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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
In search of the 'Australian dream'

By Phil Mercer
In Sydney

Hussain is an Iraqi refugee living in Australia. He's a poet and a teacher.

His journey from Basra to Sydney is extraordinary. It's a story of fake passports and people smugglers, of years searching for a new home and of frustration inside one of Australia's most notorious immigration camps.

Hussain fled Iraq as a boy with his family to escape persecution and torture.

It was a childhood of upheaval and uncertainty.

He went to Kuwait, before moving on, over time, to Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Protester at Woomera detention centre
It was worse than hell
Hussain, on Woomera detention centre

A forged passport eventually took him to Malaysia and then to Indonesia.

US$700 bought Hussain, who's now in his 30s, a place on a boat run by human traffickers to the promised land - Australia.

"It was my dream," he told the BBC.

There were more than 280 people - mostly Iranians and Iraqis - crammed on board.

"It was very dangerous. Most of us cried all the way," he said.

In the past, the Australian authorities estimated one in three refugee boats sank attempting to make the treacherous crossing.

The voyage lasted a day and a half and ended on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

Hussain claimed political asylum.

Hussain's journey

Eight months of incarceration followed inside the Woomera detention centre. "It was worse than hell," Hussain said.

The Australian Government defends this mandatory detention policy on health and security grounds.

Hussain's refugee claims were investigated and found to be genuine under guidelines set down by the United Nations.

He was released in September 2000 and was granted a three-year temporary protection visa (TPV).

'Shattered hope'

Freedom for asylum seekers can be the start of yet more uncertainty.

A report released this week by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) said many refugees with a "legacy of pain and punishment" were struggling to cope "with the stress and mental anguish of being defined as a 'temporary citizen' ".

RMIT researcher Greg Marston told SBS television that some face psychological breakdown. "People were keen to get on the other side of the razor wire," he said, "but when they realised what the temporary protection visa meant it was a real crash. It was a real sense of shattered hope."

How do aid agencies provide food, water and shelter for thousands?

Asylum seekers who arrive without proper documentation - what authorities describe as "illegal entry" - are granted temporary and not permanent visas if they spent at least a week in a country where they could have "sought and obtained effective protection" on their way to Australia.

The government has said these measures are designed to combat "an increasing incidence of fraud in the presentation of asylum claims".

Refugees on official humanitarian programmes, however, are automatically given permanent protection visas and can access a wider range of community services.

TPVs are renewable for another three years. Applicants must prove it is still not safe for them to return to their homelands.

I can't sleep. I have nightmares. Sometimes I wish I'd never come to Australia

This has made the issue of those who fled Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly uncertain in light of the fall of Saddam Hussain and the Taleban.

There are currently 8,700 asylum seekers on TPVs in Australia.

Hussain's visa expires in a few months. He has applied for permanent residency and says it is a time of immense stress as he awaits the government's decision.

"I can't sleep. I have nightmares. Sometimes I wish I'd never come to Australia," he said.

He faces deportation if he fails, although he would be allowed to appeal.

The RMIT study in Melbourne says that despite the disadvantages, refugees were attempting to make a positive contribution to Australia.

With help from informal networks of sympathisers and advocates, many were involved in training and had integrated into the community, "undermining the political argument that refugees should or could be repatriated".

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24 Jan 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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