By Chris Whitworth for Newshub
The “right of asylum” is a term of ancient origin, in which a criminal – or person charged with a crime – could seek temporary refuge in a temple or “holy place”.
Soldiers have been known to evoke their right of asylum on the battlefield in which a losing army could take shelter in a nearby church, gaining temporary immunity from the outside conflict.
Centuries later, the term “asylum seekers” has come to represent people seeking refuge of a different kind – one from poverty, persecution and depravity.
The battlefield has become their home country. The crime: merely being born there.
Countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan offer their citizens little protection from internal conflicts.
Forced to flee, their holy sanctum bears no resemblance to a church, but rather a hellish existence thousands of miles from home, in a cramp detention centre where they await the long process of filing for refugee status.
Two days ago a wooden boat crammed full of asylum seekers crashed into the rocks on Christmas Island, killing at least 30 people. Men, women and children were shown flailing in the water as the treacherous seas threw their boat onto the rocks.
“These decisions aren’t taken lightly,” says Elizabeth Walker from the Auckland Refugee Council.
“They are not trying to ‘jump the queue’ as they say, they are desperate people trying to get some sense into their lives.”
Ms Walker helps runs a small non-government organisation that offers assistance and care for asylum seekers and refugees. She says it is abhorrent that such “fragile” people are kept in detention centres like criminals.
She says those who come to New Zealand and Australia seeking refugee status are often broken, traumatised people. Many have escaped torture and abuse in their home country.
“They have led dreadful lives; they have led lives where they’ve been in fear for most of the time.
“They need to be shown how to live really, how to live again,” she says.
Abdikarim Ali Haji, 31, left Somalia when he was a teenager. In his neighbourhood he saw childhood friends ripped to shreds by bullets, and lived in constant fear of rebel soldiers killing the men in his family, and doing unspeakable things to the women.
He arrived in New Zealand in 1998 as an asylum seeker and still – 12 years later – does not have refugee status.
Over that time “Haji” has spent nearly three years unlawfully imprisoned while his refugee status has been debated.
A “free man” now, he says he’d rather prison than return to Somalia.
“I told them that even if you keep me in jail as long as you want (sic), I never want to go back to Somalia because my life would be at risk. At least here one day I might be out – you still have hope,” he says.
Haji calls himself “an alien”.
He is not legally a Somalian citizen. He is not legally a New Zealand citizen. He isn’t even technically an asylum seeker.
Immigration and refugee solicitor Heval Hylan says Haji is a “failed asylum seeker”, living in New Zealand on a limited purpose visa.
Mr Hylan gives legal representation to many asylum seekers, often fighting their cases out in court. He says New Zealand’s refugee system is better than Australia, but admits refugees are still seen as burdens.
“They are not welcome. The worst attitude is when you don’t welcome someone into your house.
“There is no room for humanity anymore.”
He says even immigration officials can harbour callous attitudes towards those seeking asylum. Mr Hylan says several clients, upon entering the country, have been asked:
“Do you know Osama Bin Laden?”
For more than a decade Haji has fought to gain refugee status, existing in what another lawyer calls “the most dreadful state of limbo”.
Life is a struggle for Haji. A qualified butcher and boner, the 31-year-old has held down intermittent jobs in both the North and South Island. In between employment he has lived thanks to the charity of others, and at times, even in his car. All the while tossing and turning through New Zealand’s complex immigration system. Haji says they can’t decide whether to deport him or imprison him.
“I’ve been locked up for unlawfully working in the country, what can I do when they’re not giving me work permit? Should I go rob the citizens of this country?”
He says a few years ago – in a particularly bad spell of unemployment – he was overwhelmed by frustration and loneliness, and attempted suicide.
“I didn’t have a job; I was really, really down. I didn’t know where to go and I thought I’d rather take my life,” he says.
Haji was rushed to Auckland Hospital, having overdosed on prescription pills. His stomach was pumped and he luckily survived. He now jokes that he still owes the hospital money for the ambulance ride.
Ms Walker says it is not uncommon for asylum seekers to suffer from severe mental anguish.
“The people that come to us, they’re very fragile and it’s shown in all sorts of ways; some withdraw and they won’t talk, others are talking all the time – they’ve all got different ways of showing how traumatised they are,” she says.
Haji’s experience is that of many asylum seekers. Frustrated and alone many attempt to self-harm. Australian statistics show self-harm at detention centers is at an all time high in 2010.
The Australian this month published a report by the Social Policy Research Centre which shows 79 recorded incidents of self-harm at Australian detention centres this year (from July 1 to November 18). The figure is double that of the previous year (39).
The report not only condemns compulsory detention for asylum seekers, but suggests a direct link between incarceration and mental health problems. The report reinforces Ms Walker’s view, suggesting community-based care as the best solution for helping asylum seekers.
It has been more than 12 years since Haji fled Somalia. His family is scattered around the world – split up during their desperate escape from the country. Haji says his brother is in Sweden, his sister England and his parents and younger siblings are in Ethiopia.
He cannot leave New Zealand to reunite with any of his family, but gains some comfort in occasional phone calls.
“I’m a grown up man and, still, it brings me to tears,” he says.
Somalia is never far from his thoughts, but rather than evoking homesickness, it motivates him towards a better life in New Zealand.
“Where we’ve lived and what we’ve gone through and me living here, I think I can live life, I can try – always tomorrow.”
“Everyday I think, ‘hopefully tomorrow will be better’.”
They are the lost, the wanderers, the tortured and the dispossessed. They jump on unseaworthy boats and risk detention centers, all for a better life.
At least 30 people died in the Christmas Island crash, but the real tragedy may still lie ahead for those who survive, forced to live like Haji – as aliens – with no country to belong to.