Australian Immigration Process Offers Hope, Long Wait
By Sai Awn Tai/Sydney
June 28, 2007
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Tamla Gaw, 50, a Karen refugee from Burma arrived in Sydney with his family in January 2006 after spending 15 years in two refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.
In 2002, Tamla Gaw applied to immigrate to Australia and even though the process took two years, he never lost hope that he would find a better life there and no longer live in fear.
For Tamla Gaw, a two-year wait seemed trivial compared to the 33 years he spent living under the repressive Burmese regime, followed by 15 years of living in refugee camps.
“I’d finally found a good future path, especially for my family,” said Tamla Gaw, who grew up at Nyaung Lay Pin in Pegu Division in Burma. The area is located in the middle of a war zone between the Burmese military regime, also known as the State Peace and Development Council, and the Karen National Union.
A nursery school teacher, Tamla Gaw was often forced by the SPDC to perform unpaid labor building roads and carrying ammunition across battlefields.
He had no future in Burma. After several days of traveling on foot without food, he arrived at the Bawnaw refugee camp at Thai-Burmese border in September 1991.
“It was very hard to find vegetables and fruit because travel outside the camp was not permitted,” Tamla Gaw said.
In April 1995, the Bawnaw camp was burned down when the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army attacked it with the support of the Burmese regime. The DKBA is a KNU breakaway group.
Tamla Gaw moved to the Mae La refugee camp where he met his future wife, Crystal Gaw, 38, at the Karen Education Department where they both worked as school teachers.
Tamla and Crystal Gaw’s stories are not unique except for the fact that not many Burmese refugees ever make it to Australia.
Government statistics show only 205 Burmese refugees arrived in Australia in 2004-05.
The policy was modified in 2006 when then Federal Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, visited the Mae La refugee camp and learned that among the 45,000 refugees in the camp, thousands had lived there for decades in poor conditions.
A short time later, Australia agreed to accept 900 refugees from Burma each year, and the figure rose to 1,500 for 2007.
However, Australian immigration policy requires refugees to wait for as long as three years before actually arriving on Australian soil.
By comparison, refugees accepted by the US, Canada, New Zealand and some European countries can apply and arrive in their new home country within three to four months.
Burmese refugees are asking why the delay?
Saw Lwin Oo, the general secretary of the Australian Karen Organisation based in Sydney, says one reason is the large number of selection categories, which demand rechecking a refugee’s background even though they may have already been recognized and granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.
The Australian resettlement procedure also requires that health conditions are checked to ensure refugees to meet the criteria of Australian law.
The US and many European countries—unlike Australia— accept refugees who are HIV/AIDS positive or who suffer from other serious medical conditions.
The Australian process has another downside, says Professor Thann Naing, the chairman of the Burmese Community Welfare Group.
US and European countries get the talented and skilled refugees because Australia’s selection procedures are more restrictive and take longer, says Thann Naing, who is based at Macquaire University.
But regardless of the barriers, refugees who finally arrive in Australia are ready to work hard and are full of hope for the future.
One big plus for refugees once they legitimately enter Australia is the full assistance available from both government and community organisations.
In New South Wales, for example, the Australian Centre for Language provides services to refugee families when they first arrive and help with access to Centrelink, healthcare and language schools.
Burmese refugees in Sydney also receive assistance from their own community organisations such as the Burmese Community Welfare Group and the Australian Karen Organisation.
But even with help, refugees face difficulties integrating into a new environment, a new culture and a new language, and it can take years to adjust.
Even so, Tamla Gaw has a dream. He wants to be a good teacher in Australia.
“It will take me about five years to be a teacher here,” he said. “I know it is hard, but I will work hard on it.” Gaw is now studying English for Employment at Liverpool TAFE.
His two sons, Kaw Gayday Gaw, 8, and Kaw Kamu Gaw, 5, who were born and grew up in the Mae La camp are even more important because they represent a new generation, Tamla Gaw said.
“We have to make sure that we look after them very well as they have more potential than us,” he said.