Immigration minister Scott Morrison has just visited Cambodia and apparently one of the points on his agenda is the possibility of Australia sending asylum seekers there. Seriously? Cambodia?
I’m just reading The People Smuggler, which tells the story of refugee Ali Al Jenabi. Ali grew up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where he and his family experienced almost incomprehensible persecution.
It is 1991 and I am twenty. We are in Abu Ghraib, Saddam’s most notorious prison. The size of a small town, where cells are little more than human cages, and torture and mass executions are carried out daily.…
They picked us up together after the Shiites rose up in the south. My father, my next closest brother Ahmad, and myself. On arrival they separated us, but now four prison guards haul Hassan Pilot towards me, blood-splattered and beaten. He doesn’t see me, the blood runs into his eyes from a gash on his forehead.
They bash him to his knees then lash out with heavy boots to make him crawl towards the wall of bars near me. I suspect this humiliation is part of the process of intensifying my distress…
I can’t extend my head to see but I can hear them heaving my father against the bars and shackling him. They march away but soon return, their jackboots echoing threateningly as they reappear dragging my 18-year-old brother.
I call to Ahmad but his face is rigid with fear and he doesn’t seem to see either of us…
The guards reappear to the jarring beat of their jackboots. They unshackle my father from the bars and drag him so close to my cell I can smell the sweat above the stench of the prison. I think he sees me as he cries out again, ‘Saddam is a bastard!’ Batons rain down on his head and back, thud, thud…
I am still clinging to the bars when our cell gate flies open. The guards march in, rottweilers is on the hunt.
The guards swoop on me and drag me out. Down that hideous passageway, reeking with the stench of stale sweat and blood. My father’s blood.
When they push open the heavy wooden door I am desperately trying to steel myself to withstand more physical pain, but what I see is worse than hell. My little brother Ahmad is tied to a chair, his bloodied hands in front of him, nailed to a table. His face bashed and bleeding.
The guard see the rage on my face. ‘Each time you won’t answer a question we take another finger off.’…
I feel panic rising in my throat. I can’t answer their questions. Even if I lie, what names will I give them? I don’t know any political groups or resistance fighters.… ‘I know nothing,’ I say, trying to buy time.
In a flash they take another finger…
They drag me into a stone-walled cell and hitch me by my wrists to the ceiling. They throw cold water over me and turn an old air-conditioner on to freezing. My arms begin to pull from their sockets but I feel nothing. They can do anything they want to me now. They can’t hurt me any more.
This is what it is to be a refugee. It is to flee persecution that few of us can imagine. And to those desperate human beings who risk everything to come to us seeking protection, we offer nothing other than a stony face…and a no-return ticket to an impoverished country with a dubious human rights record. It was Nauru, then Papua New Guinea, and now we’re proposing to add Cambodia to the destinations we send asylum seekers.
Cambodia has seen astonishing development progress in the past 20 years. Income poverty has fallen from 1 in 2 people in 1970 to 1 in 5 today (World Bank). But despite this progress, the United Nations multidimensional poverty index, which measures deprivation not only in income but in health and education, shows that just on 50% of the population still live with unacceptable levels of deprivation. Just how well do we expect refugees to fare in such a country? There is no welfare system, refugees will know neither the language nor the culture, and they will likely become amongst the most impoverished in that nation.
Particularly worrying for those who are fleeing persecution is the Cambodian government’s lack of respect for human rights. In a letter to Julie Bishop earlier this year, Human Rights Watch pointed out
Basic rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association are under regular attack, while corruption is rampant, severely affecting the enjoyment of basic economic and social rights by a very poor citizenry.
Ali Al Jenabi and his fellow asylum seekers deserve better than this. Why the hell aren’t we offering it?