The Idea of Home
Home has many aspects and facets. Home is a secure base from which to explore the world. Home is that feeling of security. Home is the certainty that you have a place to return to. Home is a safe haven. We all need a home, a place to identify with. Home is part of our identity. Who we are and where we come from cannot be separated. This is why being forced to leave your home is so traumatic. Part of yourself seems to be torn away. There is no certainty that you will be able to return. You may be permanently separated from part of who you are so you need to be able to rebuild that home, that part of yourself somewhere else.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 9.2 million people who have been forced to leave their homes and flee to another country. Another 5.6 million have had to leave their homes but have not left their country of origin. Many of these people will eventually return home once the situation is settled and it is safe to do so. In the mean time they usually live in temporary camps with limited facilities. This is a time of great stress and uncertainty as these people have been uprooted from what they know, often separated from their families and communities. During this time they will not know whether it will ever be safe enough for them to return home. Some will never be able to return. Some 7 million people have spent 10 years or more in these "temporary" camps. Some Afghans and Burmese have spent over 20 years in "temporary" camps. Some Palestinians have spent over 50 years in camps.
There are four options for people who have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees:
Most refugees wish to return home. The UNHCR has a responsibility to find permanent solutions for refugees. They will provide support and will continue to support refugees after they return home.
When it is too dangerous to return home, the UNHCR helps people to try and start a new life in the country that they have fled to. This is not easy as the host countries are poor and cannot absorb all these people living in the camps. There are not enough jobs and not enough land to provide for the thousands of people wanting to make a new home so they often just remain in the camps for lengthy periods.
A small number of refugees are accepted by third countries for resettlement. Australia for example has accepted around 6 000 refugees in the last year mostly from African countries like Sudan. Unfortunately only about 1% of refugees are lucky enough to be resettled in third countries by the UNHCR.
Some refugees are desperate enough to seek asylum in countries further away. Many Afghan and Iraqi people fled the repressive regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and used people smugglers to get them to richer countries in Europe and beyond, even as far away as Australia.
In Australia, unlike in other countries, UNHCR refugees were treated differently to refugees who arrived "unofficially". One type of refugee was welcomed. The other "unofficial" refugee was put into prison like conditions. The unofficial refugee may have to spend years in a detention centre before earning the right to be an official refugee. The unofficial refugee was called a non-citizen, which meant that they were deprived of their rights under international law. It was as though an "unlawful non-citizen" was thought of as a non-human. There was then a justification for the removal of their human rights, like the right not to be deprived of liberty without a fair trial. Children were not (until very recently) immune from this treatment. They became non-children so that their right not to be put in prison except as a last resort could be removed. Thankfully, after many years where the mental health of children was being systematically eroded, there was a change of policy.
People who have been forced to leave their homes to try and start a new life need support. Even with that support it can take years to get over the trauma and loss suffered by those who must escape to protect themselves and their families. Imagine then what it is like to look for that support and to have it denied, to be treated as not deserving of human rights, as somehow less than human, of not having a right to a home.
It will be a long time before refugees, whether official or unofficial, will be able to truly call Australia home.