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Facing the stranger

  • 08 May 2006

The following is an edited text of an address given by Mark Raper at the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Charitable Fund in September, 2004

Two years ago, I returned to Australia after working with refugees for 20 years. It was after the Tampa election. At a public forum, I remember the faces of two asylum seekers. They were asked what they would say to Mr Howard if they had that opportunity. The first was a woman whose two children had been playing in the front of the hall. ‘Ask any mother’, she said, ‘if she would throw her children into the sea to save herself’. The second was a young man who captained the Tigers, a soccer team of young Afghan refugees. ‘Mr Howard’, he said playfully, ‘you won your election because of us. We helped you, now you owe us’. Echoing both his own Asian cultural value of a debt of honour, and our Aussie sense of fairness, he hit the mark. Before the 2001 election, the arrival of a pitiful boat-load of refugees altered government policies and the course of the nation. In light of another federal election, that memory may cause us to search our hearts. Portraying asylum seekers as figures to be feared was possible because we were not allowed to know the refugees. We could not see their faces. If we are going to find our way forward as a nation we must know them. In these past three years, community groups, moved by the faces of asylum seekers, have mushroomed: Rural Australians for Refugees, A Just Australia, Children Out of Detention, the Hotham Mission and its Asylum Seeker Project, church groups, local councils. They have all adopted one simple method, one simple starting point in bringing about change. They know the asylum seekers. They meet them. They know their faces. This solidarity has effected a sea change. The Coalition Government has been forced to soften its policies. I wish we could say it has abandoned its policies. I rather fear it has only shelved them. The Australian Labor Party, the instigators of mandatory detention, is also more mindful now. Too timid in the 2001 election to challenge the government on border protection, Labor is forced now to espouse a more ethical and humanitarian line. In today’s world, people are on the move everywhere. Rich nations feel they face a ‘crisis’ of asylum. Because of globalisation in