INTRODUCTION

“Don’t drop it,” I remember my father saying. I am three years old, a burst of

enthusiasm gift-wrapped in a hot pink down comforter, earmuffs, and wool beanie.

I’m stomping around the store in plastic rain boots, carrying a bottle of water as tall as

I am and insisting that I could do it. I couldn’t.

 

My memory of that day is unreliable, but I know for sure that I dropped the bottle and

spilled what seemed an ocean of water in a nondescript corner-store somewhere in

London. The accented storekeeper shouted something in anger, but I couldn’t hear

him over my teary wailing. I suspect my father paid for the bottle anyway, because not

long after, we left the store. That’s the only memory I have of my first international

trip.

 

I’ve never dreamt of travel —I’ve never had to. My first passport photo immortalized

my two year-old self, and my next was an ode to toothless seven year olds. The world

was never presented to me as inaccessible, and I never perceived it to be. Borders

haven’t ever meant much to me, and they still don’t.

 

I first discovered that I was an immigrant while reading the newspaper at three in the

morning on a cold winter evening in 2014. It was a slow night shift at a regional

hospital where I worked as an Obstetrics/Gynecology trainee. The women that I cared

for were mainly resettled Iraqi and Sudanese refugees. Many of them had

unimaginable tales of mistreatment on their journey to a new life in Australia, some of

which were perpetrated by my (new) government.

 

Until that night, I had never considered myself one of “them.” In the paper, I read how

the politicized debate about refugees had become one about migrant workers —a

category I had belonged to before becoming a citizen. Suddenly, in the media, and out

of the mouths of politicians, there was a conflation of issues, and “refugee,” “asylum

seeker,” and “immigrant” morphed into the same “threat to our country”—a country

that I had begun to call my own.

 

I have always belonged to the world, and the world to me, but that night, I learned to

label myself. Rather, I learned that I had a label. I realized that my story —that I —was

defined on a spectrum of migration. Whether I saw myself that way or not, Australia,

my newest home, would always see me as “other,” but perhaps less “other” than my

patients.

 

My patients, however, were not my first encounter with refugees. One summer, home

after a successful junior year in Australia, my parents and I were driving out of our

gated home when I noticed a procession of people walking along the main road. They

looked foreign—foreign to me, and foreign, specifically, to my country. Their clothes

were different and their features looked… perhaps East African? I couldn’t be sure, but

 

I knew they weren’t Zimbabwean. We didn’t stop, but neither did they. There were so

many of them. We drove for twenty minutes along the road, and we encountered group

after group of them, walking. Just walking. Hardly any spoke to each other, but they

carried their bags and children and just… walked.

 

On our drive home, there they were again, like ants, marching in a single file into the

evening. For once, the routine police shakedown disguised as a traffic stop was useful.

“What’s going on?” we asked a bored policeman. “Who are these people?”

“They’re refugees. They’ve been walking from Ethiopia and they’re coming from the

border with Mozambique.”

I was stunned.

“Where are they going?”

“To the refugee camp in South Africa.”

They had walked from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe ? And they were just going to keep

walking? I could barely comprehend what I was hearing. Ever the women’s health

worker, I looked at the women, babies on their hips and backs, bags balancing on their

heads, and I wondered what a journey like that would have done to their bodies, to

their ability to breastfeed or menstruate. I could not imagine it, even as I witnessed it.

I still can’t.

 

I will never forget how, when I encountered those East African “refugees,”

international affairs crashed into my unsuspecting reality. That memory, and my quest

to understand what I was witness to, is likely the impetus for this piece of writing.

Somewhere in those anecdotes, in the years between them, in the experiences

uninvestigated and unwritten, is a more honest and dynamic story of international

migration than the current narrative. Somehow, I know that I am seen as an economic

migrant and they are seen as refugees. Those definitions and labels have shaped

completely different experiences of the same international system of migration.

 

The format and tone of this thesis is deliberate. Academic writing, in an effort to

simulate impartiality, regularly uses a passive voice. But academia, as institution and

as discipline, has never been impartial—in fact, it often replicates the structures of

exclusion and oppression that I hope to highlight in my writing. In particular,

academic writing is often inaccessible to those outside of the targeted community, yet

it is among my theses that public policy, and its critiques, should be easily understood

by the public. I wrote this thesis as a series of essays in order to present my arguments

in a format familiar to people of all ages, in accessible language, in the hopes that my

ideas would be discussed and debated with as much vigor around conference panels,

as around kitchen tables.

 

The right to be read, and thus heard, in academia is reserved for those privileged

enough to access formal credentialing, and the most marginalized rarely are afforded

this privilege without a benefactor. The voices of those whose lived experiences we

study, re-interpret, pathologize, diagnose and offer remedy, are often excluded. It was

a deliberate decision then, to centre the story of a refugee woman, in her own words,

in my examination of the policy decisions that contributed to her experience of

displacement.

 

The decision to identify myself as an immigrant, and a woman, in this introduction, is

not incidental. My life as an immigrant influences every position that I take on this

(and every) topic, and my womanhood is as central to this thesis as are the policies I

examine. To separate myself from this examination of migration would be antithetical

to my aim of centering the migrant woman’s experience. My identity as an immigrant

woman is the primary credential that legitimizes my authoritative voice, and it would

have been an abandonment of my thesis to exclude myself. It is through this lens that I

experience, and thus examine, borders as concept, and as lived reality for migrants of

all description. Borders and the policies that define and enforce them are both

personal and political to me, and every migrant who has to navigate them.

 

This series of essays, then, is a case for the relevance of the female experience. It is an

investigation of the various versions of international migration policy through the eyes

of the women who must traverse it, and serves as both an indictment of policy makers

and an argument for reform.