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Life in transit

A few weeks ago I spent a few early morning hours in Singapore Airport, watching, between nods, a group of African people waiting to board the same flight to Melbourne. There were about 20 of them, including some very small children, a few women, but mostly men, and they were all dressed as if for a formal occasion. They were a striking sight as they waited, standing and silent, before the gate lounge door was unlocked. When I cleared customs in Melbourne, they were still in the immigration queue, but in the arrivals terminal there was a small knot of fellow Africans waiting to meet them.

A week or so later I was back at the airport, and again there were those familiar Africans, all waiting for the same Singapore Airlines flight number. The arrivals terminal has its own rhythm: the early desultory pulses of the automatic door, then the great disgorge, and finally, as the crowd wilts away, the trickle of presumably more complicated arrivals. This evening, the latter were the people the Africans were there to meet: one small group of six or so women and children, one larger group of 16 adults and children. Some of the welcoming party were experienced enough to arrive well after the flight had landed, turning up in their borrowed mini-vans just in time to shake hands, hug and kiss children and be part of the video opportunity.

This is a regular scene in a drama invisible to most Australians. The new arrivals are South Sudanese, fleeing not Darfur and the Khartoum-sponsored Janjaweed, but earlier episodes of civil war in the central and eastern parts of southern Sudan.  Along with barrels of oil, Sudan has been producing refugees more or less continuously since independence in 1956. We hear now that war has displaced a million people in Darfur; but further to the east, in the 20 years prior to Darfur erupting into our consciousness, at least two million people died and more than four million were made homeless. There is an uneasy peace in this region, reached through talks that began in June 2002 and which have continued in stages until the present. These current months are a crucial moment in the difficult negotiation process. A comprehensive peace agreement guaranteeing security, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the sharing of wealth and power and territory, and freedom of religious and cultural identity, is yet to be signed.

If it is, it will deliver six years of an interim peace, before a referendum will decide South Sudan’s political future—self-government for the South or some devolved form of incorporation into Sudan. Meanwhile, in refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda, in the cities of Cairo and Nairobi, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese await some kind of liberation. This year, building on the pattern of the previous year, some 7000 of them will be offered that freedom via an Australian visa and up to 80 per cent of those people will make their way to Melbourne. At the airport, the welcoming party soon overwhelmed the number of new arrivals.

 The smaller group of women and children were joining a man who had been in Australia for two months already. He was there, compulsively hugging his small son and tossing him high, in the company of a modest welcoming party who had travelled from the far distant eastern suburbs. These people were Nuer, members of the second largest tribal group in Southern Sudan: a curious fact about the settlement pattern already established is that, in Melbourne, Nuer have gravitated to eastern and southern suburbs such as Dandenong and Noble Park while Dinka tend to move out west, settling predominantly in and around Footscray. The conventional pattern of chain migration to Australia is at work, translated from the Greek island or Italian village template to tribal groupings.  The Dinka is the largest black tribe in Sudan, related to the Nuer and to another tribe called the Shilluk, in a group defined as the Nilotic tribes. There are Shilluk too in Melbourne, a long way from the River Nile. There are also representatives of tribes from the far south of Sudan, and from the west.

The smaller the tribal group, the more difficult it is to replicate the tribal structures and relationships that custom would expect to govern community life. The Dinka welcoming party reflected the extraordinary communal achievement represented in the arrival of these 16 people.

They had borrowed a mini bus from a Catholic parish, another bus from the local Council, and they added an assortment of station wagons and cars. In convoy they carried the 16 ‘urban refugees’ from Cairo back to a small house in the inner west. Under a shelter out the back 50 or so men sat around long tables. The women gathered inside, around a heater, or prepared food. The children lodged in a front room or played outside in the dark. This was the Dinka Jieng Council and the Catholic president made the first welcoming speech. A woman came out of main part of the house: she was a preacher, a mother of eight children, and in her two months in Australia was already recognised as a leader by the community and inserted actively in the local Anglican parish. She sang a prayer with the men accompanying her, before she joined the men at the table. Another man, a clergyman in the Uniting Church, took over. He spoke in his own language and in English, exhorting the gathering to unity and to mutual aid. A male from each of the three families among the 16 arrivals was invited to speak and was proudly applauded. It was important, the president and the clergyman said, that they hear from a representative woman. An older woman came out: she was the first Dinka in Melbourne, she said. She spoke in her language, echoing the words of the clergyman. Then the preacher woman led them in hymn again. Drinks were handed around and the food was brought out. The party went on until two o’clock in the morning.

The South Sudanese are coming to Australia under this country’s refugee and humanitarian visa program. Almost all of them come in the Special Humanitarian 202 Visa category, which provides them with a visa but until now has obliged them to meet all the costs of taking it up. They may be languishing in a refugee camp, or be unemployed urban refugees in Cairo, but they have had to somehow pay the costs of a compulsory medical examination.  They must pay airfares, equip themselves for travel, and anticipate housing on their arrival in Australia. They must somehow get from the airport to this housing, be able to pay rent, provide themselves with food and negotiate all the institutional arrangements in this country. These include applying for a tax file number so that a month after their arrival they can become eligible for Centrelink payments.

This is an impossible burden of course and in practice the sponsor or proposer required before a 202 Visa can be issued has assumed most of it. Or tried to. The Federal Department of Immigration’s Africa Newsletter warned earlier this year that some proposers were ‘failing to fulfil their financial responsibilities’ and that as a result people who were hoping to find a better life in Australia would be affected ‘in a very dramatic way’. Not only must a proposer find the appropriate money, but also he or she must provide it within a strict time limit. If the money is not forthcoming within the relevant time frame, the visa is cancelled.

Chain migration South Sudanese style is building a community of proposers who are trying to organise themselves to meet the demand. The pressure is enormous. Most adults in this community are unemployed, few have been here more than mere months, a privileged minority speak English, they have emerged from catastrophic conditions and all of them face complex and challenging cultural issues. Ask any of the South Sudanese and they will explain their energy against these odds by saying that they know what it is like in the camps.

Until now, the Government’s engagement in the fate of its 202 Visa recipients has stopped with the granting of the visa. However, the Minister for Immigration, Senator Amanda Vanstone, announced in June that there would be budget provision for the payment of medical examination costs for all Humanitarian Visa recipients and for the funding of an interest free loan scheme to cover travel costs. The South Sudanese are looking forward to seeing the fruit of this promise.
Meanwhile, they are also trying to address problems of settlement. They are working out how to translate and adapt tribal identities and relationships to an Australian environment. It is an extraordinarily difficult task. Women need access to English classes—impossible when you have an unusually large family by Australian standards, you live in an area ill served by public transport and there is no one to mind the children. Children with little or no experience of school need one-to-one support while they negotiate the English language and the classroom, adolescents need support—and so do their families—while they try to balance the traditional ways with the freedom proffered to them in Australia. Men and women need work, urgently.

The airport scene will be repeated many times over during the next year and more. Sometimes there will be several trips to and fro because no one could lend a mini-van. Slowly, Melbourne and Australia will awake to this new chapter in our history of immigration. 

Margaret Coffey makes programs for Encounter, ABC Radio National. There will be a program on the South Sudanese community in November.



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