It's time to ask why refugees are on the nose


Refugee Week 2015 Poster

Refugee Week has been overshadowed by stories of harsh new laws, reports of government misbehaviour, and silence from government ministers.

For those who care about refugees it is a chastening time – one for looking at the world around us, focusing on how people seeking protection live and die, thrive and wither in it, for studying what needs to be done, what can be done, and for gathering companions in the task. It is a time also for keeping in mind and passing on the story of what has been done.

Refugee Week invites us to attend to the forced movements of people through the world, the conflicts that make them flee, under what conditions they live in their flight, where they go, and who offers them help and who torments them. It enables us to set the small flow of people to our region and our Australian response to it in its larger perspective.

It invites us, too, to recognise that the movement of peoples across borders is not like the flow of capital or trade of goods across borders. It involves human beings, all with their own face, their own story, their own hopes and their own relationships to land and to other people.

It invites us to enter imaginatively into the human consequences of the working out of policy – the anguish of a pregnant mother suddenly removed from relative security, the fate of her future child, the frustration of a young man held in indefinite detention.  Refugee week reminds us that refugees are not the objects of policy. They are subjects who feel, long, rage and love.  It is a time for compassion.

This is a time to ask if there is a better way. In Australia, refugees are on the nose, whether they be Muslim Australians who arrived as refugees, or people who have more recently come by boat. It is a time to look beyond this crabbed little world to imagine a polity in which states cooperate to change the conditions that force refugees to flee, in which states involved in conflicts take responsibility for the welfare and the settlement of people who flee the warfare, in which states cooperate to receive and process people’s claims for protection.

It is also a time to move from helpless unease at what is being done in our land to ask what we can do. Many people provide food and clothing for indigent people who seek protection, and visit them in detention and in the community. It is easy to volunteer time, material resources and to write to local members expressing support for a more compassionate policy.

The quest to be of service can seem lonely. But there are many organisations that make it companionable. The Catholic sponsored group CAPSA, for example, allows people around Australia to describe what they are doing, invite others to be involved, and publicises requests and opportunities.  

Finally Refugee Week is a time for remembering. Like the Jewish memorial days that mourn the destruction of the temple and the Shoah, Refugee Week summons us to remember the people who make a claim on us by our shared humanity, and what has been done in our name to them. Refugee Week is a time for holding and treasuring people’s stories, how they fled from persecution, some finding a welcome and protection, others more recently being demeaned and destroyed.

When future generations of Australians come to judge our age by the respect we showed to vulnerable human beings, as we have come to judge past ages, it will be important for them to find that some people documented and denounced the brutality practiced in their name against people who sought protection.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, refugees, migration, human rights, Refugee Week



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Existing comments

Religions have a lot to contribute to this problem and a lot to answer for. The early Christians were able to move from a narrow racial base to embrace first the Greeks and the Romans, then the Europeans, and other world peoples. Their message was one of Love and Inclusiveness. Later, like too many other religions it demanded submission to its traditions and ideas instead of the basic Love and Compassion it thrived on. If religions put their specific structures ahead of God and his Universal Love, chaos and misery result.
Robert Liddy | 18 June 2015

Yes! The best words in the Bible are when Christ says; "What you do for the least of us you also do for me".
Peter Goers | 18 June 2015

Hi Andrew, It is a very sad time indeed to see the pollies trashing our country's good name. I am pleased to relate that the ACT Government is moving to make the Territory a Refugee friendly place. I wonder if Abbott will attempt to overturn the declaration. Given the way they are treating Jillian Trigg , anything seems possible. We can only hope and pray that humanity will finally win the day.
Gavin O'Brien | 18 June 2015

Thank you for this insightful article highlighting Australian failure in sympathetic imagination. On Wednesday of Refugee Week I witnessed an act of great courage in the foyer of Parliament House when a group of some 30 Australian Christians sang and prayed for the release of all children from immigration detention. The interdenominational multi-age group from LoveMakesAWay remained calmly in prayer seated on the floor in a circle until each person was individually removed by security officers.
Rosamund Dalziell | 18 June 2015

I'm interested in paragraph three, the conflicts that make them flee! Who is staying behind? Why aren't we targeting the reasons for their displacement? Why is Europe the only place to find safety and solace?
Em | 18 June 2015

Surely the most profound comment on this issue and our current behaviour as a nation is in Matthew 25:34-40": Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
PaulM | 18 June 2015

Em. " the conflicts that make them flee! Who is staying behind? "...... Those who are abusing the power the have. Instead of using it for the betterment of all, they restrict its use to their own often very narrow self-interest, or that of the group that supports them. Sometimes this is done with a veneer of good intentions, vitiated by a blinked or distorted outlook.
Robert Liddy | 18 June 2015

Why indeed are refugees “on the nose” in Australia? It depends which ones you are talking about – the genuine ones we accept from refugee camps under our humanitarian intake program, or the asylum-seekers who seek to force their way into Australia, mostly economic migrants, with cooked up stories about persecution and torture. Certainly the latter are clearly on the nose with most Australians – with two polls showing 71% and 65% supporting the Abbott government’s turning back the boats policy. Most Australians are clearly sick of being treated like mugs by such fraudulent asylum-seekers. Many too, like myself are disgusted that such asylum-seekers took up most of the places in Australia’s humanitarian intake from 2008-13, denying a new home for about 50,000 genuine refugees rotting in UN camps in the Middle East and elsewhere. And many Australians are tired of the asylum-seeker lobby’s confected rage at the plight of asylum-seekers, especially children, in detention centres while ignoring the far worse conditions of children in ME refugee camps who often have to sell flowers in the streets of Amman at night or work for $1 day digging up potatoes in Lebanon etc to help their families subsist. A few Australians, myself included, are also sickened by the fact that the ever-noisy asylum-seeker lobby seems to make little effort to push for Australia’s humanitarian intake to be lifted from 20,000 to 25,000 or even 30,000 a year. And why are not the many committed feminists in the asylum-seeker movement pushing the government to lift its Women at Risk quotas for persecuted women such as from Pakistan and Afghanistan? Many such women have landed in temporary refugees after fleeing from spousal abuse, forced marriages and life-threatening situations.
Dennis | 19 June 2015

Dennis, could you please let us know what is the evidence on which you base your statement "the asylum-seekers who seek to force their way into Australia, [are] mostly economic migrants, with cooked up stories about persecution and torture." How do you know that they are mostly economic migrants?. The minority of Australians who do support the asylum seekers can offer our own awareness of asylum seekers and ex-asylum seekers, now registered refugees whom we have met. This awareness is supported by the high proportion (85 - 90%) of asylum seekers found to be genuine refugees by the formal assessment programs administered by the Immigration Department who, in our wildest dreams, we could never imagine to be actual supporters of asylum seekers. That is the evidence I offer for believing in the good faith of asylum seekers. What is your evidence for believing they are not genuinely seeking asylum?
Ian Fraser | 19 June 2015

Dennis, your comment hit the nail on the head (the nail in the lid of the coffin of an asylum seeker). The attitude is basically "go back and continue rotting away in refugee camps - we don't want you - and rot there until you all die, for all I care"
AURELIUS | 19 June 2015

Ian: I refer you to several of my posts in the blog thread for the June 2/15 ES article “Australian wants to know nothing about asylum seekers’ torture history”. I cited a Weekend Australian article “’Frauds’ granted refugee status” (June 15-16/2013) which quoted an ex-Immigration official and former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal who cast strong doubt on many asylum-seeker claims of persecution. While it’s true that about 90% of such claims were granted this was largely to clear the backlog of claims rather than because all these claims were necessarily genuine. This 90% figure, which the asylum-seeker lobby constantly cites to prove the view that almost all claims are true, has to be seen in this light. I also cited ex-Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s July 2013 statement that 90% of asylum seekers were economic migrants. Being a senior cabinet minister in the Labor Government gives his comment significant credibility.
However, I don’t deny that one would encounter many poignant stories among asylum seekers, as people such as yourself have found. As the above-mentioned ex-Immigration official said there was “a small number of claimants who were being honest an often told me quite sad stories of poverty, owning money leaders, being involved in family disputes [or] being threatened because of romantic involvements.” But such claims were likely to be refused because they were outside the Refugee convention. As such, many had no option but to tell vague stories about being threatened by the Taliban of the Sri Lankan military to get asylum, he said.

Dennis | 22 June 2015

Dennis, I am not sure if you have had the privilege to spend time with a refugee, I do on an voluntary and also in some paid capacity. To treat the wounds of those who had been tortured, either in their countries or along the way; to see them long to go back to the good life some of them had see them not knowing which way family fled when the refugee camps / schools were bombed is to witness the most incredible pain. Last week I met a widow (her husband was shot in the head by the police, in front of her and her son (8) in their country when they went to report a robbery)....and she had been tortured. I wish I could go and rest and forget about these faces, these stories...but the pain in these people are too vivid, and then I recognize the face of Christ, and I try again. May you know the same blessing. Liellie
annelie mclaughlin | 26 June 2015

Dear Andrew
Thank you for these words to keep us in touch with these people who are so much in need of our help.
I am going to follow up some suggestions from CAPRA - praying to begin with.
anne byrne | 29 June 2015


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