Nadir* is from Afghanistan. In 2012, he fled his country fearing for his life.
He arrived in Australia seeking asylum; a new start. A life without fear. He knew no one when he arrived. Back home, he had a university degree. A job. A family and friends – some of them became casualties of the 13-year conflict that has claimed at least 21,000 civilian lives. He told me he didn’t want to leave his home, his country, but how can you stay when faced with death?
Here, Nadir has been on a bridging visa for two years; waiting for the Immigration Department to decide his future. He isn’t allowed to work. He isn’t allowed to enrol in university. He desperately wants to study medicine. He wants to help people and save lives. He wants to start living.
I met Nadir in Brisbane when the big blue bus visited MDA – Queensland’s largest settlement agency for migrants and refugees.
In 2013-2014, MDA’s 235 staff assisted 5621 migrants and refugees settle in Brisbane, Rockhampton and Toowoomba. Many of them are in a similar situation to Nadir, living in the community while awaiting a ‘resolution’ to their immigration status.
Spreading the Roadshow message of ‘Take 1 step for better mental health’, it was difficult to find words of encouragement for the men who made up the majority of those who came to visit the bus. After all, many of them have seen horrors I can’t even fathom. Experienced a level of fear I’ve never felt. Lost loved ones and livelihoods. And been faced with an unimaginable choice – stay or go.
And so here they are, supported by the incredible workers at MDA who help migrants integrate into the community, find housing and employment, access health services and education, learn English, manage finances and acquire life skills to manage in their new homeland.
But for those on bridging visas awaiting ‘resolution’, they are subject to an interminable waiting game. A life in limbo, where days become weeks become months become years.
A whole new set of risk factors to their mental health emerge. Not allowed to get a job. Not allowed to pursue a formal education. Not knowing when their future will be decided. Away from the conflict, but not necessarily the consequences (it’s not uncommon to receive bad news from home when home is a war zone).
If depression is like a dark cloud, how dark must it be for these people caught between two possible futures? Nadir says many of the young men turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the uncertainty and sense of hopelessness.
Last month, MDA and the World Wellness Group launched a new multicultural mental health recovery and support service. Culture in Mind is a community-based recovery service that supports the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the Greater Brisbane area. It is now delivering personal and culturally-tailored support, as well as carer and group support. A great initiative.
Before we finished our conversation, Nadir asked me why so many Australians don’t seem to care about the plight of asylum seekers. The question saddened me.
I don’t deny this is a big, complex, global issue. According to the UNHCR there are more than 50 million displaced people worldwide; in 2013, there were 16.7 million refugees and more than one million applications for asylum.
It’s an issue that has been clouded with fear by some politicians and media outlets. We have been desensitised to the struggles of fellow human beings. We can’t see the wood for the trees. But at the end of the day, what is right and what is wrong? Is it right to label human beings as ‘illegals’? To lock them up for fleeing persecution or a war, ostensibly not of their making? To leave them waiting in limbo for years?
I believe if most people had the opportunity to hear their stories in person, they would open their doors and their hearts to help. As MDA states, modern Australia is a nation forged on the hopes and dreams of generations of migrants determined to build a better life.
According to the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection, in 2013-2014 there were 13,768 visas granted under the Humanitarian Programme. Most (11,016) were granted to those applying from offshore. 2752 visas were granted to those applying from within Australia. A total of 10,626 people (who were found not to have a legal authority to remain in Australia) departed through voluntary return or removal in 2013-14.
*Name has been changed.