I’m lucky to possess a passport that allows me to freely travel wherever I like. We, including our government, tend to take this for granted.
Ousman rolled up his trouser leg and pointed to two scars carved into his leg. Bullet wounds. They told us they couldn’t get work in Senegal because they didn’t speak French or Wolof, the local language, but they still smiled and offered us part of their meal.
Their dream was to be sent to Australia as refugees, Ousman explained, but they had to wait in the camp for their names to finally be called and their future home country to be assigned to them. If they were lucky. “But what can we do? There’s the YES passports and the NO passports. And we’ve got the NO passports.” Ousman rolled down his trouser leg, covering up the scars of war so we wouldn’t have to look at them.
This year marks the sixth year anniversary of Australia’s “offshore processing” centres – which means that many of the refugees have now been trapped on Manus and Nauru for half a decade.
On this date in 2013, I had recently returned to Australia after 10 years of living abroad and moving from country to country, continent to continent. I was not in fear of my life, I was not fleeing persecution, I was travelling for fun – an unimaginable concept for most of the world’s population.
As an Australian, no-one stopped me, not even when I crossed into Mexico illegally by wading across a river. Occasionally I needed a visa but I could always get one because I had Australian dollars to pay for it. My passport, by virtue of bearing one nation’s stamp and not another, gave me the right to pick (almost) any country in the world and get a plane there. When I had enough, I went somewhere else, also chosen on a whim.
The history of humans is a history of migration – it is, after all, how the world came to be populated, how my ancestors ended up in Australia, and how I happen to have a shiny Australian passport. Borders for me are often nothing more than invisible lines in the dirt, where for others they are cages. These borders are always arbitrary, lines drawn up at random by self-appointed governments or colonial powers, that divide families, villages and communities.
This privilege was pointed out to me many times throughout my travels, by those trapped within the borders of their country. I met many people who dreamed of enjoying the freedom I had, the ability to earn a decent wage, the choice of where to go on holiday. For others, it was to fulfil an even more basic human need: survival.
The one that stuck with me the most was a family on the outskirts of Dakar in Senegal – refugees from the civil war that has ravaged Liberia for decades. They were living in donated tents pitched on cracked earth in a vacant lot littered with rocks and sand. The only difference between my life and theirs was what they called “the YES passports and the NO passports.”
Wherever I went, I knew all I had to do was wave my YES passport and get on a plane back to Australia. Arriving here at the same time as the men on Manus Island, I enrolled in studies, got a postgraduate diploma, found a well-paid job and made an independent film in my spare time. The men are still locked up in Manus.
A lot can happen in five years. But only if you’re lucky enough to have a YES passport.
Our cruel system of indefinite detention is designed to break the spirit of those who’ve come seeking asylum by water, by depriving them of hope for the future. Quite possibly they can expect to spend another five years behind bars, as punishment for the crime of seeking a better life.