MICHAEL KELLY SJ. Winners are grinners – asylum seekers in Bangkok.

Sep 28, 2016


In the great race of life, it’s well to savor the few winners you back. Such was my experience last week. For some years, I’ve been helping a small group of asylum seekers survive against the odds in Bangkok.

The win was a simple one as all the best wins are. After almost four years of waiting, five asylum seekers I’ve been able to help – thanks to the financial support of Australian friends – are making their way to resettlement in Canada. Five down and 28 to go.

There’s no great virtue in doing what you can for people down on their luck. It used to be part of being Australian and Christian and Jewish. Fortunately I have Australian friends who are Christian or Jewish enough to remember what our religions are about.

But as an Australian, I find the open processes followed by the Canadians underline just what a shameful depth Australian policy on refugees and asylum seekers has sunk to. For Malcolm Turnbull to claim “world’s best practice” in handling people movement and asylum seekers as he did recently in New York emphasises just what a delusional world too many Australian politicians – and apparently a lot of other Australians – live in.

Australia’s alleged policy achievement is something purchased at the expense of 1500 unfortunates on Nauru and Manus Island. Australian policy makers seem culpably ignorant of that price. And they seem blissfully ignorant of the scale of the challenges faced by our regional neighbours, let alone countries in the Middle East and Europe.

The five departing and the remaining 28 are an extremely small part of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers (mostly from Myanmar) and “illegals” (mostly from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) who find a sort of life in Thailand, lots of them of many decades’ tenure. They don’t want to settle in a third country and would love to go home if it were safe to do so or there was work for them to do.

There are also an estimated 7,000 Pakistanis – Christians and Muslims from Islamic sects persecuted by the Sunni majority there – who can’t go home and have been in Thailand for up to five years, needing resettlement in a third country.

They linger in Thailand because of the under-resourced and incompetent way the UN High Commission for Refugees operates. In fact, of course, the refugees are lucky there’s any attention from the UNHCR. In its own sweet way, Thailand avoids its responsibilities to refugees because it isn’t a signatory to the UN Convention. And as a result the presence of the UNHCR is “informal”.

The Pakistanis make do the best they can – some rice here, some oil there, the occasional vegetable or fruit source somewhere else. Many try to get work under the radar – in restaurants, factories or on building sites. Thai authorities make regulation sweeps to clean out these workers. And in March this year, the military junta upped the ante on refugees and asylum seekers by raiding work places where the few who could find work for a pittance were employed.

It’s all part of the stand-over tactics and extortion procedures of the Thai police whose corruption is legendary.

How people and families with kids are supposed to survive, feed themselves, educate their children, provide for their healthcare AND pay bribes when all opportunities for any employment are blocked is beyond me. The Thai authorities dare not round them up and repatriate them. That would earn international condemnation and ostracism. So, they just leave them dangling in a half world where fear and anxiety are their daily companions.

But the five Salvation Army members from Karachi are about to have a happy ending to their four years on the run in Bangkok. A Salvos’ Citadel near Toronto has sponsored them under a scheme that the Canadians persisted with from the 1980s that Australia closed down in 1996, once its purpose of settling Indochinese refugees was accomplished.

This is the scheme that allowed Prime Minister Trudeau to promise and deliver on 25,000 asylum seekers from Syria when Australia in the same scale struggled to get its intake to 1,000.

What is the difference? Canada has a community based refugee resettlement scheme identical to the one introduced during the Fraser government and then kept by both the Hawke and Keating governments. The simple fact is government can’t do the resettlement without community involvement. The scheme settled 130,000 Indochinese in Australia and many thousands of others from Africa and the Middle East over a decade and a half until 1996.

It was so successful that I tried to leverage my personal relationships with both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull for its reintroduction. My first approach was to Tony two years ago. He’d never heard of the program and was surprised when I told him it was a Coalition policy achievement.

Abbott did nothing before he lost the leadership for other reasons. So, next stop was Malcolm: fulsome welcome before being filed under “f” for forget.

These people are not only out of touch with the reality of the world they live in with many vulnerable people. They just don’t care.

If you would like to support this work, it can be done tax effectively through Jesuit Mission in Sydney. When you get to the site, scroll down the page to the section where you are asked to select a campaign and click on Thailand Refugee Project – https://secure.donman.net.au/client/jesuit/jesuit.asp


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