Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Expectations of Vulnerability in Australia

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Expectations of Vulnerability in Australia

Article excerpt

The rhetoric and policies of Australia's major political parties have sought to differentiate between refugees and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are depicted as 'fake refugees', particularly because they do not 'mind the queue'. Their action (getting on a boat) is framed as an indication that they are not the most vulnerable but are capable economic migrants and hence undeserving of sanctuary. Actively excluding asylum seekers is therefore considered a necessary measure in order to provide adequate humanitarian assistance for resettling 'genuine' refugees, who have become synonymous with those living for protracted periods in refugee camps and coming to Australia through a managed programme.

After more than two decades in camps, the Bhutanese resettling in Australia represent a global elite of refugees who can access resettlement opportunities. The ability of refugees to gain admission is increasingly based on perceptions of helplessness, suffering and 'deservingness'. These expectations have had an impact on the way resettlement organisations, local service providers and the general public approached the Bhutanese once they were in Australia. In particular, Bhutanese refugee men (and, in particular, able-bodied men) were seen as vulnerable due to the trauma stemming from past experiences, while women were considered vulnerable due to their gender roles. Men were consistently seen as a barrier to be overcome in order to realise the transformation of vulnerable female refugees into empowered women. These understandings and assumptions regarding the social role of women afforded men few pathways to move beyond their status of vulnerable (but still problematic) refugees.

Trauma morphed into a central feature, with both positive and negative effects, of male Bhutanese refugee identity in Australia. First and foremost, trauma and suffering marked them as deserving refugees and thus welcome in Australia. Several men told me it was important that Australians knew their story, their experiences of torture and the protracted time spent in camps.

"It is really essential for people in Australia to know our history because they will not have information about our background... For example, I have been involved in discrimination on the street. As I was walking along the street someone from a car shouted at me using foul language and they said "you Indian, go back to you country" and made a rude gesture. Therefore it is important." (Male, in his 20s)

Male interviewees believed that it was through suffering that their admission into Australia was made credible. There was a clear attempt to distinguish themselves from asylum seekers whom the popular press and some political groups speculated were, in reality, economic migrants. One Bhutanese refugee who worked with recent arrivals explained:

"The label refugee is very important. It is very important because it makes people understand we are from refugee camps. It also means more support, support for torture victims." (Male, in his 30s)

Here, suffering in a refugee camp, coming through the correct resettlement process and reflecting the appropriate attributes of a refugee are all identified as significant to legitimise their presence in Australia.

Though participants recognised the potential positive aspects of the refugee label, they also expressed concern that people equated 'refugee' with a lack of capabilities or education. One participant explained, "people won't recognise the skills that we are bringing... people just think refugees are poor people without any skills." (Male, in his 30s). In addition, however, the Bhutanese community also recognised that the label enabled them to access resources that other migrants could not. At a very practical level, being traumatised is a recognised disability that brought with it additional financial support.

In this context, the refugee label was both a help in fostering acceptance by Australians and a hindrance. …

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