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Learning from the other side of the world

By Sonia Caton - posted Monday, 24 September 2012

My driver/interpreter cheerfully announced that it was only 36 degrees - a good day to visit a refugee camp at Akcakale in Eastern Turkey. It is not unusual for the temperatures to hit 45 degrees in this area.

For the last 20 years, I have been representing asylum seekers as they grope their way through the Australian legal system. More recently as a volunteer migration agent\lawyer at the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service in Brisbane I have been sharing the emotion of the many Syrian Australians I have been advising as they seek ways to facilitate the passage of family and friends to safe countries.

I am about to see how Turkey deals with war on its borders and the flood of refugees that results. I can compare it to my own country which, since 1992, has mandatory detention and continues to skirt international protection obligations by introducing various forms of outsourcing and off-shoring as we deal with our comparative trickle of asylum seekers.


It is 11 September 2012. (Who cannot attach some kind of gravitas and expectation to that day each time it reoccurs.) I am in Sanliurfa, a city of about 1.5 million in the south east of Turkey. The Syrian border is just 45 kms away.

With the support of the Refugee Council of Australia and guidance provided by the UNHCR and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, I had sought permission from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit the refugee camp at Akcakale. It was not forthcoming. Trying not to feel less worthy than Angelina Jolie, who was on an authorised visit to another camp far to the west, near Aleppo, I rationalise my rejection by reference to the Kurdish separatist activity that takes place and raises security concerns in this part of Turkey.

In the time I am in Sanliurfa, the terrorism trial of 40 Kurdish journalists commences in Istanbul; a suspected Kurdish suicide bomber is shot dead not too far from the city limits and Kurdish separatists and military kill each other in a spate of attacks. A couple of weeks previous a car bomb killed 10 in the neighbouring town of Gaziantep.

The troubles both within and across the border are impacting on a tourism industry that had finally begun to flourish after years of Kurdish separatist resistance. The tourism operators to whom I speak seek my word on Trip Advisor to reassure visitors to come back. Turkey is clearly dealing with a delicate and difficult set of circumstances.

I decide to take my chances. I am driven by a desire to witness how this country is dealing with its refugee issue, and a deep respect of people whom I had found to gentle and tolerant in a previous visit to Syria. Now they are engulfed in the cruellest of civil wars.

As we set out, we visit the cave where Abraham spent seven years in contemplation. It is a tiny cave. I descend many steps underground and squeeze myself between the traditional and devout women in prayer. Ironically, they are Kurds.


We drove out of Sanliurfa past crumpled men riding on wooden carts pulled by donkeys – poverty is never far away in this part of Turkey. My driver regales me with thousands of years of local history. Turkey emerges as the crucible of western civilisation from his words.

After about three quarters of an hour, we reached the small border town of Akcakale. The town is on flat and arid plains and looks dusty.

I catch sight of a line of mini-buses waiting to convey arriving refugees to the nearby camp. We are at the border. Immediately we are mobbed by children pressing us to buy water or give them money. I cannot ignore their urgent demands driven by need. The sun beats down unbearably.

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About the Author

Sonia Caton is a lawyer and a migration agent representing asylum seekers. While the Director and Principal Solicitor of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service in Brisbane (RAILS) the organisation was awarded the national Human Rights Award for a "Community Organisation".

She also serves on a number of boards, including chairing the Refugee Council of Australia, sitting on the Advisory Board to Migration Agents Registration Authority, International Education Services Ltd and the Greencross Australia Advisory Panel and lectures in law.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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