Last week we were again reminded in small ways of how challenging an issue is the forced movement of peoples. In an address to the diplomatic corps in Rome Pope Francis offered a universal view, urging compassion for the hundreds of thousands of people pressing for protection in Europe.
In Australia, figures on self-harm and the use of force in detention centres, and the confirmation that the Save the Children workers in Nauru were unjustly blamed and expelled, showed how rancid is our local treatment of people seeking protection.
The movement of people seeking protection from violence both demands and defies sustained reflection. Part of the challenge lies in the sheer number of people displaced by violence and the attendant homelessness, insecurity and discrimination they suffer. These numbers are the more daunting for those who live in the nations where people seek protection and a decent life.
The conflict that underlies the violence that leads people to flee is also very complex. At its centre now stands IS, as earlier stood al Quaeda.
IS feeds on the conflict between Shiite, Suni and other groups and particularly on the antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict and consequent displacement of people are intensified by the military participation of other nations with their own competing economic and political interests in the region, including the United States, Russia and Turkey.
A particular challenge for Western observers is that IS professes a corrupt version of Islam, which feeds on and fuels historical prejudice against the West and Christianity.
The brutality exhibited by this bastard derivative of Islam and the fact that most people who flee are Muslims also feeds into historical Western prejudices against Islam and Muslims and resentment at the insubordination of former colonial servants. Those who seek protection are often vilified and the crimes of a few attributed to the race and religion of all.
A further challenge to reflection lies in the IS strategy of fomenting terrorist actions in the West and in other societies it deems hostile. Terrorism induces fear, which in turn deepens prejudice, encourages repression that will alienate Muslim minorities and draw recruits to IS.
It also leads Western societies to abandon the humanitarian traditions enshrined in the rule of law. They then take on the brutal selfishness already attributed to them by IS.
In this complex mixture of issues, history and attitudes it is easy to forget that what matters most in the flight of peoples is the human dignity of those who have to flee and the fellow humanity they share with the people on whom they make a claim.
Those who flee experience fear, loss, flight and need. Some endure such hard experiences with great heroism. Many will carry lasting scars of mental illness. They are ordinary human beings.
These difficulties make steady reflection by government and individual citizens the more important. Without it governments will be tempted to respond to terrorist threats and to large numbers of needy people with judgments and decisions that are piecemeal, disproportionate and counterproductive — to lock borders, declare open season on Muslims, meet violence with violence, and infringe the rule of law.
Australia offers many examples.
The starting point must be to respect the human dignity of all the people affected, whether fleeing from conflict, living in neighbouring nations or elsewhere, and to recognise that all people are responsible to one another. The crisis is primarily about people, not about politics, religion, race or economics. It demands that we look beyond our individual and national interests and our prejudices.
The crisis also demands that we attend to the complexity of this movement of peoples.
We must try to understand IS as well as condemn it, look coolly at the interplay of interests and forces in the Middle East and the likely unintended consequences for people of our interventions, recognise the way in which our own prejudices and fears affect the judgments and proposals we make, and exercise a proper scepticism about making quick judgments and drawing universal conclusions from particular events such as those in Cologne.
Finally we must recognise that our national identity is not built primarily on uniformity of religion and race but on adherence to the values that are enshrined in our social institutions. These include respect for the value of each person and to their right to protection under the rule of law.
Such values urge a compassionate response to people who seek protection. They must also be defended in the face of fear, forgetfulness and prejudice.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
Sister Susan Connelly
21 January 2016
Thank you Andrew, once again. It is comprehensive and insightful comments such as these which are so necessary. I suppose Eureka Street has considered putting this in the wider forum??? To all politicians? I'll be sending it out as widely as I can.
21 January 2016
Thanks Andrew for this timely piece. As a nation we stand condemned for our silence on the real harm that such vulnerable people as asylum seekers are treated on Nauru and Manus islands. The save the children workers on Nauru show just what lengths those in government will go to enforce cruel and unjust rules on defenceless people. Shame.
21 January 2016
Thank you yet again Andrew. Highlighting the place from which we make our judgments is so relevant. Most of us have often unconscious fears and prejudices. Part of our growth in Christ lies in recognising and dealing with these first.
21 January 2016
Particularly well said is the following from your article Andrew 'A particular challenge for Western observers is that IS professes a corrupt version of Islam, which feeds on and fuels historical prejudice against the West and Christianity.
The brutality exhibited by this bastard derivative of Islam and the fact that most people who flee are Muslims also feeds into historical Western prejudices against Islam and Muslims and resentment at the insubordination of former colonial servants. Those who seek protection are often vilified and the crimes of a few attributed to the race and religion of all.'
21 January 2016
margaret Atchison: "Most of us have often unconscious fears and prejudices."'.. Perhaps the most restricting of these are (1), the natural bonding we make to the often outdated traditions of our parents and community; (2), the insular outlook we derive from being so isolated and thus insulated from other peoples and nations, and (3), the residue of having been, as babies, unable to cope with concerns other than what affected us personally. ALSO: " Part of our growth in Christ lies in recognising and dealing with these first.".. The implication of this view is a result of our bonding to a tradition that developed after Paul diverted the original set of beliefs of the Followers of The Way, to accommodate the mind-set of the Greeks, who then wrote the Gospels, thus establishing a new tradition that we have accepted as if it was the original.
21 January 2016
Thank you for this. The reality as I see it is that most national governments seem to be looking for solutions to these crises through the lens of their own national security. Lasting solutions will never be found with this approach. I had the horrible experience of sitting with a Syrian activist in front of our Joint Committee for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Ireland....the committee members collectively spent 25 minutes verbalising all they thought they knew about the region from their reading , instead of listening to the courageous and insightful voice in front of them....for what was new/different/challenging to their understanding...one of them even said 'to be honest with you now, I see no hope for your region'....Their focus was squarely on how to 'stop' IS..... so misguided, so limited, so dangerous. I was so ashamed of our political representatives at that moment. The Syrian Institute have good 1 and 2 page 'cheat sheets' to give a good factual overview on the evolution of a highly complex reality. They have their political perspective, but factually the analysis seems fairly sound and consistent with what we have learned over the past years. If there is anything we've learned from the situation in Northern Ireland is that conflict explodes out of human, social, economic and political oppression and alienation - religious identity is politicised and manipulated...the younger people I met do not want to live the future dictated by a Sunni v Shia dynamic, they are tired of being manipulated and living their lives in a sectarian pot stirred by political elites.
04 February 2016
Cogent analysis, as always. What I cannot understand is why there is no legal challenge to the cruel and inhuman treatment of refugees. Does Australia not have laws forbidding these practices? On what grounds did the High Court base its decision? Surely basic human rights have been trampled on here.
Tricia Kane (grandmother & CLC member)