Single Issue Stories

I have spent a lot of late nights this week angrily reading through the news and contemplating my impending future. Three stories stuck with me: an Afghan refugee self-immolated, a Somali refugee was allegedly denied basic  rights after being raped and impregnated, and a six year old boy died from shrapnel wounds in Yemen.  These are the headlines that draw my attention from school and leave me yearning to graduate.

The first story broke Monday when an Afghani man in Australia self immolated when he feared deportation. The asylum seeker, Khodayar Amini, was video chatting with a local refugee non-profit, when he started speaking of killing himself.  One of the coordinators who had suicide prevention training tried to calm him down, while calling authorities, but Amini doused himself in gasoline and self immolated.  Australian authorities were looking to question Amini, who was set to be tried on November 10th on charges of stalking and threats (against whom it is unclear).  The case threatened his bridging visa and his status in Australia.  Amini’s family was killed by the Taliban and he felt that upon return to Afghanistan he too would be killed.  It is believed these events led to his suicide.  What the news has yet to mention, is that the threat of deportation could have violated the UNHCR Refugee policy.

The United Nations 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol on Refugees clearly dictates the principles of non-refoulement or the prohibition of expulsion.  Article 33 states that a refugee cannot be returned to a country if they have reasonable cause to believe that they will be killed or tortured upon their arrival.  Amini met this clause.  The second part of the article, however, states that a refugee may not claim non-refoulement if they pose “a danger to the security of the country,” where they have been convicted of a serious crime.  Stalking legislation in Australia is vague and it is unclear whether or not it would warrant a serious enough crime to merit deportation, since it is not a danger to national security.  Under Article 3 of the 1985 UN Convention on Torture the threat of refoulement constitutes a form of mental torture, when there is reasonable cause to believe the individual will be harmed upon their return to the country of origin.  I have been left wondering if the Australian government inadvertently mentally tortured Khodayar Amini, potentially contributing to his suicide.

Amini’s story reminded me of the detention facility I visited in Denmark last semester and the different refugee stories that I heard.  When someone has sacrificed everything to run from the mouth of death, I cannot imagine any more terrifying than the prospect of forced repatriation.

On Tuesday the video of a little Yemeni boy went viral. Fareed Shawky was in his family’s home when his body was racked by shrapnel from a Houthi missile. The boy was taken to a hospital where he was treated for internal bleeding and damage to the brain.  The video circulating the internet, shows him pleading with the doctors and his family to keep him alive.  In the rough english translation you can hear Fareed cry “Daddy, don’t let them bury me.”  (Warning the video is extremely graphic)

Four days later he died from his wounds.  Activists are calling him the Aylan (the young Syrian boy who washed ashore dead) of Yemen.  A UN report from this summer estimates that over 27,000 civilians have been killed or injured in the civil war in Yemen, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a civilian.  His family says they are glad that the world is listening to Fareed’s story, hoping that this will bring attention to the often overlooked civil war. Unlike Amini’s story, this is an issue of suffering within the borders of a conflict.

Fareed’s death brought back memories of the South Sudanese I met in Boston, who lost their families and traversed thousands of miles to escape the crossfire between rebels and the state.

Finally on Thursday, the rape and impregnation of Abyan, a Somali Asylum seeker in Australia brought the rule of law in Nauru and Manus into question.  These islands, have been called Australia’s Guantanamo. Instead of a military holding facility, these islands have some of the largest Australian refugee holding facilities.  There have been widespread complaints of rape and abuse.  Abyan, the Somali woman, requested transfer to Australia so she could have an abortion.  She was taken to Australia after weeks of petitioning, but flown out before the procedure could be completed.  The Australian government claims she changed her mind.  Her lawyers are saying they forced her return to prevent a court injunction allowing her to stay in Australia.  Her case points to the larger issue of sexual assault against female refugees. Once again there is the issue of the psychological, medical, and legal treatment of Asylum seekers.

Abyan reminded me of the women I met this summer in Rwanda who were survivors of rape and sexual assault.  Women’s bodies are too often used as extensions of battleground in conflict.  And the prospect of asylum in a “developed” country is supposed to assure security from this sort of assault.

Audre Lorde once said “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”  Media tends to oversimplify the complexities of civilians in conflict.  The story of Khodayar Amini is easily mis-told as a mentally unstable man who did not want to face the courts, Fareed Shawky as a casualty of war, and Abyan as an issue of refugee transfers between territories.  Instead these go beyond a basic black and white morality touching on issues of refugee rights, rule of law, sexual assault, abortion, mental health, Suicide, torture, international humanitarian law, United Nations jurisdiction, and the responsibility to protect doctrines.  These headlines may keep me up at night, but they are the issues that make me come alive and work that much harder.


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