It’s a mystery how the personal stories of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who make their way to Australia – by boat or air – rarely manage to make it to the media.

There’s the odd success story that gets written about. But what about when the real success is actually surviving?

The preferred default position of media in this country is to play along with the dehumanising of asylum seekers as queue jumpers or potential security risks.

Razor wire on Christmas Island, image via

This month, Medicins Sans Frontieres, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian medical group, has been on TV  and online unashamedly trying to bring to our attention to the great work they do working in war zones and refugee camps.

MSF is also keen to put a face to the “illegals”, or “queue jumpers” that politicians like to use and abuse in their pursuit of a vote. Of course asylum seekers are not illegal because seeking asylum is not illegal. Under the UN Convention on Refugees, asylum seekers are not required to have any documentation and requires us to treat them as we would any other non-citizen.

And there are no queues; there are UNHCR processing camps that are bursting at the seams in which refugees can languish for years on end waiting to be processed. The UNHCR itself says less than 1% of the worlds refugees might be settled in any given year.

Globally there are millions of people on the move, fleeing their homeland because of war, violence, hunger or extreme hardship.

Believe it or not, Australia isn’t the destination of choice for all that many of them. In fact, the statistics show the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia is minuscule compared to those who go to Europe or elsewhere.

Still, some continue to believe we are being swamped. Still, some see them as queue jumping terrorists-in-the-making who have fled their homeland not because they have been persecuted or have been displaced by war, or have been subjected to poverty, rape and torture, but because they see an Australian nirvana where the issue is such a hot political potato there is no real border control policy.

And still, many Australians see just numbers rather than real people who have survived conditions none of us can even imagine and who come from culturally rich backgrounds.

Enter historian Ann-Mari Jordens. When she was a child in the western Sydney suburb of Lakemba, “some very strange people appeared” in the neighbourhood. These people were post war Europeans. From this memory, developed a desire to tell the stories of newcomers, from those who came at the end of the last world war, to those some politicians seem these days to think it’s prudent to demonise.

Her book Hope: Refugees and Their Supporters in Australia Since 1947 has the capacity to end the negative, misinformed public debate on refugees and asylum seekers.

If it were compulsory reading on the high school curriculum, who knows – the next generation of politicians might actually make the world a better place.

Between the covers of this book are the stories of 12 refugees, from Germany, Hungary, Chile, Vietnam, Afghanistan, South Africa, Iran, Kosovo, Burma, Sudan and Liberia, all told in their own voices. There are also the stories of the carers and enablers who pave a gentler path to resettlement in a new and very foreign place.

Ann-Mari says her aim in writing Hope was to instil some pride in Australians for their openness and willing to accept newcomers. The disconnect between this and the fear mongering of some politicians and the right wing shock jocks is startling.

She told an audience at the book’s launch in Sydney that none of her refugee subjects experienced racism. That may say more about where those in Ann-Mari’s book finally settled.

A survey released last week by Monash University  finds Sydneysiders to be more racist than Melbournians and that 66% of the 15,000 people interviewed had a negative view of the governments handling of boat arrivals.

Still, it’s a negativity clearly not felt by everyone.

I met one of her subjects – Atem Dau Atem, a young man from Sudan. His introductory words in Hope are just a sketch of a life lived in the most difficult of circumstances.

“I fled Sudan at 12 with my family to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. After it was attacked by rebels in 1991, I wandered with thousands of Sudanese refugees, twice escaping conscription as a soldier. After ten years in the Kakuma camp in Kenya, I came to Australia in 2002.”

Atem settled in Canberra, which he found welcoming.

“I haven’t encountered racism in Canberra, but when people meet me, the first thing they see is that I am black. I think people associate black skins with drug taking, alcohol and stupidity, so I feel that wherever I go I have to prove myself,” he writes.

“I feel that I need to tell people, ‘Look, you know, I am as intelligent as everyone else. My colour doesn’t make me stupid.’ I am also tall and thin, so when I interact with people, I feel that I am seen as representing a group, as a Sudanese, not as an individual.”

Atem has finished a Medical Science degree and is now doing his PhD.

And there is Mustafa Jawadi, a Hazara Afghani and a Shi’ite Muslim pictured here (image via The Canberra Times) whose family fled first to Iran and then to Australia by boat courtesy of people smugglers when he was just ten. He spent three years in the Nauru Detention Centre before being accepted as a refugee.

His first encounter with Australians was on the Navy vessel, which intercepted the boat he was travelling on.

He writes: “The Australian sailors were very good with kids. They had women officers who brought pencils and books to us so we could write and draw things. They were trying to make us happy.

“It was hard for Dad and the other adults, who were wondering what was going to happen to us. In the smugglers’ boat we had two suitcases with clothes and other things in them, but they were all lost at sea.”

Mustafa spent time in detention on Christmas Island and two years on Nauru where he saw other asylum seekers go on hunger strikes and sew their lips together with needles. When they were finally accepted as refugees, he remembers his mother cried. Mustafa was 13. Now he’s a fully qualified mechanical engineer and next year he plans to enrol in engineering at university.

The last word goes to Mustafa.

“Now that we have permanent resident visas we feel more secure, and in about a year we can become Australian citizens. I would like to ask Australian people to just be nice and friendly to people who come from other countries. To sit down and ask them questions, to learn how they came here and how they have travelled.”

Hope is full of just that. Stories about real people who came seeking refuge, and who have built new and better lives.















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*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.


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  • Reply October 29, 2012


    Thanks for this story Monica. I think I’ll be buying that book to find out more.

  • Reply October 29, 2012


    Yes, a book to put on the National Curriculum. It’s horrendous how we are treating refugees – there is more concern for the live cattle trade.

  • Reply October 29, 2012


    “If it were compulsory reading on the high school curriculum, who knows – the next generation of politicians might actually make the world a better place.”


  • Reply October 29, 2012


    Bless the seekers who get an idea Australia is safe and can transform that vision into something better for all of us.

  • Reply October 31, 2012

    Tony W

    “And there are no queues; there are UNHCR processing camps that are bursting at the seams in which refugees can languish for years on end waiting to be processed.”

    That doesn’t mean we should encourage the dangerous practice of maritime people smuggling.

    This is a book about immigrants since 1947 – I don’t believe it should be conflated with present day concerns around refugee boat arrivals. It’s a complex problem which compassion alone will not solve.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Tony, the point about the queues is that we are constantly fed a line which goes to creating a negative image about asylum seekers…that they are queue jumpers when in fact there are no queues. The Point further being that these demonised asylum seekers are real people, who have for the most part triumphed by surviving, whether close to 1947 or 2012. Listening to them rather than demonising them, doesn’t mean we need to support the practice of people smuggling. But the people smuggling trade has just given lots of pollies a chance to beat the asylum seeker drum a little louder.

  • Reply November 2, 2012

    Tony W

    Monica, I agree with you about the appalling demonization of so called “queue jumpers”, and crocodile tears from many politicians over deaths at sea. I find it interesting to reflect that neither of these arguments were used against Vietnamese boat arrivals during the “Asian invasion” of the ’70s and ’80s, when bipartisanship prevailed in Canberra. John Howard changed the public debate irrevocably with one sentence: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

    I do believe however that the scale of maritime people smuggling seen today, and the appalling human toll it extracts, makes it a first order issue. And whilst there may be no “queue” per se, there is nonetheless an attempt by the world to provide safe shelter for its refugees whilst awaiting orderly resettlement – insofar as that can ever be possible given the numbers involved.

    Thus I find myself supporting Labor’s “Malaysian solution”, as the most effective way to eliminate maritime people smuggling, and support the world effort to provide for its refugees safely, and to the extent possible, fairly. Imagine if the billions spent on naval patrols and detention centres were to be spent on facilities in UN refugee camps.

    I hold to my view that this book has little relevance to these issues. No doubt it contains many great stories of survival and subsequent contribution to the community, but Australians are not ignorant of the migrant experience, nor entirely unappreciative of their contribution. Many are migrants themselves, or descendants thereof. I don’t believe they necessarily lack compassion for refugees, I just think they’re looking for solutions, and many like me have changed their position in recent times. Watching children getting smashed to death against rocks was enough for me.

  • Reply November 4, 2012

    Robyn Oyeniyi

    I try to humanize the situation through my web site. I married an asylum seeker and am writing a book about what he and then we went through. It is not a pleasant experience.

    Even now, all settled, we experience odd times, such as this minor one:

    Living with the aftermath of mandatory detention is not easy either.

    Thank you for highlighting this important topic to bring some balance to the media coverage.

  • Reply November 5, 2012

    Robyn Oyeniyi

    Perhaps the low number of comments is an indication of the general public perception of this topic. I read Corinne’s article this morning (love her work!) and cannot help but compare the level of interaction.

    I shared this article on Twitter and received a response asking why are MSF not on Nauru “if it is so bad”.

    So sad. 🙁

  • Reply November 6, 2012

    Tony W

    “Perhaps the low number of comments is an indication of the general public perception of this topic.”

    Yes, the public are now very much “over it”. They just want the problem “out of sight out of mind.”

    The truth is we’ve been on this course for 20 years, and the result was always inevitable. Mandatory detention was introduced by the Keating Labor government, with bipartisan support, in 1992. Minister for Immigration Gerry Hand stated: “The Government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community.”

    Once that moral threshold was crossed there could be no turning back. Increasing boat arrivals led to increasingly “clear signals” – lengthier detention….harsher detention conditions…offshore detention….and ultimately, refusal of entry unless via formal UNHCR resettlement program (proposed Malaysia solution).

    The policy has now gained moral force as a means to save lives at sea.

    A brief attempt was made under Rudd to reverse this policy direction. It failed. The debate is now over. Even Paris Aristotle recognizes that.

    Anyway I’m glad your husband made it through before the door slammed shut. Good luck with the book, it will be a valuable contribution I think.

    • Reply November 6, 2012


      Thank you Tony. Clarification, though. My husband did not make it through. He was held in detention for two years then “removed”. The removal timing may have been co-incidental with my arriving on the scene, who knows.

      I spent 14 months never knowing if my husband would still be alive the next morning, aside from the months we had him in Qatar for safety.

      Oh, he did arrive by plane originally, not by boat!

  • Reply November 6, 2012


    People have been fleeing goverment dictatorships, religious bigotry, war and famine since the beginning of time. It’s a different world now though. There is only so much earth to go round and so many resources left to us. Every new birth makes our personal slice of the pie smaller. Indeed the largest proportion of our world population exists on crumbs rather than a slice.

    We need governments that can show us solutions and light the way. We need hope that there is a future for every one on the planet and not just the lucky ones. That there is room for all of us. Then I think you’ll find a more open and generous spirit will counteract these aggressive and inhumane policies. At the moment people feel angry and helpless and want it to just go away. That comes from all the money being thrown at it for no result. Same story goes for the plight of our indigneous people. It’s a story we don’t want to hear because the picture being painted is all negative.

    Another good book for young people to read is “The Happiest Refugee”? Just a story but gives great insights.

    More stories like yours need to be told, Robyn. I wish you and your husband the best.

    • Reply November 6, 2012


      Thank you Rhoda, for your kind words and encouragement.

  • Reply November 6, 2012

    Tony W

    “It’s a different world now though.”

    It sure is! Not so long ago you could simply hop on a boat and go anywhere in the world you liked without papers. Passports were virtually unknown in the world until WW1, when they were introduced as a temporary measure for security and manpower reasons. It took some years before they became accepted as necessary in peacetime, mainly due to the dramatic rise in world travel. Interesting to note that in 1950, Australia issued 30,000 passports, and fifty years later in 2000, the number was 1,450,000.

  • Reply November 6, 2012

    Tony W

    “Clarification, though. My husband did not make it through. He was held in detention for two years then “removed”.

    Sorry Robyn, I didn’t know he’d been “removed”. Or more accurately – expelled. I take it then he wouldn’t be here but for the great good fortune of meeting you. Sounds like you’ve been to hell and back together.

    I mentioned “boat arrivals” because that’s how the refugee debate has always been framed. I hadn’t assumed your husband arrived by boat, as I believe it’s numerically more likely he arrived by plane. Not that I make any distinction myself – I find it bizarre that we prosecute impoverished 16 year old boat hands as “people smugglers”, while Qantas accepts millions from asylum seekers.

    Anyway Robyn all the best for the future and good luck with your book – it sounds like an amazing human story of struggle and survival with a happy ending.

    • Reply November 6, 2012


      Thanks, Tony. I was clarifying for the general readership moreso than you. I figured it wouldn’t matter to you. 🙂

      Yes, we refused to cloud the protection visa with a relationship, to our cost as it turned out. We still do not back down on our contention the PV decision was wrong.

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