According to the latest figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2016), there are currently more than 65.6 million people forcibly displaced globally. This figure includes 22.5 million registered refugees, of whom more than 50 per cent are children and youth. This number continues to grow, mainly as a result of Syrian, Afghanistan and Sudanese conflicts.
Australia is currently home for a small number of those 65.6 million. As of 2017, just over 30,000 of the displaced people living in Australia didn’t have permanent protection, but had been granted temporary visas (temporary protection, safe haven enterprise visas or bridging visas).
This figure includes approximately 3400 young people, aged between 16-25, who would typically be studying or starting to think about their careers. However, refugee and asylum-seeking young people on these visas are categorised as international students in higher education. This means they’re required to pay full international tuition fees, which for the vast majority are unaffordable.
In recognition of this policy problem, 23 universities in Australia, including Monash, have offered a limited number of fee waivers and/or financial bursaries to about 100 students Australia-wide.
Through this action, universities acknowledge the potential benefits of students from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds accessing higher education – both for the students and Australian society.
Our study seeks to understand the experiences of students from seven universities across Australia, as they engage in the process of accessing and participating in higher education. The students are all from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds, some having arrived in Australia as unaccompanied minors. Throughout the course of our research, we’ve been hearing powerful stories of individuals committed both to surviving and thriving.
There’s a general assumption that the primary duty of nations in a ‘refugee crisis’ or emergency is to deliver aid. Although crucial, supporting individuals who are refugees and people seeking asylum is not just about material aid, and assisting people to survive. It’s also about making sure there are opportunities to learn, work and thrive. If done well, everyone stands to gain as individuals realise their potential and make rich contributions to society.
Below we tell you a story of one of our participants, Reza. The story moves us beyond the numbers and statistics to the lived reality. It’s important that as we think through practical and policy responses to the growing number of refugee and asylum-seeking individuals in Australia, we consider the stories of Reza and others.
My name is Reza. I am a 21-year-old Hazara male born in Quetta, Pakistan. Like all Hazaras in Pakistan, I do not have formal documentation, such as a passport or birth certificate. I was not recognised as a citizen in Pakistan. I lived with my mother, father and four siblings, attending primary school until 2009, when my father died. After that, at 12 years old, I left school and starting working in the local market to help support my family.
My journey to Australia began soon after a bomb went off in the market. It killed some of my friends and left me injured. My mother decided that if I was to reach adulthood, I would need to leave Quetta.
Saying goodbye to all my family when I was 16 years old, I managed to get a flight to Malaysia, where I took an eight-hour boat trip to Indonesia, and a three-day boat trip to Christmas Island. I stayed at Christmas Island for a month in an adult detention centre. Then, I was transferred to a detention centre in Tasmania hosting unaccompanied minors. There were more than 300 of us there.
I remained in the detention centre for four months. I was bussed to school every day, accompanied by government contracted guards. We were separated from the ‘normal students’ as we studied a very different curriculum consisting of mainly basic maths and English, but we occasionally met each other in the library.
Eventually, I was admitted to a public secondary school, but I was not ‘legally’ a member of the school community. I was told to tell no one I was seeking asylum.
I was eventually transferred to a community detention house in Melbourne. I shared it with five other young boys. This is where we learnt to use public transport, shop, cook and had access to public medical services.
I desperately wanted to go to school! But first, I had to enrol in an English language school with many other young people in a similar situation to me. I was there for six months.
On my way home from class one day, I saw someone wearing a secondary school uniform and I fell in love with it. I was told not to dream about that school because I came by boat and I was soon turning 18. I asked a teacher if turning 18 is a crime in Australia, just like being Hazara is a crime in Quetta. She could not answer my question.
Eventually, I was admitted to a public secondary school, but I was not ‘legally’ a member of the school community. I was told to tell no one I was seeking asylum. I was asked not to come to school when school photos were taken.
During the whole two years, I never gave up on the dream of attending university. I worked so hard during years 11 and 12, as I knew the only way to university was by attaining a scholarship. I applied, and here I am.
There is one more thing I would like to share with you. All unaccompanied minors, like me, were given away by their mothers to a new mother called Australia. When the mother who gave birth to them became too weak and fragile to resist the social injustices of a society, where the face of her son is the enemy, the Australian mother proved that humanity is still alive. The Australian mother did not only adopt that boy but nurtured him, made him capable of dreaming, and turned him into a capable human being.
The Australian mother is the soil, the people, communities, organisations, and every part of this land. Without the help of the Australian community, we would have been nothing. The Australian community is behind every boy like me at Australian universities. All of these boys just want to be good sons of the lovely mother called Australia.
Note: The Monash team presented its initial findings of the study at the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) Migration, Race and Ethnicity network conference on June 15. The team involved in the study includes: Sue Webb, Karen Dunwoodie, Mervi Kaukko, Kristin Reimer and Jane Wilkinson