WARWICK, Australia — Mohammed Karimi has come a long way to find himself at the gate of a cattle weighing station in Australia's outback.
Born in Afghanistan, Karimi fled with his family to the cramped refugee camps of western Pakistan after the Taliban killed his father several years ago.
Pooling what little family money he had, Karimi set out on the well-worn people-smuggling route to Australia, traveling by plane to Malaysia before departing by boat for Indonesia. In Indonesia, he and three traveling companions were caught and imprisoned for five months by authorities there.
After bribing his way out of prison and lying low for a month in Jakarta, he linked up with a boat leaving for mainland Australia. When well out to sea, the boat’s engine failed and the boat’s crowd of asylum seekers floated dead in the water for a week.
The craft was eventually intercepted by an Australian navy vessel and towed to Christmas Island, an offshore immigration detention center northwest of Australia and the country’s first line of defense against those who are referred to by many Australians as "boat people."
“People [at Christmas Island] are very good but because it is like a prison, it is very difficult for many people,” the 30-year-old Afghan said from a paddock in a training institute in Warwick, a town in the northeastern state of Queensland, a well-established rural hub of Australia. “Immigration rules in Australia are very, very difficult.”
Karimi, along with six other refugees, are enrolled in a 12-week course at the Warwick campus of TAFE, a nation-wide tertiary educational institute. The students are the second batch to go through the new program, sponsored by Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), which trains them for work in the agricultural industry.
According to another student in the course, Joseph Aholouvi, 25, from Togo: “It’s a very good program because you have a lot of training in tractors, forklifts and four-wheel motorbikes, [as well as] shearing and horse-riding.”
Aholouvi arrived in Australia late last year after his wife, who had reached the country a year earlier, applied for his asylum. Until then, he had been living in a UNHCR camp in neighbouring Ghana after fleeing fighting in his homeland. It was his wife who urged him to sign up at Warwick TAFE.
“Refugee life is not easy, you know,” he said. “After the end of this course, I hope I will get a job [in the rural sector].”
The program, which has so far trained refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and a number of African nations, is aimed at plugging a gap of young labor in Australia’s agricultural industry. Much of the country’s new generation of farmhands have left for the coastal cities or else been lured by large wages in the country's booming mining sector.
Charlene Keller, the project coordinator at Warwick TAFE, kick-started the program after lobbying for funding from the federal government. “When I was doing the research as to which way to direct this employment pathways program for the migrants, it was about [asking] where is our skill shortage in the region and who is it that would be willing to actually employ a migrant or a refugee in their community?”
With the current students only a month into their course, they are already looking at home in "country Australia."
Kitted out in iconic Australian farm attire of Akubra hat, jeans and boots, they split their weeks up with horse riding, sheep shearing and cattle work, as well as English language lessons, all of which goes some way to preparing them for the harsh realities of life in the outback.
“They’re not always the easiest jobs,” added Kellie Monckton, a teacher at TAFE who works closely with the group. “I guess there are always easier jobs than working on a property and doing the hard yakka [work] … a lot of Aussies just don’t want to do that anymore. These guys don’t care what they do. They’ll do whatever to make a living.”
The first group of migrants to complete the course earlier this year has been successfully placed in agricultural jobs in the area. Some have even moved their families out there, Keller said.
Duncan McMaster, who trains the students in livestock work, recalls finding work placements for some of the students earlier this year.
“I think they expected the Afghans to turn up with turbans and beards, and then they saw they looked like normal people … with an Akubra hat on and a pair of jeans and work boots,” the 49-year-old farmer-turned-teacher said with a laugh. “It’s a surprise to a lot of people.
“A lot of [the refugees] come from that rural background in their countries so they have a genuine interest in it.”
During a lesson in tractor-work earlier this year, one Sri Lankan student related the physics of the activity to his previous experience of farming with an elephant on his family home.
Following an eight-month stint at the Christmas Island Detention Centre, Jaffna-born Thanseevan Nadarasa says things are finally feeling a bit more like home.
“It’s the same climate as my country. I don’t like cities, I like farms,” the 18-year-old Tamil said. “I like riding horses and driving the motorbikes.”
Sri Lankan Tamils now contribute to the majority of asylum seekers attempting to cross into Australian territory. Five years ago, it was mainly Afghans.
“In my country, there is too much fighting,” Nadarasa said.
While Nadarasa has successfully gained asylum in Australia, he holds no hope for the rest of his family making it over.
Immigration, particularly in regard to asylum seeker’s arriving by boat via the perilous waters to the country’s north, has been a hot topic in Australia’s fiercely contested federal elections.
Political sloganeering throughout the campaign has centered on “stopping the boats” and bringing an end to the “tide of boat people." Proposed policies by the two major parties are currently split between investing in offshore processing centers and ramping up intelligence efforts in the countries of embarkation, aiming to clamp down on people smugglers before they can set sail.
Between 2001 and 2007, the former conservative government of John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution, a policy under which asylum seekers were transported to detention centres on small island nations in the South Pacific, notably Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea and the tiny republic of Nauru. Once in these camps, immigration officials determined refugee status on an individual basis.
Under the current government, applications for asylum from Sri Lankans and Afghans have been temporarily suspended in a bid to reduce refugee inflows from these key countries.
In the past 10 years, the rural region of Darling Downs in the state of Queensland, where Warwick is located, has become a veritable sanctuary for refugees who fled the violence and political turmoil afflicting their own nations. The nearby town of Toowoomba is home to families from such troubled countries as Iraq and Somalia; there are close to a thousand Sudanese migrants settled there.
“A lot of people are dying to get into the position that we’re probably in, or I’m probably in,” said Magar ‘Benny’ Mading, a 21-year-old student in the TAFE program.
Unlike most of his fellow students, Mading has been in the country for roughly a decade. Arriving from Kenya with his Sudanese father and Ethiopian mother, he speaks English with a distinguishable Australian twang.
“This country is a great country. Yeah, you do go through a lot of bad and good, but that’s what life is like," Mading said.
“I remember the first time I came here, I looked at the course and I thought: ‘It’s not worth it.’ But when I started doing it myself and I looked at it, I can see it has changed me. It’s changed me a lot. I can’t complain about that.”