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Asylum seekers are people like us


Refugees arriving in ItalyIt is easy to criticise the government's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers but when a good decision is made it must be acknowledged. The decision to grant 12,000 permanent visas to Syrian refugees and to increase the aid for refugees in the camps to UNHCR are both welcome.

It may not be as many places or as much money as some were calling for, but it is a good announcement and will provide benefits for many refugees, in some cases for the rest of their lives.

It is noteworthy that one photo of young Aylan Kurdi sparked such community support, whereas thousands of words written by advocates and commentators over the years (including this one!) seem to have made less impact.

This support grew very quickly and managed to swamp the views of those who said we should not increase the numbers resettled because of the cost, or because it encourages people and creates a pull factor, or because some refugees will take jobs and be on welfare, or are criminals or terrorists or whatever reason can be dreamed up by those who have probably little if any actual experience of meeting with and listening to refugees.

This decision creates an opportunity for greater community involvement and support for refugees not just here but for those stuck in the limbo or purgatorio and uncertainty of life waiting for resettlement chances. It also is a chance to review how we treat those who come 'across the seas' to our 'boundless plains'.

12,000 refugees may not seem to make a big difference to the millions around the world, but it changes the lives of those resettled, and the lives of those who they meet along the way. Many of us who work with refugees know that our lives and views are different because of this experience. It can be difficult, demanding, disappointing, frustrating and depressing. It can also be challenging, uplifting and maybe most importantly life changing.

There is also the risk for those working with refugees to almost deify the refugee, and take away their humanity by making it seem they (the refugee) are always right, and objectivity and rational consideration is lost. There are those who see themselves as advocates but are so extreme in their arguments, that they target others who are not as extreme as themselves. Their righteousness is like the puritanism of those who are strongly critical of compassionate refugee policies.  

Refugees make bad decisions, maybe tell lies and exaggerate — just like the rest of us. That does not mean they are so flawed that they only deserve our derision and contempt. The recognition of the refugee as human, just like us, but with vastly different experiences, makes it easier to feel empathy with them, and harder to feel fear of them.

It is easy to criticise decisions of refugees which seem dangerous, or maybe opportunistic when you do not have the fear of persecution driving your decision making. This is partly why comments criticising the father of Aylan Kurdi by some commentators, then mindlessly echoed by Senator Bernardi, are so frustrating and annoying to those who have more experience with such stories.

There is a growing puritanism that features in the immigration policies of this Government and its stronger advocates from the 'reactionary right' which creates an inability to deal with genuinely complex and demanding cases. Hard cases make bad law is an old saying and we have seen that again and again. What is needed is flexibility to deal with the complex and confronting realities of life — not just a simple tick the box set of rules which are immovable.

Two of the other positive aspects of the announcement by the Prime Minister are that he did not cave into the demands that we give priority to Christians. More Muslims have been killed by DAESH than Christians.  There needs to be flexibility in the decision making of who will get the visas. It is easy to say it should be the 'poorest of the poor' and those in most need — but what does that actually mean?

Is a Sunni Muslim widow with children more or less demanding of our compassion than a Christian family chased from their home — when both families are victims of DAESH? Such decisions about who gets the visas are almost impossible to make in theory, and in reality, but if there is flexibility in the policy, it gives room to move for the decision makers.

A second positive is that we have increased our aid to the refugees living in camps and settlements near the borders. I think that you never forget the images of a refugee camp after you have actually witnessed them in person, rather than just seeing photos. The scale of the issue seems to be overwhelming, so any help we can provide through UNHCR and other agencies is a great contribution. Resettlement and aid are both needed as a genuine effort to make a difference.

Advocates may be motivated for different reasons, but I found a sense of injustice is a strong driver. Pedro Arrupe SJ, who founded the Jesuit Refugee Service said: 'To claim justice sometimes seems revolutionary, a subversive claim. And yet it is so small a request: we ought to ask for more, we should go beyond justice to crown it with charity.'

Kerry Murphy profile photoKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers and member of the boards of the IARC and JRS.

Europe refugees photo by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, asylum seekers, Syria, refugees, Kosovars



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Existing comments

Your words, as usual contain the voice of reality and reason. Thank you Kerry. Your articles do have impact, but as you acknowledge, a picture often speaks straight to the heart.

Marie | 11 September 2015  

Thanks, Kerrie. Very well said. It is only when people meet and get to know refugee people that a whole new consciousness and understanding opens up. Without that, it is just rhetoric, usually based on unreality.

Peter Dowling | 11 September 2015  

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