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Facing the hardest separation


Facing the hardest separation

International Day of Families, which is today, is an important moment to reflect on Australia's separation of refugees and asylum-seekers. It's time to bring them together.
15 May 2018 Also available in:
Night time. Two young women look out to sea.
Two refugees look out to sea on Nauru. Approximately 2,500 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to 'offshore processing' facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since 2013.

Sitting in suburban Sydney, 68-year-old Hana is desperate for anyone to understand the pain of her family’s separation. An Australian citizen, she has never met her youngest grandchild. “It’s indecent,” Hana sobs. “My daughters have been in Nauru for almost five years. It’s too long.”

4,000 kilometres away, in Nauru, Marwa bears the most striking resemblance to her mother. So too, does her anguished expression. She and her daughters have all been recognized as refugees. But like too many others, they have nowhere to go.

“My Mum talks to the ocean,” Marwa says, “asking for her children and grandchildren.” For one awful moment, I imagine my own mother being kept apart from the one-year-old grandson who is the light of our lives. The thought alone is harrowing.

Since January 2014, Australia has afforded the lowest processing priority to family visa applicants sponsored by permanent residents who arrived to Australia by sea. This has left hundreds of people living in the Australian community, indefinitely kept apart from loved ones. The challenge of rebuilding their lives is almost impossible with close family remaining in danger in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The uncertainty and stress are crippling. Astoundingly, one Pakistani refugee family is to be resettled in Scandinavia this month, despite their father and husband living permanently and legitimately in Melbourne. Australia will not even consider such compelling situations.

With no other options available to them, they have made gut-wrenching decisions to try to be together.

The ramifications of that approach have also been a central reason why others, in turn, have sought to reach their loved ones in Australia in desperation (by sea). With no other options available to them, they have made gut-wrenching decisions to try to be together. Having fled their homes due to war and persecution, close relatives in Australia are the most common reason refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru give for having sought protection from this country, rather than any other.

UNHCR is aware of some 35 refugees transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, with close relatives in Australia. Husbands and wives, de facto spouses, parents, children and siblings. While only comprehensive government registration would confirm that number absolutely, it is clear this is a discrete group.

Irregular movement, exploitation and people-smuggling are, fundamentally, by-products of the universal human will to survive in impossible circumstances, and to protect one’s family. These challenges are not unique to Australia. Around the world today, we see them most prominently around major conflicts and human rights abuses in Syria, Myanmar, South Sudan and elsewhere. Yet, Australia is unique in its policy of deterrence and punishment.

More than four years of limbo and harm on land in Nauru and Papua New Guinea have made a mockery of saving lives at sea. Even the most basic questions now cast doubt on the assumptions of an unjust and cruel policy. Chief among them today: How does keeping innocent parents, children, husbands and wives apart make Australia any more secure? How would even the smallest humanitarian exception diminish Australia’s migration and security framework?

The denial of family unity persists, defying both common sense and humanity.

The desperate need for solutions outside of Papua New Guinea and Nauru is now acknowledged by all sides of politics, in all three countries involved, including Australia. The continued movement of some refugees to the U.S. is a welcome relief, and a start. But for those with mothers in Sydney, husbands in Melbourne, or children in Brisbane, settlement anywhere other than Australia would be absurd.

And yet the denial of family unity persists, defying both common sense and humanity. Think about your family, your children, your spouse. Think about how it would feel not knowing when (if ever) you would see them again.

We hear little of this from career politicians and their PR experts. That silence is not accidental. Reuniting immediate families is an unspinnable issue because we know instinctively that this is the right thing to do.

Family unity is a fundamental human right. Instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have merely codified that accepted and universal truth. Families belong together.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.