Culture //

Personalising the political

Remembering the story of individuals counters harsh refugee policy, writes Bernadette Anvia.


Many Australians find it hard to understand why someone would travel here on a boat with no guarantee of survival and a high likelihood of indefinite detention.

It’s a trade-off many of us regard as unacceptable, especially when tragic cases like that of Reza Barati come to the fore. For me, it took an extended visit from a relative living in Iran to understand why sometimes risking everything for a new life in another country is completely worth it.

Up until the end of 2013, I had never laid eyes on my uncle, the sole member of my family still living in Iran. As a citizen of one of the supposed “Axis of Evil” nations, it took three unsuccessful attempts and a guaranteed payment of $15,000 to approve his application for an Australian holiday visa.

Last year, when then-Foreign Minister Bob Carr informed us that all illegal Iranian boat people were economic refugees, he sought to draw a line between people who fled life-threatening situations and Iranians who merely sought a better economic lifestyle. However, it wasn’t until my uncle’s visit that I finally understood the line between the two wassn’t that clear cut, and economic factors should not be dismissed as illegitimate.

At the heart of this issue lays one inescapable fact: Australia has helped to create an international situation in which Iranian asylum seekers are the eventual product. First we enforced harsh sanctions on Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program, and then we tried to disassociate ourselves by refusing to help its people. And now, to justify this behaviour, we tell ourselves that Iranians are hampered by economic problems rather than persecution.

One dinnertime, my mother had cooked roast beef, a culinary staple in most Aussie households, but my uncle was taken aback by the amount of red meat we had for a single meal. He told us that Iranian sanctions have classified various food groups such as meat and poultry as luxury items, often foregone by the poorer classes in Iran, with mushrooms consumed as a nutritional alternative.

He was frequently amazed by what he perceived as overabundance in Australia. Often compelled to speak out about our wastefulness, he would even advise my sisters and I to buy smaller drinks at McDonalds if we were going to throw half of it away.


Some might call this rude, others cheap, but at the heart of those very few words was a fear so deeply engrained in a man approaching the most difficult years of his life on a pension rate so meagre that he was basically living on a week–by-week basis. His enforced perspective cast a harsh light on our lifestyle, often taken for granted where much of what we buy gets thrown away.

My uncle wasn’t just afraid of running out of food. He mentioned being scared of a time when medications and operations would be necessary to keep him in good health in old age, but that he wouldn’t be able to afford them because of their exorbitant prices.

At the end of all this stands my family, living in a prosperous country with a strong dollar that could buy much in Iran, but helpless to provide my uncle with any major monetary relief. International sanctions imposed on Iran mean that major banking institutions no longer allow transfers of money to the country.

For all intents and purposes, Iranian citizens are on their own. For many, the only way to remedy this helplessness is to get on a boat and pray to their God to get them safely to Australia.

I never knew Reza Barati and cannot claim to have known his motives in coming to Australia.

But over two months, I came to know another who had seen the troubles that Iran is currently experiencing, fearful of what the future may hold. It overturned everything that I thought I knew about Iranian asylum seekers.

His story reminded me of a fundamentally human element that lies behind Operation Sovereign Borders. Australians tend to regard boat people as an anonymous mass of the unfortunate; a tactic that allows us to separate the personal from the political in the most callous of ways. The publicized death of Reza Barati was an exception to this trend, as the 23-year-old Iranian became a temporary face for the faceless in utterly tragic circumstances.

Now, the media hype surrounding Barati is slipping away, but we mustn’t let our concern fade with it. Individual stories are important in the refugee debate, as they work against government efforts to dehumanise those who seek safety here. My uncle’s story, and Reza Barati’s too, promote compassion and understanding among Australians. They should not be forgotten.