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Facing the stranger

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 travel and communications, asylum seekers can now arrive anywhere. They are an enduring reality. No nation today is untouched by refugees, even remote and insular Australia. When asylum seekers are so many and seem so distant it is immensely hard for us to engage with their lives.

And change paralyses. Globalisation generates change. Local banks, local stores and post offices are closed without explanation. The result is uncertainty. The arrival of new people also changes a society, particularly if those arriving are different in appearance, adopt different cultural ways, and practice different religions. In such situations governments have two options: they may either show leadership and manage change, or they can blame an external threat and its victims and appeal to fear.

Fear is a key factor. The 2001 election, in the wake of Tampa and the events of September 11, was driven by fear. A climate of fear prevailed just long enough to win. Now we can see through it. Yet the legacy of ‘children overboard’ was evident in this most recent election, a hollow and ‘dark victory’, a debt still to be repaid. The ‘children overboard’ incident was a flawed executive exercise of power, an appeal to fear at a time when leadership was required, a reversal of the ways in which we want to be there for one another as Australians.

What remedy can we propose to overcome the paralysis induced by overwhelming numbers of refugees, the uncertainty of change and the blindness of fear? May I propose that first we need leadership. Second, we must know those whom we help. Third, we need policies that combine realism and compassion.

Among the two million Indochinese refugees who were resettled worldwide in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many came to Australia. Community groups worked hard to overcome initially hostile attitudes, which were no different from the suspicions of new-comers today. The Federal Government at that time demonstrated leadership. It put policies in place to assist refugees, and as a consequence of leadership by government, many social attitudes changed. Even when Australia later moved to slow what threatened to become a migratory movement, community groups offered leadership in making resettlement successful.

Throughout the 1980s I lived in Thailand, working with the Jesuit Refugee Service. Our mission was to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees across south-east Asia. We met hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need. Daily we were stretched to the limit. Once when in a state of near exhaustion, I heard that a young Vietnamese woman, who had been taken by Thai pirates, was being held in a remote Thai town. We felt we did not have the knowledge, skills or energy to assist. But since my agency had Thai members and a good network in Thailand, we turned to the delicate task, working together with the Royal Thai Ministry of Interior, the Thai police and the United Nations. Together, we managed to rescue her. Then, with the help of an understanding Australian Immigration official and the ready support of community groups in Australia, she was brought to Melbourne. She is now settled, has a family, and years later we can tell her story.

Then, and many times since, I was proud of Australia. And I am proud of the solidarity offered to refugees by Australians. Having experienced the joy of that woman’s liberation, I would do it again and again for the rest of my life.

We need policies that are both compassionate and realistic. The dilemma of international asylum is this: how does a government offer protection to those who have left their homes in fear of persecution or danger, and at the same time preserve the integrity of our state which welcomes them? It would be folly for any government simply to open its doors to the world. Yet it is also a folly to ignore those who seek our help and to hide our eyes from the root causes of their flight. It is a folly not to have an efficient, orderly, and fair way to meet and listen to those who seek our help. It is a folly to abandon, as Australia has been doing, the international set of agreements by which nations work together to assist refugees and to resolve the conflicts that give rise to refugees. Such assistance cannot be offered through pre-emptive military strikes. It can only be delivered via constructive engagements at all levels: in the countries of origin, in the refugee camps along the way, and at the point of arrival.

Even in this new age of global refugees, the basic principle of refugee protection still applies. We must not return to danger anyone who comes to us seeking safety. It may not seem practical in the face of all the demands and needs, but it works. It is artificial to say, ‘we will not help these people here, because it will prevent us from helping those other people over there’. We must be consistent. If we wish every nation to work together in meeting the needs of refugees, then we must meet those who come to us face to face.

I am not the first to say that our world will be saved by solidarity, not by isolation; by service, not by egoism; by engagement, not by avoidance. Australians have already learned this whenever we have looked into the faces of those in need, experienced leadership that discerns those needs and sought to act in solidarity.  

Mark Raper sj is the Provincial of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits. He was recently awarded the Australian Council for International Development’s 2004 Human Rights Award for his work with refugees over the last 30 years. All images by Mark Raper.



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