ABUK Atem is one of the “challenging” Sudanese refugees Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews says isn’t integrating well into Australia. The 17-year-old, sitting for her year 12 exams at a Canberra college, loves school and her Aussie friends, and wants to give back to her new home country by becoming a nurse.
But above all, the shy teenager wants her mother. The Immigration Department has twice knocked back her application to bring to Australia her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler. And now, with Mr Andrews’ controversial ban on any further African refugee migration this year, her hopes have dimmed further. While a spokesman for Mr Andrews said Sudanese refugees already here would not be stopped from applying to bring family over, refugee advocates believe the ban means the applications will be rejected.
Ms Atem has lived in Australia for nearly four years, accepted as a refugee after a lifetime of misery in a Kenyan refugee camp. At three she was separated from her family after she was scooped up by her aunt from her preschool during one of the many savage battles that have characterised Sudan’s civil war for decades. She landed in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya with her uncle and aunt, who she believed was her mother. “She told me when I was 10 that she wasn’t my mum,” she says matter-of-factly. A marriage of Red Cross detective work and her mother’s determination led to a tearful 2005 telephone reunion between Ms Atem, by now in Australia with her aunt, and her mother Angeth, who had tracked her movements to the Kenyan camp.
Since then, her efforts to reunite with her mother and three siblings in Australia have been frustrated by a resistant bureaucracy that insists she is not filling out the paperwork correctly. She has written and rung departmental officers, but “they don’t offer me any help with them, they don’t tell me what they want”. Her last attempt was in June, just months after departmental officers flagged in Senate estimates hearings that the African refugee intake would be tightened. “It is very hard to live in Australia without your mum. I miss her. I’m confused, I don’t know what to do.
“I didn’t see her for such a long time — she talks to me really nicely on the telephone.” Ms Atem’s father, Yong Atem, died “a long time ago” in Sudan’s protracted war between Arabs and non-Arabs, in which 2 million were killed since 1983 and 4 million — Ms Atem among them — fled their homes. No longer living with her aunt in Canberra, she lives alone and holds her breath waiting for the mother she can’t remember to join her. But high-profile refugee advocate Marion Le fears the new hard line against accepting any more “challenging” Sudanese refugees means Ms Atem’s family dreams will be quashed. “Legally they can sponsor their family, but that doesn’t mean the department will approve them, given the Prime Minister’s statement that absolutely no more Africans will be accepted until July next year.”