According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (hereafter referred to as the UNHCR) over 32,200 people flee their homes every day in order to seek protection, which by the end of 2013 equated to approximately 16.7 million refugees worldwide. Article 1A(2) of the Refugees Convention is any person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. By definition, every recognised refugee in the world must have a well-founded fear of persecution for one of the five convention grounds, which presupposes a shared experience of some kind. The statement “The truth is that there is no such thing as the ‘Refugee Experience’, and there is therefore no such thing as the ‘refugee voice’: there are only the experiences and voices of refugees.” (David Turton: Refugee Studies Centre) urges individuals and governments not to fall into the trap of assuming that each and every refugee will share the same experience, and would therefore have the same needs. This essay will look at experiences of trauma, and physical identity as two aspects of a persons’ identity which are shared by a number of refugees in Australia, and explore the shared aspects of the refugees experience and comment on how these may impact on individual refugees as they go through the process of resettlement.
The UNHCR defines persecution as any act which causes ‘serious harm’ to the individual, involves ‘systematic and discriminatory conduct’ and the ‘essential and significant reason(s), for the persecution’ is the individual’s ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ The Australian Migration Act provides a non-exhaustive list of instances that would constitute serious harm, including: a threat to the individual’s life or liberty; significant physical harassment and/or ill-treatment of the individual; significant economic hardship that threatens the individual’s capacity to subsist; and the denial of capacity to earn a livelihood of any kind, where the denial threatens the individual’s capacity to subsist.
It is estimated that seven out of ten refugees in Australia have suffered from significant trauma or torture, the recovery from, and treatment of which differs for each and every individual. An example of an experience of trauma which has been shared by refugee women around the world is sexual and gender related assault, which can include, but is not limited to, domestic/family violence, sexual violence and rape, forced marriage, honour killings and female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM affects approximately 125 million girls and women and their families, a number of whom become refugees. It is estimated that during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped, and in the 1990s in Bosnia, rape and sexual violence against women, was used strategically, as a weapon of war, as Muslim women systematically terrorized, raped, and expelled. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since the war began in 1998 approximately 40% of all women in the DRC a country with a population of approximately 70 million have been raped. In 2006-2007 alone over 400,000 women were raped. Although the individual experiences of recovery and trauma differ, according to the 2013 Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Centre, process of recovery from trauma has three phases in most cases. Phase one: Safety and Stabilization, phase two: Remembrance and Mourning and phase three: Reconnection and Integration which involves the creation of a new future. This indicates that in terms of the experience of trauma due to sexual violence, rape or FGM and the subsequent road to recovery, one could argue that there is a shared refugee experience.
The argument that “there is therefore no such thing as the ‘refugee voice’: there are only the experiences and voices of refugees,” is accurate so far as we believe that every refugee is an individual and will therefore process and respond to their experiences and journeys in different ways. This argument however fails to acknowledge the commonalities shared by refugees who come from similar experiences of trauma, such as the thousands of refugee women who suffered rape and sexual violence globally, and the experiences that refugees from similar cultural or backgrounds who resettle in Australia. For example, over the past twelve months there has been an influx of Afghan Hazaras’ into the Hobart community. These people predominantly reside in the northern suburbs of Moonah, Glenorchy and New Town. The Hazara women are highly identifiable within the community due to their physical appearance and their religious attire – as the Islamic hijab is not common in Tasmania, where only approximately 0.3% of the population is Muslim (compared to the national average of 2.2%). Although the Hazara community have engaged in education services with the support of various settlement services, the community has yet to engage within the greater community – in terms of employment, social recreation etc. If members of the community are unable to access opportunities, and build futures, in Tasmania, they will move to larger cities such as Melbourne and Sydney. According to the 2011 population census, only 35,000 people across the whole of Australia identify as having Afghan ancestry, which includes only 5800 persons from Hazara backgrounds. Of these numbers, the largest populations are based in Victoria (approximately 12,000 people) and New South Wales (approximately 11,000 people). In Tasmania there are less than 1000 Afghans and fewer Hazaras, although there is some difficulty in identifying exactly how many Hazara live in Hobart due to frequent changes in population due to families moving to (and from) mainland settlements. With numbers this small (comparative to populations of Lebanese migrants for example) there are considerably less resources and services dedicated to the community than there are to other larger cohorts of humanitarian entrants. This feeds into the problems of lack of services identified by the Hazara community in Hobart due to a lack of resources, as there would be in any regional area.
Members of the Hazara community face very specific challenges, which could be defined as a shared refugee experience. These challenges include a lack of security in the future, due to individuals’ visa/immigration issues, as well as stress over family members safety overseas. These issues make engaging within the community difficult for service providers. Additionally, recent negative media attention calling for Australia to “ban the burqa” has resulted in the community withdrawing themselves even further from the mainstream Australian community as they feared abuse, discrimination, harassment and rejection – which many interview participants had experienced. Senator Jacqui Lambie is Tasmanian, as such her remarks about Sharia Law and Islamic dress hit particularly hard on Tasmanian Muslims, which includes Hazara, Iraqi, Iranian and Sudanese Muslims – who again, it could be argued share this aspect of their refugee experience.
Assuming a shared refugee experience, and a single “voice of refugees”, assumes also shared needs for all refugees – or at least specific groups of refugees, the Hazara community, or Sudanese Muslims or Sierra Leonean amputees for examples. Although assuming that the experiences suffered by all refugees is the same carries the risk of minimizing individual trauma, or providing a generalised response, the advantage to assuming a shared experience and therefore shared settlement and assistance needs can benefit communities and groups by informing mass action and assistance – for example humanitarian assistance. An example of such intervention occurred in Sierra Leone (SL) in the year 2000. Although SL enjoyed relative peace for approximately thirty years after her independence was granted by 1991 enough resentment had built up towards the elite of Freetown and Sierra Leone’s government who were, by some, perceived as acting corruptly, out of self-interest. This resentment, under the leadership of Foday Saybana Sankoh, formed a rebel force called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Sankoh, RUF’s leader argued ‘When a society demands change there is no need attempting to change it on old principles.’ The rebel forces murdered, raped, tortured, and hacked limbs off people, men women and children who supported, or whom they believed supported the Government whom RUF apposed.
Intervention for Sierra Leone did not occur until the year 2000, when a team of a mere 800 British soldiers working with UN troops restored peace to the wore torn nation, nine years after one of the most grotesque civil wars of Africa began. The actions of interventionists during the Sierra Leone crisis can be justified by the solidarist perspective and also by the grotian view. The grotian view is that which is able to justify forcible intervention into sovereign states in cases where intervention is required to protect people from genocide, or other extreme abuses to human rights, and great crimes against humanity. Supporters of the grotian view include that of the French doctor Bernard Kouchner the founder of the international aid organisation called Médicins sans Frontières , Kouchner’s (1987) argues, in accordance with the grotian view, that is ludicrous for a states government to be allowed the right to do whatever they like with and to their own populations, without the right of others to intervention to protect the people.
If gender is identified as a defining characteristic of refugees trauma – or their shared experience – which is relevant to their on-going settlement needs, such as the experience of rape or gender based violence as experienced in DRC, Bosnia and Rwanda, then one may argue, that although individual recovery responses may differ, prevention strategies could be shared. Globally, women have suffered more as a result of conflict, and benefited less from development programs. Development, as defined by Thomas and Reader is the‘multi-dimensional process involving change from a less to a more socially desirable state’, requires, in terms of gender development, the removal of any aspect of the society, including policies and cultural practices, such as, the arranged marriages of young girls, and legislation preventing women from inheriting land, which would be harmful to the development of men or women in an given society. Gender equality, defined as the provision of equal opportunities, voice and rights to men and women, will be achieved when all barriers to men and women are removed to a point where neither gender has power over the other. Such levels of development Sen argues ‘require the removal of major sources of unfreedoms.’ Sen goes on to argue that a deficiency in freedoms can be defined as (but not limited to) a lack of human rights and education, and can be linked to economic poverty. This theory could be applied to resettlement strategies in general, assisting refugees across the board regardless of their voice or experience.
Community funding is administered – generally speaking – by governments and other funding bodies to achieve the greatest possible outcomes for the greatest number of people. By assuming that the refugee experience does in fact exist, community organisaitons are able to apply for funding to address key, shared issues. If we assume gender inequality is a part of the shared refugee experience, then we can in theory address the issue in a very straight forward black and white way, which can be brought about simply by implementing processes, strategies, policies and organizations into institutions based on the principles of equal rights, equal opportunities, and on equal rights, equal opportunities, and on an equal voice for men and women. Through an examination of existing gender equality promotion tactics in developed countries and attempts at such tactics in the developed world this essay will demonstrate that while gender equality policies are largely important in creating equal development, one must take into consideration the vastly different starting positions of men and women in development. Women need extra support to catch up to the position of men as such it may be more useful to discuss gender equality in terms of women’s empowerment with an overarching goal of reaching a state in which equality may be achieved through the transformation of legal and regulatory frameworks, markets, and organizations into institutions based on the principles of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal voice for men and women.
Politics, it is argued are ‘always for someone for some purpose,’ argues critical theorist Robert Cox (1986), as ‘the act of theorising is always political. ’In the same way if one accepts however that enough shared aspects of refugee experiences do in fact exist and so therefore does a ‘refugee voice’ one may be able to benefit a greater cross-section of the refugee community in terms of the development of development and support projects designed to assist in the resettlement process. Conversely however, broadly accepting that there is simply one “voice” in each refugee cohort (i.e. one voice of Sudanese refugees, one voice of Tamil refugees) could easily result in the voices heard may be limited to those “hand-picked” by researchers/community developers, which would generally include the involvement of individuals already engaging in services , and exclude the most isolated and vulnerable individuals – which in many communities would include women and children. Critical theory stems from the notion that the very act of creating theories is in fact political through which some stand to gain and other stand to lose, and anyone can potentially have vested interests. Critical theorists like Cox seek to question their short comings emerging from efforts of the Marxist tradition to attempt to understand how the sanguine ideas, and would disagree with the idea that a “refugee voice” could ever exist.. With the Cox’s (1986) argument that ‘theory is always for someone for some purpose,’ in mind a critical theorist would question the manner in which any generalisation when it comes to the experience and voice of refugees could ever be accepted based on anything less than listening to each and every individual refugee and his/her experience.
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Source: semi-structured interviews, “Family A” Hobart Hazara Community Group, September 25, 2014
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