Award-winning journalist discusses Afghan refugees

David Song/Daily
Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight Wallace Fellows Program, introduces the participants of the policy talk at the Ford School of Public Policy Monday. Buy this photo

By Joel Goldstein, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 12, 2015

The Ford School of Public Policy kicked off the semester of Ford Policy Talks with a panel discussion on the refugee crisis in the Middle East, featuring journalist Luke Mogelson, NPR editor Joel Lovell, Public Policy Prof. John Ciorciari and Public Policy Prof. Susan Waltz.

Much of the talk featured Mogelson discussing his 2013 New York Times Magazine article, “The Dream Boat,” which examines his journey across the Indian Ocean with Middle Eastern refugees in search of asylum in Australia.

For the article, Mogelson won the prestigious Livingston Award, which is sponsored by the University. Awarded to top journalists under 35 years old, the award's previous recipients include CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Working in Kabul, Afghanistan, for The New York Times Magazine, Mogelson embarked on the dangerous trip undertaken by Afghans trying to escape the country. He began his journey in Sarai Shahzada, Kabul’s currency market. Posing as Georgian asylum seekers, Mogelson and his photographer paid smugglers $4,000 each to transport them to Australia’s Christmas Island.

“The fact that your smuggler could call at any time, day or night, meant that you were forever suspended in a state of high alert,” Mogelson wrote in the article. “It also meant you couldn’t venture far. Most of the asylum seekers, additionally fearful of police, never left the building.”

Like refugees, the journalists flew to Indonesia and took a small boat from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Australia. In the article, Mogelson explains that a refugee could wait for months in Jakarta, drown in the open water or be turned around by officials along the way. Mogelson noted that almost all of the refugees he encountered, including a pregnant woman, were diverted to detention centers in Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru.

“The most common word they used to describe their lives back home was ‘na-aomid’ – hopeless,” Mogelson wrote.

Most refugees were either unaware or indifferent to Australian laws that instruct officials to move refugees away from the country. Mogelson’s boat carried 57 mostly Iranian refugees for three days before being diverted to one of the smaller island nations.

According to Mogelson, the refugees he traveled with probably will not reach Australia, or any other developed country.

“They manage to convince themselves that there’s hope, when there’s not,” Mogelson said.

After recounting the story, Mogelson and the panel discussed the current refugee problem. Ciorciari, a professor of public policy, explained that while people fleeing war and natural disaster are popularly called refugees, legally, one can only be considered a refugee if they are specifically targeted.

Ciorciari said this presents problems for people displaced by calamity, but are not legally protected in the same way as political opponents and victims of genocide.

Waltz said people are either displaced within their own country, forced to travel to a neighboring country or internationally to avoid danger.

Waltz said each state is largely free to set up its own protocols for dealing with refugees and displaced people.

“Because the world community was not ready to set up a central mechanism, it left to individual states ways to grant people political asylum to whoever they wanted to grant it to,” she said.

While each state scrambles to deal with asylum seekers, there are more displaced people now than there have been in recent history. According to the United Nations, there are now 51.2 million people who are forcibly displaced, more than there have been since the end of World War II. Internationally, states have pledged to resettle about 1 percent of these people.