Refugees and other aliens


District 9On a January night 11 years ago I sat in the back of a wheezing Mamba — an armoured defence vehicle — alongside members of the local police commando in the South African province of Mpumalanga. I had joined these men to report on a top-secret mission to intercept a refugee-laden train travelling from the Mozambican capital Maputo to its neighbouring counterpart, Pretoria.

Although South Africa was still radiant in the afterglow of its miraculous transition to democracy, the throngs of Mozambicans fleeing poverty and the aftermath of a protracted civil war were not accorded the politically benign and compassionate label 'refugee'. Instead, they were classified by the government and disgruntled citizens alike as illegal immigrants — or, to use the legal term applied to them, aliens.

So it was with some wry appreciation of the ironic and the allegorical that I watched a similar scene unfold on a cinema screen last week. Bureaucrats and law enforcement officers rumbled along in dust-churning Caspers, headed for a refugee camp where they would serve eviction notices on the camp's inhabitants. Aliens in the literal sense, these unwanted residents had arrived in their spaceship above Africa's thumping heart, Johannesburg.

'If they were from another country we might understand, but they're not even from this planet,' remarked a bystander as the convoy of Caspers streamed into the filthy, overrun alien camp, District 9.

The observation was deliberately ironic, given the xenophobia-fuelled violence that has succeeded the racial hatred of apartheid-era South Africa.

It reminds those of us who grew up under apartheid of long-forgotten human rights injustices, such as mid-winter evictions of squatters or the forced removal of Cape Coloureds from District 6 in Cape Town — abuses which have somehow managed to reconfigure themselves and find expression in new and unexpected ways in this apparently rainbow-hued country.

While District 9 is ostensibly an entertaining and technically sophisticated sci-fi movie, it also prompts the viewer to reflect on the ongoing maltreatment not only of the estimated 270,000 registered asylum seekers longing to assimilate into South Africa, but also the 42 million people worldwide who are currently displaced.

If we are incapable of treating our earthly fellows humanely, the director seems to be asking, how can we ever hope to function as morally robust beings in a universe whose boundaries we cannot begin to comprehend?

It's a debate that resonates in Australia as much as anywhere else: viewing Africa's intractable refugee crisis from the relative luxury of this country's neatly ordered shores, we have in many ways become over-confident and self-righteous.

Certainly, we have sidestepped a similar maelstrom through legislation that has been, variously, draconian and humane, and have narrowly upheld a collective public conscience that denounces those groups and individuals which are overtly opposed to multiculturalism.

But privately, prejudice can often be found bubbling away with dangerous intensity. Many Australian families sleep more soundly knowing that the night patrol is feverishly scanning the ocean's horizon, rounding up asylum seekers and locking them safely away on Christmas Island.

The newly-appointed Jesuit Refugee Service country director for South Africa, Australian Jesuit David Holdcroft, says he is better able to 'tolerate the intolerance' in under-resourced, refugee-deluged South Africa than in Australia, which in 2008 accepted 13,500 refugees — just 0.1 per cent of the 11 million refugees worldwide who were searching for a new home that year.

The 'luxury' of a coastline, says Holdcroft, protects Australia from an unchecked influx of migrants; there is no such buffer for South Africa, a country easily accessed via a chequerboard of interlinked countries and endless, unmanned borders.

The thousands of migrants who make their way to South Africa each year are motivated by anything from violent persecution and economic instability to simple opportunism. These mixed-migration flows and South Africa's 'no camps' policy blur the distinction between legally-recognised refugees and 'illegal immigrants'. 'A person's background is never totally clear',says Holdcroft. '[But] people are people.'

I came to the same conclusion that January night in Mpumalanga as I documented the top-secret mission which ultimately netted 84 illegal immigrants. They were taken off the train and locked up in police cells overnight, before being repatriated the following morning.

'Sometimes they're taken to Lebombo in the evening, and then try to enter South Africa again the next day', a Border Policing captain told me. I ached for these downcast people who physically buckled beneath the burden of disappointment.

In the years since, the flow of Mozambicans into South Africa has decreased. On the other hand, political developments in Zimbabwe have triggered a human deluge across the border at Beit Bridge.

Like the aliens in District 9, who have been conveniently excluded from the human rights declaration, refugees in South Africa — and across the world — face a bleak future. By extrapolating this raw exploration of undisguised fear and bigotry, we are better able to access the humanity of the stranger — especially the stranger who is so different from us that we are certain we will never succeed in finding common ground.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a South African journalist now living in Sydney. She is the Communications Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.

Topic tags: refugees, aliens, racism, south africa, johannesburg, david holdcroft, jesuit refugee service, district 9



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Existing comments

Things can only get better if there are more people like Catherine Marshall and organisations like the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Ray O'Donoghue | 18 August 2009

Catherine writes a good article about the conditions of the refugees in Africa and what a problem she describes.

I worked Holy Eucharist parish in St Albans, Melbourne for Peter Carrucan PP a couple of years ago when he initiated a refugee support programme when dozens of sudanese refugees arrived. I was amazed that people who were one day living in a refugee camp in Cairo, Egypt or Niarobi Kenya, would arrive in Melbourne. They moved from the third world to the first world in 24 hours and all they brought with them for a whole family was a bag of cloths.

How quickly they settled in, finding accommodation sending the children to school, finding work, attending english language classes, setting up choirs at the local church, developing their elders system of community development and gradually fitting into Australian society. The next story is how well our services and culture coped with this influx. It was great to see how the refugees lifted when they arrived and how well our people and culture have accepted all comers.

kevin vaughan | 18 August 2009

'For those who've come across the seas we've boundless planes to share..' (unless you're illegal, come on a boat, don't fit the criteria, don't have the skills and qualifications to keep up the standard of Australia, etc.etc.etc.) Can someone 'please explain"?
Judy Schutte | 19 August 2009

I have this wish that someday our stupid law makers will remember that teensy little thing called the refugee convention and the right to asylum enshrined in our law.

Or that one day they have to flee for their lives.
Marilyn | 20 August 2009

The conceit employed in district 9 was so basic yet so very clever - the ghastly, 'other', alien, awful, 'prawns' quickly became sympathetic characters. As the chief prawn protagonist put it, they simply wanted to go home. The sad fact for human refugees is that they simply can't go home/have no home. And yet their fellow species members have an inexplicable habit of making it rather hard for them to feel vaguely welcome, never mind to feel at home.....
jennerator | 27 August 2009


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