May 2016

De-identifying asylum seekers isn’t always about protection

“In Australia, conversation about people who seek asylum often feels disconnected from the people – the real flesh and blood people – whose lives are most affected. The reasons for this are complicated and contested,” writes Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls.

BY Sarah Puls SGS

In Australia, conversation about people who seek asylum often feels disconnected from the people – the real flesh and blood people – whose lives are most affected. The reasons for this are complicated and contested.

In the Australian community, those who know these people don’t use their real names or faces out of a desire to protect them. That’s because we know they are seeking safety from a country in which they are in danger and we don’t know yet whether they will be allowed to stay. Exposing their identity can be a risk if ever they are forced to return to their country of origin.

And there is another risk. If they speak publicly about their situation before they came to Australia, or while they have been here, the fact that they have done so might be held against them by decision-makers.

But the de-identifying of people seeking asylum is not always about protection. People who came to Australia to seek protection who are sent to other countries for ‘processing’ are removed from the sight of the Australian community with a thoroughness which is astonishing in the modern world.

Media and even human rights groups are prevented from visiting these places to meet the people and hear their stories, so they remain people who are spoken of in abstract terms, as numbers and nationalities.

They remain an abstract idea until we hear media reports of people who have tried to kill themselves, or of children harming themselves, or of a woman who was raped and beaten. These descriptions shock, but they remain descriptions. In fact, they remain people who are described rather than named until they reach a point where there is nothing left to lose.

We know the names Reza Berati, Hamid Khazaei, and Omid Masoumali – men who died while in the ‘care’ of the Australian government and associated entities. How tragic that it is only when their lives on earth are ended that we come to know more about these individuals and their stories.

I wonder about the connection between this de-identification and the brutalities of the conditions these people experience. The policies which successive governments have created and reworked seem to be aimed at making life so unbearable that people choose either to return to the terror of a country in which they are at risk, or to kill themselves. I wonder if we could allow these policies to be enacted upon people whose names and stories we know.

Even though in Australia we cannot tell stories about asylum seekers freely, telling them is still important, so I would like to try by sharing Azuvah’s story with you.

“Azuvah” is the word used by the Psalmists in the Hebrew Scriptures and translated as “forsaken”. This story of Azuvah is not the story of one woman, it is a story which picks up and reflects aspects of the lives of many who may well wonder if they have been named “Forsaken”.

Recently I was talking with Azuvah, a young woman who travelled to Australia by boat in 2013 in search of safety and a future. Azuvah believes she is a refugee. She believes that when the Australian government gives her a chance to explain why she came here that they, too, will see she is a refugee.

But Azuvah has not yet been ‘invited’ to tell her story and explain why she took the extraordinary risk of getting on a leaky boat. She has not had a chance to explain that she is terrified of the ocean, that she cannot swim, that her mother pleaded with her not to take the risk, and that she did it anyway because she could not bear the year-after-year helplessness of having no status in the country she lived. She couldn’t return to the country in which she was born because they, too, do not want her.

With no country to claim her and no hope of building a new life in any of the countries she had moved through, Azuvah decided she would rather die at sea and have no life at all than to live a long life with no hope.

Azuvah told me how she has been given a series of short-term bridging visas while she waits to apply for something more substantial. With only a bridging visa it is very hard to find work. Few people want to employ asylum seekers – those individuals so maligned by politicians, but even fewer will give an opportunity to someone who has only a short-term visa too.

Azuvah had casual work as a cleaner in a factory for some time. The hours were long, the smells terrible and the pay meagre. But she found some peace in knowing that she supported herself and that she was contributing to this country which she so longed would welcome her. It was hard work, but she was happy to have it; until she didn’t, and her housemates lost their jobs too, and no one could pay the rent. So she moved again, desperately looking for work. Any work.

Azuvah told me how she would go to apply for a job and would feel hopeful until asked: “Are you a permanent resident?” Her heart would sink, knowing that when she said “asylum seeker” she would be turned away. She told me of a ‘boss-man’ who said “Asylum seeker? What is asylum seeker? This is nothing. You are nothing”.

With tears in her eyes Azuvah looked at me and said: “They say I am nothing, that asylum seeker is not a person, but we are [the] same. You drink water. I drink water. You eat food. I eat food. We are [the] same”.

My heart aches for Azuvah because we are the same. And also we are not.

I can never understand the deep sense of helplessness which drives a person to risk their life so that they have just a small hope of a life worth living. I cannot understand. All I can do is know the truth of that, and respect the many, many things that I cannot understand.

I told Azuvah: “I can hear your pain Azuvah, but I cannot know what it feels like. I can hear your fear and your anger, and I can see something of how it must be for you, but I cannot know it like you know it. In this we are different.

“You have pain I cannot know. But I know that you are a person like me. You are human like I am human. I cannot fix the problems you face. I cannot change your situation, but I can be with you as a human being, with another human being.”

And I have to hope that there is some healing in that shared humanity. When Azuvah sees in my face my concern for her, when I see her next and remember her name and what she shared, when she next greets me as ‘sister’, I remind myself that sometimes small things bring healing.

Sarah Puls

Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls has worked as a social worker with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Western Sydney and more recently as a spiritual care practitioner and clinical pastoral supervisor at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.