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Keeping refugee advocacy alive

  • 17 June 2021
  In the cruel world of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution, English poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote an ironic version of the Ten Commandments as practiced in Great Britain. The Fifth Commandment was: 'Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive/Officiously to keep alive.'

In common usage ‘officiously’ then did not mean ‘bossily’ as it mostly does today, but as ‘one of the duties of your office’. The lines implied that, although governments and employers were not entitled to kill the people who depended on them, they had no responsibility to prevent them from dying of starvation.

As we mark World Refugee Day this year Clough’s lines speak to our world, too. In the world preoccupied with COVID-19 and with the difficulties of finding protection from it, people are tempted to focus exclusively on their own lives, their own families, their own interests and their own nations. They may see people who are outside their own group or their own country as threats to their health to be expelled and excluded, sometimes as a burden. Certainly, as people to whom they have no responsibility. Around the world politicians, who should lead people in commending a shared concern for the common good, often encourage xenophobia and introduce harsh measures to humiliate the already excluded.

The present climate offers little encouragement for people anyone who cares for refugees and wants to press their cause. It would be rash to think that things will change soon. It is understandable that people’s attention should turn inward to their close connections and immediate interests.

In public debate, too, governments will win more support than they lose by treating refugees brutally. Those who care for refugees must be in it for the long haul, encouraging one another ‘officiously to keep alive’. They must be in the business of lighting candles, not of cursing the darkness or pretending that the darkness is an acceptable place in which to live.

If we are ‘to keep alive’ we must constantly strive to move beyond the abstract characterisation of refugees, whether as innocent victims or as competitors for our jobs. We should instead hold in our imagination their faces. The reason why refugees matter is not because they are many, but because each is a person with her own hopes and sorrows, his own inalienable dignity, and their own right to help shape our world. They are not strangers, but brothers and sisters