia, it’s time to get a life and think about the globe that we live in as humankind together. Just because we are geographically isolated from most of the planet doesn’t mean that our attitudes need to be as well. We don’t live in a rosy, harmonious war-free world. There are so many injustices, conflicts and awful atrocities that affect innocent people. People who like you and me, have families, dreams, aspirations, love stories and a desire to live in peace and maybe one day even buy a house and grow a garden. Australia, your current policies are absolutely awful and non-humanitarian. They are destroying people’s lives.

Regional cooperation: An impossible dream?

By Oliver White

Oliver is the former Regional Advocacy Communication Manager for the Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific.

Millions of refugees and asylum seekers face tough challenges in their struggle to find safety in Asia Pacific. With the lowest number of signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention in the world, this region offers paltry protection to people on the move. The glaring absence of national asylum laws and standardised procedures for refugee status determination has driven asylum seekers underground.

Asia Pacific is home to some 10.6 million forcibly displaced people. They are on the move for different reasons: seeking economic survival or reunion with their families, fleeing human rights violations.

But, their movements are marked by the same defining factors: fear; dangerous journeys, often by boat; being smuggled and vulnerable to trafficking; and the risk of indefinite detention.

Fifty-six-year-old Ali spent a year in detention in Indonesia until he received refugee status from UNHCR. He left his wife and 11 children back home in Afghanistan. Ali was among detainees who diligently attended English classes in the detention centre three times a week. (Paulus Enggal/JRS)
Fifty-six-year-old Ali spent a year in detention in Indonesia until he received refugee status from UNHCR. He left his wife and 11 children back home in Afghanistan. Ali was among detainees who diligently attended English classes in the detention centre three times a week. (Paulus Enggal/JRS)

Stemming pull factors

In recent years, Asian states have increasingly sought to seal their borders by stemming pull factors – forces that draw people to a new location – by resorting to detention and making it difficult to file asylum claims. Asylum seekers are driven underground, where they are exposed to exploitation and hazardous conditions, and denied access to health care, work, food, shelter and education.

But the push factors  – forces driving people from their homes – are always stronger so curbing the pull factors only leads to greater human rights violations and despair. Mahmoud, an Afghan asylum seeker detained in Indonesia, is one victim of this hostile approach.

“I would rather be shot than wait for this process to keep going indefinitely with no idea what is happening,” he said. “I don’t want to spend my life in this prison.”

Nowhere is safe. Police in Malaysia arrested David, from Burma, three times. “I don’t have a UNHCR card and they told me and my friends they could do what they wanted to us. They stole 200 ringgit [local currency] from my wallet and my telephone.”

Promoting regional collaboration

In recent years, the region has seen increasingly large-scale displacements. Armed conflict in Afghanistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka, persecution of ethnic minorities in Vietnam and ongoing oppression of the Rohingya have continued to push people towards Australia. Transit countries along the way include Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The need for cross-border and regional collaboration has never been greater, and the last few years have seen a rising interest in such collaboration.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has proven to be an inadequate space to encourage the protection of refugee rights. Under the Bali Process, a grouping of over 50 states and international organisations working to address people smuggling and trafficking, UNHCR has promoted a Regional Cooperation Framework to be used as a guide for states to collaborate on migration issues. But although it has been well received, the framework is non-binding.

One of the few examples of bilateral cooperation has been the Regional Cooperation Model, signed in 2001, between Australia and Indonesia in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The aim is to support asylum seekers and refugees to prevent them from onward movement to Australia. But, such agreements fail without the involvement of other host, transit and resettlement countries.

 Ali was among detainees who diligently attended English classes in the detention centre three times a week (Paulus Enggal/JRS).
Ali was among detainees who diligently attended English classes in the detention centre three times a week (Paulus Enggal/JRS).

As one of the most developed countries in the region, Australia offers the best capacity to protect refugees, but national security interests and domestic politics have undermined its ability to lead by example. Recent decisions to embark on offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus defy the country’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and may seriously jeopardise refugee rights. Nearly 90% of people arriving by boat are convention refugees, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

Australia has found a legal loophole by excising its territory – excluding parts from its migration zone – in order to bypass its responsibility to process asylum seekers arriving by boat. But it is doubtful that the new policies will stop people from arriving because the problem lies in the lack of durable solutions for refugees elsewhere in the region.

An Afghani refugee in Indonesia said: “I know it’s a dangerous journey, and I don’t want to put myself and my family at risk at sea, but it’s not a choice. If you give me and my family the right to work here, then we will stay here.”

The way forward

Cooperation, consistency and subscribing to universally accepted standards of protection are the way forward to ensure more equitable burden sharing for states and to protect refugees transiting through Asia Pacific. Standardising procedures means refugees will face the same treatment, no matter where they go, and increasing protection in transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will reduce the need for onward movement.

A framework for regional protection would see transit states in the region acknowledge that asylum seekers and refugees are distinct from other migrants with protection rights. Asylum seekers and refugees should be issued with temporary documents to avoid being detained under Immigration laws as well temporary work permits and access to public utilities including schools and hospitals.

Resettlement countries such as the U.S, Canada and Australia should consider increasing their quotas for humanitarian visas and work towards decreasing the time a refugee must wait in transit countries to be resettled.

UNHCR must work towards reducing and harmonising the times that asylum seekers and refugees have to wait for registration, and the recognition of their status, as well as ensuring that those decisions are transparent and fair in accordance with UNHCR’s own set of procedural standards.

With increased funding for the provision of vital services such as health, psychosocial, legal, education civil society can play a vital role in strengthening refugee protection in the region.

The Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) initiated in the 1980s as a response to the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese in boats at sea facilitated durable solutions for Indochinese refugees, who were processed in transit countries and either resettled in the US, Australia and Canada or repatriated. Although far from perfect, the CPA exemplifies that regional cooperation is possible if the political will is there.


Climate Change and migration: what we need to be doing right now

It is scientific fact that human’s emissions of greenhouse gases, together with the destruction of carbon sinks (e.g. forests), are causing changes in our climate. It should therefore should not be a matter of ‘debate’, in the same way that we understand that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer. I find myself perplexed by sections of the general public who still listen to and internalise the views of media and industry personalities who have an ‘opinion’ on Climate Change science, without appropriate qualifications.  I’m extremely concerned by the findings in the latest Lowy Institute Poll which shows a severe decline over the past six years in the number of Australians who think Climate Change is a serious and pressing problem which should be acted on now (down to 36% in 2012 from 68% in 2006 – see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Australians views on addressing climate change/global warming: A tracking question that presents Australians with three options for dealing with global warming reveals for the first time that those favouring an intermediate approach to the problem now outnumber Australians favouring the most aggressive form of action. Only a third (36%) of Australians now support the most aggressive form of action, down from two-thirds (68%) back in 2006 who said ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.’ Source: The Lowy Institute Poll 2012.

The world’s most qualified and experienced climate scientists, like James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most honored climate commentators, such as Bill McKibben, continue to warn us that Climate Change is here, and that it’s worse than expected. Scientific projections have already been exceeded, and we’re hurtling towards a number of irreversible tipping points, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.

The socio-economic impacts of Climate Change are enormous and the implications for human well-being are frightening. However, there’s a stark disconnect between those countries who are causing the problem, and those countries which will be hardest hit. As you can see highlighted in the map below (Figure 2), the countries facing extreme risks under Climate Change scenarios are predominantly poor developing nations in Asia and Africa, whilst those countries facing low risks are predominantly the wealthy developed nations who are largely responsible for anthropogenic Climate Change, through greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 3) and driving the market demands which have lead to forest (carbon sink) loss.

Figure 2: Global Climate Change vulnerability index. Source: Maplecroft 2011


Figure 3: Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions: The following graphs present the total and per capita carbon dioxide emissions for the top 16 countries identified as most vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, the 11 countries identified as least vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, and four important economies and/or emitters (China, Australia, U.K and U.S.A) for comparison. Note that emissions data is only that of carbon dioxide from energy consumption and does not include the emission of carbon dioxide from other sources, or the emissions other greenhouse gases, which have up to 32 000 times more warming potential compared to carbon dioxide. Source: Data generated using data from International Energy Statistics via The Guardian.


Despite James Hansen’s calls earlier this year highlighting Climate Change as a ‘moral issue on par with slavery’, it’s still failed to spark the moral outrage one might expect of it. In an enlightening piece by Markowitz and Sherrif in Nature (but more accessible in article by David Roberts in Grist) the authors explain why it hasn’t, but how it could. Although they point to the abstractness and cognitive complexity of Climate Change as one of the factors, I think that the authors missed a crucial, finer element in their analysis, which is that many of the people who will be hit hardest by Climate Change, still don’t even have a word for ‘Climate Change’ in their languages (such as in Khmer in Cambodia). Maybe the fact that the ‘victims’ do not understand Climate Change, ‘where it’s coming from’ and who’s responsible is key as to why Climate Change has not yet become the moral issue it could.

In these countries, Climate Change will lead to increased frequencies and intensities of drought, flooding, coastal inundation and erosion, storms and other weather-related disasters.  These hazards will have a number of direct and indirect effects on people and communities, including reduced availability of and access to land and natural resources, threatening food and water security, and therefore livelihoods and mortality. Individuals, families and communities will attempt to adapt to changing environmental conditions, but many will be forced to use mobility as a last resort adaptation strategy, leaving their homes in order to survive. This has the potential to trigger conflicts with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources. A recent study by UNHCR in the Horn of Africa found that that cross-border movement hardly ever occurs as a direct reaction to climatic stress. However, this is under today’s climate conditions, and we understand future stresses to be of magnitudes never experienced by humans before, which could affect whole countries and regions. However, the report also stated that UNHCR has also observed that environmental considerations are increasingly affecting the movement of refugees and internally displaced persons in the East and Horn of Africa.

The same study found that violent conflicts, and state failure and repression, reduced the capacity of communities exposed to extreme weather events to cope with and adapt to these climate-related hazards, resulting in an increased vulnerability to other more severe political factors, which lead to their forced migration. The interaction between Climate Change and conflict was acknowledged by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2007 and awareness of climate change as a threat to issues of peace and national and international security is building. Late last year, the United States Department of Defense released a report on ‘Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security’.

There is a growing body of empirical evidence on the links between Climate Change and human mobility. Although there are no agreed definitions, academic literature uses terms such as environmental or climate change migration, environmentally induced or forced migration, ecological or environmental refugees, and climate change refugees. The lack of clear definitions relates to two issues:

  1. The difficulty of isolating environmental or climate-related factors from other drivers of migration.
  2. Debate as to whether environmental/climate related migration is forced or voluntary. Many commentators argue that it should be considered along a continuum.

At this point in time, UNHCR has rejected the concept of environmental or climate refugee, stating that the 1951 Refugee Convention protects those escaping from Climate Change-induced events only under specific circumstances which can be interpreted as “persecution” on one of five grounds set out in the Convention. Is it time then, to review this convention? Or develop a new convention to sit alongside it, to ensure that future climate refugees’ human rights are protected and provided for? The inaction of governments on an international scale to address Climate Change could be considered covert global tyranny on already poverty-stricken and vulnerable societies. We have a collective responsibility to protect and aide these people, particularly considering that we are the ones who have caused this issue in the first place.

How many climate refugees there will be in the future is a controversial topic. One of the most cited figures is Oxford University’s Norman Myer’s estimation of 150-200 million extra displaced people due to Climate Change, by 2050.

To understand the magnitude of this figure, the current number of displaced people globally is 42.5 million people – only one-third to one-quarter of Myer’s estimation (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre). This includes:

  • 15.2 million refugees (10.4 million under UNHCR mandate and 4.8 million Palestinians under UNRWA mandate)
  • 895, 285 asylum seekers
  • 26.4 million internally displaced persons

Two of the most important questions regarding future climate refugees are:

  1. Where will they go?
  2. Who will pay?

Perhaps those responsible for creating the problems (ie. Climate Change) that result in the ‘forced’ displacement of people from their homes should either provide relocation for these people within their own countries, and/or finance the costs associated with Climate Change adaptation (including internal relocation) and disaster relief and restoration?

How would the number of refugees required to be accepted, or the amount of funding to be provided, be determined? Perhaps it could be determined via calculations of historical/cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, as this measure indicates the extent of individuals and society’s collective responsibility for Climate Change and the hazards it causes. It is also indicative of the quality of life citizens have been ‘lucky enough’ to have enjoyed for so long, despite it being at the expense of other people’s (future) quality of life. This would be a fair approach, and perhaps one not too unlikely to be advocated for under international law by those affected?

I often wonder whether Climate Change could one day lead to developing countries filing a negligence case (or equivalent) against developed countries? Because developed countries are currently not exercising reasonable care or taking into account the potential harm they are foreseeably causing to other people. Victims would be able to prove:

  1. That greenhouse gas emissions released by human activity caused accelerated global climate change far above and beyond the ‘natural’ background changes;
  2. That governments had known that greenhouse gases caused human-induced global climate change since the mid-late 1800s. The United Nations held its first conference on Climate Change in 1979;
  3. That these governments were aware of the potential impacts of human-induced global Climate Change since at least 1979, with scientific projections becoming more refined over time;
  4. That these governments had consciously chosen not to take appropriate action to avoid or mitigate Climate Change and its impacts, through not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, for example;
  5. That citizens of these countries had been responsible for emitting ‘X’ amount of greenhouse gases.

Despite calculations of statistics regarding climate refugees being problematic, and international frameworks for climate refugees not yet being in existence, it would be wise for the world to plan on dealing with a sizable increase in the number of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless people in the future, with more people affected the more the climate, and consequentially the environment which underpins societies and economies, changes.

With this in mind, it would be in everyone’s best interests to take action on climate change now, to avoid or reduce the future social, economic and ecological costs associated with it, in both developing and developed countries.

It is also essential that governments improve policies and processes in relation to refugees and asylum seekers now, as these systems will undoubtedly be handling much higher numbers of people and therefore be under much more pressure, within coming decades.

I also hope, that the UNHCR and related organisations continue to explore and clarify terminology around this topic, and make progress on putting in place frameworks to ensure appropriate protection and assistance is provided to ‘climate change refugees’ in the future. Doing so may also have the benefit of driving greater efforts on the climate change mitigation and adaptation fronts, which will act to delay and/or reduce the scale of climate-related impacts on communities, and in some cases will help avoid their forced migration.


When I move you move: it’s the conflict, stupid.

I was listening to Triple J’s Hack (episode for 8th September) the other day, which was part IV in a series looking at the decade since 9/11. One of the interviewees, an academic from ANU, spoke of the correlation between conflict and migration. And, how 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts have been a catalyst for increased migration. In particular, of forced migration; or in Australian terms, ‘why people are getting on bloody boats and coming to our shores’.

This crucial and central ‘push’ factor of migration has largely been ignored in forums. Have we have forgotten what the nature of conflict is like, and that both Iraq and Afghanistan are very much still in states of conflict? Yet, public discussions are shaped by finger-pointing and blame – on who is responsible. We look inwards, rather than outwards. We rightly question Australia’s continued presence, purpose and role in both these countries. Then, separately, we question Australia’s immigration policy, human rights obligations and treatment of asylum seekers. But, rarely do we talk about both at the same time. About the connection between conflict and migration.

The current discourse in Australia focuses on immigration, often beginning with people on a boat, at a border. Although a recent New Matilda piece rightly questions the ethical premise of Australia’s immigration policy, it only focuses on what happens in and around Australia’s borders. Next, the Gillard Government proposed some very radical changes to the Immigration Act. In particular, 198AA, which gives extraordinary executive power to the Immigration Minister irregardless of international obligations or domestic laws. And then, the Herald Sun decided to attach a very loaded question to recent reporting on asylum seekers – “Is the Federal Government too soft on asylum seekers cheating their way into the country? Yes/No”.

Ludicrous. With the weight of all this talk about pull factors, it “feels like a midget is hanging from my neckless” (Ludacris). Australian discourse shows a lack of imagination. Migration is much more than about the arrival at a border. Migration involves multiple borders with many histories, politics, and agendas. Invisible yet tangible, following contours that are neither linear nor defined. When people are forced to move through these complex webs, we tend to only care where they are going, not why or from what.

Conflict causes, exacerbates and acts as a catalyst of the forced movements of people. Just look at the table below (Fig. 6 from UNHCR’s Global Trends 2010) and the top 7 sources of refugees. So, indulge me and engage in a historical hypothetical. What if Iraq and Afghanistan were not invaded? What effect could that have had on the movement of Iraqis and Afghans both globally and to Australia?

(Sorry, I wish I could present this as a minimalist infographic, but I lack the skills).

From UNHCR's Global Trends 2010

By the end of 2009, there were an estimated 10.4 million refugees around the world.

From UNHCR's Global Trends 2010

Almost half (45%) of those refugees were from Iraq and Afghanistan. By some estimates, as many as 7.8 million since 2003 from both countries combined. But, really, we do not actually know. It is disputed, in particular for Iraq. This can be attributed to: mixed migrations of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, both leaving and returning; the capacity of host countries to identify, register and track their movements; and the swift and disruptive nature of the war. For example, since 2003, 2/3 of Iraqis returning were IDPs. According to UNHCR, over 460,000 refugees have returned to Iraq since 2003. In 2010, 230 refugees in Australia returned to Iraq.

Over 3 million refugees have been forced from Afghanistan, with over 96% of them being hosted in Pakistan and Iran. Most Iraqi refugees have also sought protection in neighbouring countries, particularly in Syria and Jordan.

But, how many refugees came from Iraq and Afghanistan in the years prior to 9/11? Well, this does not really elicit the point I am trying to make, but in some ways ito does. Since the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, there has been large movements of refugees from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries and around the world. The same goes for Iraq, but without the Soviets.

Between 1980-2o01, the highest number of Afghan refugees was in 1990 at over 6 million, eventually dropping to 2.6 million in 2000 after a total of 4.6 million were repatriated during the 1990s.

How many came to Australia?

According to UNHCR, in 2001, there were 3,600 Afghan refugees in Australia. Comparatively, in the first 6 months alone of 2010/11, over 1,000 claims were lodged by asylum seekers from Afghanistan who came by boat. Between 1991-2001, 12,000 Iraqi refugees were resettled in Australia. In that same period of 2010/11, 480 claims were lodged by Iraqis who came by boat.

So, it comes as no surprise, that the two countries which top the list as sources of refugees, are also the two countries that (arguably) have experienced little sustained stability and peace since 1980. For Iraq, it was the Iraq-Iran war, followed by two more Gulf Wars with the U.S and its allies. For Afghanistan, it was the Soviet invasion and occupation, periods of civil war, and then the current war and occupation. It is also no surprise that it was during the relative stability of the Taliban’s governance that over 4 million Afghans were repatriated and asylum claims declined (that is not to speak in absolute positive terms about the Taliban, but only to demonstrate the effects of stability and peace. The human rights violations, discrimination and repression, particularly of the Hazara and women, are well documented). I am sure that if not for these successive wars, a result largely of geopolitical concerns, we would between 45-50% less refugees around the world. And, considering that it is predominantly Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat, would ‘boat people’ even exist today? I doubt it.

I would like to see the discourse shift to one framed around conflict and forced migration, simultaneously with a more rights-based approach (‘humane’ does not cut it. It is a word you use when referring to animal welfare). Here is what the Australian government, with the support of civil society, could do:

  • Communicate a better understanding of how conflict affects the movement of people: shift from immigration to migration. This is subtle, but of significance, as it moves from the who and how to the why. That is, it is not about who immigrants are and how they arrive, but why they are migrating. Migration is about causal, origin issues, whereas immigration is about the consequences of migration and is focused on procedures, identification and security.
  • Messages that are win-win-win. The Australian Government should be communicating our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq as that of peace-building, conflict prevention and development. This can then be tied in with how these efforts will contribute to not only a decrease in the number of asylum seekers coming from these two countries, but increases in repatriation. Or, in other Australian terms, ‘stopping the boats and making sure the buggers go back to where they came from!’ For example, that 430,000 refugees from Iraq have returned home. The Australian government supporting the transition of two nations to democracy (win); the opportunity for Afghans and Iraqis to return home (win); and the decline of asylum seekers coming to Australia (win).
  • This can be supported by communicating AusAID’s role in these countries. The ODA budget for 2011/12 in Afghanistan and Iraq is $165 million and 36 million respectively. Relatively small compared to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea’s, but potential to be scaled up towards 2015 and receive a larger slice of the proposed $8 billion AusAID budget.

Who is to say that these messages will not resonate more strongly with the Australian public than ‘stop the boats’? That demonstrating the support for the stability, security and well-being of two nations will not strike chord with the public over and above the din of xenophobia? The Howard Government created a ‘boat people’ discourse, which lives on and continues to assume that Australians are xenophobic. I do not believe this entirely. A reshaping of the discourse will see a reshaping of attitudes and beliefs.

The nature of conflict has change since WWI. More civilians than soldiers are casualties. Millions are being forcibly displaced and seeking protection in other countries. There are no front lines. No clear borders of conflict.  But, the horror is the same. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est still resonates and more so, given it is largely civilians who are experiencing what he so hauntingly describes. I do not picture a young British soldier when reading this poem, but an Afghan man/woman/child fleeing a conflict for which they are no longer bystanders.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori”.

(It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country)

Are you a Greek or a Barbarian?

Westerners don’t like referring to themselves as immigrants because the word “immigrant” has such nasty connotations…An immigrant is an unwanted job-stealer, while an expat is a foreigner who could be leaving any day now. An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure…Our usage of these words reveals a certain double standard. Whether you’re an expat or an immigrant depends not on your residency plans, but on the relative wealth of your native country. (Andrew Kureth)

Are you an expat or a migrant? In other words, are you a Greek or are you a Barbarian?

A Greek (Hellene) fighting a Persian (Barbaroi)

A tip of the hat must go to Lorenz Khazaleh, who wrote a thought-provoking post asking whether you are a migrant or an expat. This conversation is part of a larger trope, one found in language and which defines who we are as an individual and as part of a community. It spans the length of written history. The ancient Greeks, represented by independent city-states which were constantly in and out of alliances and conflicts with one another, defined themselves collectively against what Edward Said would call the ‘Other’. In this case, it was the ‘barbarian’ or ‘barbaroi’ in ancient Greek, which essentially means ‘anyone who is not Greek speaker’ or ‘one who spoke Greek poorly’. It was the antonym for civis and polis. Although, originally not pejorative, it took on the connotations of savage, uncultured, uncivilised, inferior, after the Persian Wars in the 5th Century BE/BC. Barbarians continued to be present in the mind of Greek and Roman authors, always on the periphery of modern society.

“Hellenes regard themselves as noble everywhere, and not only in their own country, but they deem the barbarians noble only when at home, thereby implying that there are two sorts of nobility and freedom, the one absolute, the other relative”. (Aristotle, Politics IV)

I find the attitude that Aristotle expressed about the Hellenes, the Greeks, and barbarians, present in our notions of expat and migrant. We, and by ‘we’ I mean the successors of Greeks, have this same attitude to migrants: they are only noble when at home. Expats are noble both at home and abroad. But, when the others are aboard, migrating, seeking asylum, they are to be feared; they are inferior; from the Third World. There is a strand throughout written histories, which carries this distinction, this attitude, of those who are not of the same ethnicity, culture, nationality as one’s own tribe. Today, you only need to look at any debate about immigration in Europe, the US , Australia and elsewhere. We will speak very highly of, and respect, other people’s cultures, traditions and customs when confined to their country. We travel far and wide to experience these other cultures as tourists and backpackers. But, when people from these places seek to move, migrate, they lose their exotic flair.

However, the etymology of the word ‘expatriate’ suggests that it has been appropriated recently to distinguish between those of different class and race. ‘By using a different term, a distance to “the other” is established‘. ‘Expatriate’ derives from Latin, and originally meant ‘to send into exile’ or ‘to be removed from one’s homeland’. ‘Migrant’ is also of Latin origin, an adjective that referred to someone who moved from one place to another. Both terms have undergone significant shifts in meaning and connotations.

The Barbarian who dreamed of political aspirations

If the notion and label of ‘expat’ separates and privileges, then the term ‘expat aid worker’ does one better and makes a clear distinction between those working in the sector and those who are receiving the work of aid. It builds on this notion that expats are somehow unique, more noble both at home and abroad. I don’t refer to myself as an ‘aid worker’, neither do many colleagues, friends and others I know in Australia. Do ‘local’ professionals and workers in the sector refer to themselves as ‘aid workers’?

This is helped along by the blog, Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL); a niche successor to the immensely popular Stuff White People Like, but of different authorship. Something about SEAWL strikes me the wrong way. Although the pretentious irony is deliberate, and the humour self-deprecating, it further reinforces the division, both in discourse and in reality, between us and them. Critical self-reflection is a need for many professions, but not to the point where it becomes conceited and more about satisfying your own needs, rather than that of others. As Weh Yeoh said of David Foster Wallace in a recent post (and I’m paraphrasing heavily): If one of the great literary writers of the 21st Century does not consider himself exceptional, then surely we can do the same and avoid ‘shitty development’.

“I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal…I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany”. (Ron Burgundy, Anchorman)

It is no wonder we constantly argue semantics about such terms as ‘participation’, when we have created such a clear distinction between who is who. How can we truly facilitate participatory practices if there is already a deep divide between groups? We are ‘aid workers’, they are ‘recipients of our aid working': consultants and beneficiaries; NGOs and local communities; facilitators and participants; Greeks and barbarians. There is an imbalance in the power relation and structure in such a distinction. We always need to divide; ‘west’ and rest; developing and developed; south and north. Make sure we know who we are and where we are, in relation to those around us.

“We are aid workers. We are expats. This is the stuff we like”. (About page of SEAWL)

It feels like we are trying to define ourselves as somehow different, unique and special. SEAWL also has a niche marketplace, where you can buy SEAWL branded T-shirts, just to further emphasise your differences in the way you dress. According to the site, the interests of expat aid workers include blogging for folks back home, smoking, sleep aids, jargon and personal drama. Sounds like expat aid workers are just like everybody else. I get the detached irony of the posts, the double hypocrisy. I enjoy the personal blogs of SEAWL’s creators, but SEAWL reminds tragically of hipsters.

I recently put aside half a Saturday to watch ‘On the Trail of Genghis Khan‘, a documentary about a journey by Tim Cope, beginning in Mongolia and ending in Hungary – on horseback. What was planned as an 18 month journey took three years. I was inspired by the way Tim approached the people, traditions and conditions he encountered over those three years. Despite the extreme hardships of loneliness, weather, and tragedy he was always incredibly humble when meeting others. He seem to truly feel a connection with just about everyone he met, never placing himself above them, and always open to receiving their wisdom, knowledge and goodwill. Despite the journey he was undertaking, Tim never seemed to think of himself as exceptional. David Foster Wallace. Tim Cope. Me. You. Those who work in the aid and development sector are not unique or exceptional. Just fortunate.


  • Don’t refer to yourself as an ‘aid worker’
  • Don’t refer to yourself as an ‘expat’
  • Read David Foster Wallace’s superb speech to Kenyon College grads in 2005
  • Practice humility
  • Watch ‘On the Trail of Genghis Khan’
  • Avoid generalisations about cultures, people, history, and pretty much the entirety of human achievement (recurring tip)
  • And, as always, be aware of Greeks bearing gifts

Update 18th May 2011

Since not everyone is on Twitter, I wanted to post the replies we received from the creators of SEAWL. We offered to post a full reply if they have one, but are still waiting.

Big Society, Big Cuts

Cuts, Aid, Immigrants and Multiculturalism: how the Coalition’s Big Society could polarise people

2011 in the UK has kicked off in style. Students took to the streets to protest government cuts in higher education, while UKUncut turned into a network of homegrown DIY protestors, publicly shaming high street companies dodging millions in taxes while public spending was being cut, cut, cut. Seems like Mr Cameron’s budget cuts are encouraging just what he wanted – civil action and the creation of the ‘Big Society.’

While the media has been haphazardly running Cameron’s Big Society through the wringer and accusing him of evangelically touting a vague, undefined concept, I think it’s relatively clear (and kind of working.) The opposite of the big society is essentially the big state that apparently lost Labour its hold last year. Simply put, the Coalition is cutting things down to size to create a small state. In October, the government revealed its plans for a £81 billion cut in public spending over the following four years – as well as £7 billion extra in welfare cuts, and a 7% cut for local authority councils from April of this year.

What of international aid in all these cuts? At the moment, around £7.4 billion goes to fund DFID annually (about 0.52% of the UK’s GNI), and the Coalition plans to further increase this to meet the 0.7% GNI goal by 2013.

“The coalition government is motivated by a shared determination to erode the terrible inequalities of opportunity that we see around the world today. We are not prepared to stand by as a billion or more eke out an existence on less than a dollar a day or as women and children die needlessly in their thousands. We are proud of the fact that we are keeping our promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.” [DFID]

I’m all for it. But what of the British public? While the Coalition is pushing people to ‘get out there’ and play a bigger role in civil society, it’s also cutting funding to everything from women’s shelters to animal sanctuaries. It’s leaving taxpayers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Is the UK government doing more harm than good by inadvertently polarising the UK public against a global civil society? The dangers are two-fold. In the first case, we run the risk of losing an already shaky public faith in international aid, and in the second case, there’s the serious danger of further segregating an already collapsing multicultural society.

The media and citizens alike are arguing that we’re helping the ‘other’ at the expense of our own livelihoods. Meanwhile, Cameron delivers accusatory speeches, channeling his inner Merkel, claiming that multiculturalism is dead, as the English Defence League marched for the “liberation of England from evil” and chanted for the Muslim “dogs” to get out of their country.

Immigration, ethnicity and cultural segregation were issues already in the public eye in the UK – and it took a long time to get to some kind of tolerant equilibrium. I’m reminded of a quotation from Complex Emergencies by David Keen (very much worth reading) about ethnicity and identity:

“Ethnicity is not just an identity you choose, but also an identity that others may try to choose for you. This relates to a common complaint among some British Asians, for example. A white British person might ask a British Asian, ‘Where are you from?’, and they may get the answer (perhaps in a strong Midlands accent): ‘Birmingham’. ‘Yes, but where are you from, originally?’ And the answer comes again, ‘Birmingham’. ‘Yes, but where are your parents from?’ ‘Birmingham’, and so on. As William Shakespeare nearly said, some are born into ethnicity, some achieve or choose ethnicity, and some have ethnicity thrust upon them.”

By sending mixed signals and pulling at the seams of multicultural Britain, the Coalition runs the risk of perpetuating these forced identities and creating rifts that will take years to rectify.

In my lifetime, London has always been a tolerant, ‘multicultural’ place. I can’t say whether this is true for the rest of Britain. What I fear is that in the Coalition’s commitment to reign in debt while maintaining and increasing international aid funds, the government is forcing its people to choose. Immigration was already hot topic long before the cuts. The media makes it sound like Islamic extremism is being sold at every local mosque and our leader claims that we need a more ‘muscular liberalism’ to revive multicultural Britain. What we really need is for Big Society to pull us together, and not turn us into a society full of embedded groups pointing fingers. I don’t know the answers, but I’d sure like to hear some: how can we reconcile maintaining our international aid budget with the welfare of the UK public? Where does charity begin?

Chinese migrants: Stuck in the middle

China is a nation on the move. 211 million rural migrants[1] – roughly equal to the population of Indonesia – have moved into its cities in search of a ticket of the poverty of the countryside. It is the largest migration movement in human history.

According to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, China is indebted to the liudongrenkou, or ‘floating population’, for its unprecedented economic growth and the skyscrapers that dominate urban skylines[2]. Yet, what is life really like for the workers of the world’s biggest factory?

Migrants: A force for development

“Rural migrant workers are the main army of the contemporary Chinese industrial workforce … The government and all parts of society should treat young migrant workers as they would treat their own children ”   (Chinese Premier WenJiabao, June 2010)[3]

Since the start of reform and opening up in 1978, China’s shift from a planned economy to a burgeoning labour market has seen millions of rural migrants leave their farmland to come and work in the factories have spurred China’s unprecedented economic growth.

The success of international trade and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), particularly from manufacturing in former Special Economic Zones’ in the coastal eastern regions, has been driven by China’s cheap labour force, which has knocked out competitors in the global marketplace.

Forming the bulk of this labour force, China’s rural migrants have made a played an important role in it’s spectacular growth story. According to Li Tie from the China Centre for Urban Development, they will be critical to sustaining China’s urbanization rate[4].

Migrants also play a significant role in the reduction of poverty in rural areas. Since 1974 China has seen a decline in the poverty rate from 64% at the beginning of reform to 10% in 2004[5]. Today, 80% of rural income in China from the labour of rural migrants[6].

The idea that migrants can be a force for development is nothing new. According to prominent Canadian-American economist and Harvard professor John Kenneth Galbraith back in 1979, “Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those that want it most. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they came. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?”[7]


Stuck in the middle of the rural-urban divide?


Despite the acknowledged contribution of migrants to the national economy, many commentators argue that the liudongrenkou are second-class citizens in their own country. This is largely due to hukou, or housing registration system, which limits migrants’ access to basic public services in urban areas.

In March of this year 13 Chinese newspapers made a bold statement on the hukou and the rights of migrants in China before it was quickly retracted. They said:

“We believe people are born free and should have the right to migrate freely, but citizens are still troubled by bad policies born in the era of the planned economy and [now] unsuitable.”[8]

Introduced in the 1950s, hukou system distinguishes China’s internal migrant situation from the rest of the world. While urbanisation in Europe led to rural migrants settling permanently in its cities, China’s internal migrants occupy a murky space somewhere between the rural and the urban.

According to the system, the whole of China is zoned as either rural or urban. Liudongrenkou with a rural hukou cannot apply for an urban one and all the benefits that come with it, including access to public schools, social security, public housing and health insurance.

There have been some reforms to the hukou system in recent years, but these have been limited only benefitting the better-educated highly skilled migrants who have been able to successfully apply for urban housing status.

Adding another layer of complexity to the issue, according to the Chinese constitution, rural land is collectively owned[9]. In contrast to urban areas where there are land usage rights, rural migrants are unable to legally to sell or mortgage their land for commercial use– although this is sometimes done illegally. The result?

Migrants who live outside their official place of residence for more than six months often have one foot planted in their rural hometowns and the other in the city that they work in. ‘Floating’ between the urban and the rural, they might have land, children or partners in their hometowns and seasonal or semi-permanent work cities half way across the country.

Although the central government has publicly recognised the need to address these issues, it appears that arguments against abolishing the hukou namely the fear of ‘floods’ of migrants descending on China’s cities and the significant costs of services needed to accommodate them – are holding strong. There is also the argument that the hukou system also allows the government to better keep track of its population.

Other more cynical points of view cite vested interests of those who benefit from the fees rural migrants have to pay for private housing, education and health services. In any case, in order to address the issue, the government hopes to encourage rural migrants to move to smaller cities in their own provinces[10].

Denied access to basic public services


As a result of the hukou system migrant workers are forced to pay for basic public services out of their own pocket. The problem is many can’t reach deep enough.

Over the past three decades, there has been a process of fiscal and administrative decentralisation whereby responsibility for health and education has been increasingly given to local authorities rather than the central government. With decentralisation has come the rise of a user-pays system in two critical areas: education and health.

Migrant education: miscellaneous fees

According to the Right to Education (2006), “The process of decentralization has imposed the obligation to finance schooling upon local authorities without ensuring that they have resources corresponding to their educational responsibilities”. It is the poorest provinces whose governments are least able to afford quality education services for its populations.

Although primary education is free under the Constitution, a loophole in the 1995 Education Law enables so-called ‘miscellaneous fees’ to be levied under relevant regulations of the state[11]. These so-called ‘miscellaneous fees’ include exam-paper fees, reading room permit charges, desk fees and homework-correcting fees.

What does mean for the children of migrants? In their hometowns parents might have to pay fees because local authorities might not have adequate resources. According to The Guardian, there are as many as $58 million children left behind in the countryside in the care of relatives[12].

In the cities migrant children face another dilemma. As state schools receive no funding for migrants students, they often claim to be full or charge fees that many parents cannot afford. According to the Friends of Migrant Workers group, some schools charge illicit “donations” up to CYN 6,000 (AUS $1000) a term[13]. While the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based group campaigning for workers’ rights, estimates that about 6% of migrant children have never attended school[14].

Migrant healthcare: high and dry

The situation for healthcare offers a similar picture. According to a 2008 survey of 101,000 households in 5000 communities, healthcare has become Chinese people’s number priority[15].

Yet, health financing has been decentralised to the lowest level, which has led to a rise in out of pocket payments. According to one study, households are spending 18 times what they were in 2001 with the average cost of a single hospital admission equal to China’s annual income per head[16].

Another cause for concern is insurance. In the countryside, rural migrants are covered by the Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme. However, the coverage provided is relatively limited, in relation to the service benefit package and financial protection. When they move to the cities, unlike urban residents, rural migrants will not be covered by any insurance program.

These policies have contributed to alarming social outcomes. The United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA), have identified migrant youth as a group in urgent need of better sexual and reproductive healthcare services[17]. Furthermore, there are now fears that HIV-infected migrants will act as an ‘epidemiological bridge’ infecting their partners and therefore children living in the countryside.

This trend can be linked to the fact that while the government covers expenses relating to birth control, patients shoulder reproductive health care costs. These high costs, limited access to sexual and reproductive information, and increased likelihood of risky sexual behaviours like multiple partners, place migrants at heightened risk of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.

A way forward?


Around the world both internal and external migrants are goinng through experiences similar to Chinese migrants.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)  recently released a report on the world’s 211 million international migrants where there is a trend across countries to deny migrants access to education, health and social security through discrimatory laws and policies. OHCHR argues that legislative and policy change guided by a human rights approach will be key to the protection of migrant rights.

Adopting such an approach would be of significant value to China. The current situation where Chinese cities do not want to accept or include migrants in their urban populations urgently needs to change. Yet, this will be anything but easy and, more probably, a tediously slow and gradual process. This is because protecting migrant rights requires the overhaul of some of the country’s most deeply entrenched policies: the hukou and the land rights system.

Rural migrants will need to become visible in government budgets and city-level government with other priorities need to summon the political will to allocate the resources necessary for ensuring the public goods of health and education. Following this, comprehensive policy and centered on migrant rights will need to be formulated and implemented.

Providing for  liudongrenkou equal to the population of Indonesia will be an enormous undertaking for government, civil society and the country’s international presence.

But, after all, China is on the move and those pushing it forward shouldn’t have to be stuck in the middle for much longer.



[1] ‘Set up and improve statistical and monitoring system for the whole population floating population’, Population Today, Vol. 27, No. 1, p. 33.

[2] ‘China PM praises migrants but makes no promises on pay’. (2010). BBC website. June 15 [online]. Available at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10316621.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Li, T. (2010) ‘Development Strategy for Cities and Urbanization in China’, Presentation at the International Symposium of Migration and Urbanization. Beijing: International Organization of Migration, National Population and Family Planning Commission.

[5] Dollar, D.  (2007). ‘Poverty, inequality and social disparities during China’s economic reform’. US-China Institute website [online]. Available at:  http://china.usc.edu/App_Images/Dollar.pdf.

[6] Niu, W. (2010). ‘Transition of Economic Development Mode and Population Flow in China’, Presentation at the International Symposium of Migration and Urbanization. Beijing: International Organization of Migration, National Population and Family Planning Commission.

[7] Galbraith, J, K. (1979). The Nature of Mass Poverty.  Harvard University Press.

[8] ‘Chinese newspapers in joint call to end curb on migrant workers’. (2010). guardian. co.uk [online].Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/01/chinese-newspapers-migrant-workers-rights.

[9] Yamaguchi, Y. Shinya, M. (2006). Affordable Housing for Rural Migrant Workers in Urban China. East Asia Social Policy [online]. Available at: http://www.welfareasia.org/4thconference/papers/Yamaguchi_Affordable%20housing%20for%20rural%20migrant%20workers%20in%20urban%20China.pdf.

[10] ‘Chinese newspapers in joint call to end curb on migrant workers’. (2010). guardian. co.uk [online].Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/01/chinese-newspapers-migrant-workers-rights.

[11] ‘National law and policies on fee or for free – China’, The Right to Education [online], Available at: http://www.right-to-education.org/country-node/321/country-fee.

[12] Millions of Chinese rural migrants denied education for their children’. (2010). guardian. co.uk [online].Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/15/china-migrant-workers-children-education.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hu, S. Tang,S. Liu, Y. Zhao, Y. Escobar, M, L. de Ferrant, Di. (2008). ‘Reform of how health care is paid for in China: challenges and opportunities’. The Lancet, Vol. 372, p. 1846.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Youth migrants need improved access to sexual and reproductive health’, UNFPA website, 7 April 2010 [online], Available at: http://asiapacific.unfpa.org/public/cache/offonce/pid/5325;jsessionid=4D09473FBE8BEB73BF7C309A38CEBD8E