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Refugee Realities

By Andrew Hewett - posted Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Two weeks ago Australia's only refugee camp was dismantled. Called Refugee Realities, the camp occupied Gasworks in Albert Park for four weeks while thousands of school children and members of the public visited. In building the camp, Oxfam’s aim was to help people understand that refugees are no different to the rest of us. They just happen to have lived in extraordinary circumstances.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 34 million people are currently displaced by war and conflict. In the Sudanese province of Darfur, 400,000 people have been killed and more than three million people have fled their homes since fighting broke out in 2003. Ongoing violence has prevented aid from reaching many of these people.

In Iraq, more than two million people have been displaced and two million more live in neighbouring countries, making that conflict the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Meanwhile, two and a half decades of civil war in Sri Lanka have claimed an estimated 60,000 lives, and forced nearly 600,000 people into refugee camps, both within Sri Lanka and in India.


In each of these conflicts, the international community has struggled to provide adequate support for those who have been forced to flee violence. Caring for those made homeless by war or disaster is something that we have yet to master. In many parts of the world, huge refugee camps provide temporary shelter and other forms of assistance for thousands of people. But due to the protracted nature of many civil conflicts, the average refugee typically spends 17 years living in a state of limbo before finding a safe place to call home.

Refugees' experiences can seem all too distant as we sit in our homes and watch news of wars on other continents. However, the 8,000 people who visited Refugee Realities had the opportunity to experience for themselves some of the challenges faced by refugees around the world. And, having gained a better understanding of the lives of refugees, their overwhelming response has been: “what can we do to help?” What these visitors have also made clear is that they both want and expect their government to provide assistance to countries and people in crisis.

Australia remains one of ten countries in the world with a commitment to accept thousands of refugees each year. This commitment is manifested in a humanitarian program that is periodically adjusted to respond to both global events and domestic political pressures.

In the 1970's, the Fraser Government conducted a public education campaign to address community concern that Australia was welcoming people who had fled the Vietnamese communists that our soldiers had been sent to fight. This expression of leadership and humanity encouraged tolerance and acceptance of refugees. Sadly, in recent years, Australia's record of fairness to refugees has been tarnished by programs such as mandatory detention and off-shore processing. Evidence shows these policies have compounded the trauma of refugees who came here seeking our protection.

The Rudd Government brings hope that our humanity and respect for human rights can be restored through our treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. A positive start has been made with an end to the so-called Pacific Solution and the closing of detention centres in Nauru, as well as the swift resolution of many asylum-seeker cases that have been pending for years. However, other changes still need to be made.

Most refugees still linger in refugee camps for more than a decade in a practice bluntly referred to as “refugee warehousing”. Targeted support to governments, usually of poor countries, which host the majority of the world's refugees, would alleviate much suffering. The Rudd Government would also do well to reinforce diplomatic efforts that could end the world's most tragic and prolonged conflicts, and expand the quota of refugees for whom Australia will provide protection.


Refugee Realities depicted the incredible spirit of refugees as well as their suffering. We should celebrate the contributions that refugees have made, and continue to make, to Australian life. It is clear that Australia is a better place for having provided protection to people of such ingenuity, strength and resilience.

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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