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Keeping refugee advocacy alive



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.'

Main image: Tharnicaa Murugappan in a hospital bed with her sister Kopika (Supplied/AAP)

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 who should first be welcomed, wept over and laughed with, and only then be counted and classified.

In Australia this last week we have seen the moving image of four-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan, comforted in her illness on Christmas Island by her sister Kopika. It has made more poignant our imagining of Tharnicaa and her mother as they were separated from the rest of their family, and of Kopika in her agony of isolation from her. Now returned to Perth, they will continue to live in anxiety. Dwelling on these images, which are emblematic of a policy based on inflicting suffering on one group of people in order to deter others, might make us think that there must be a better way, and that we are better in this.


'Keeping alive the images of refugees, too, may maintain our hope against hope that when the national mood swings from suspicion of outsiders to a more hospitable outlook, possibilities might open.'


Coincidentally we have also seen the image of Artin Irannezhad, a smiling baby whose body was last week found and identified in Norway after he and his family died in the boat that sank as they were crossing the English Channel. He gave a face to the millions of women, children and men who have fled from a war only to be shut out of a living place.  

In a self-centred time it is important to dwell on the faces pictured in such images. Not as weapons to use against those whose eyes are focused on people and needs closer to home, nor against government ministers who are preoccupied with waterproofing policies against compassion. We do so to remind ourselves of the truth to which all societies and governments must return, that refugees matter because each is a human being.

The stories we store can give us heart to keep reading the latest stories of refugees, and to allow ourselves to imagine their faces as they stand crowded behind barbed wire, die lost at sea, are abused, and suffering from mental illness. It might give us heart also to visit and listen to refugees, to speak on their behalf to our friends and in the media, to keep writing to government ministers and our members of parliament on their behalf, to press for compassion for such people as the Murugappan family as they become the public face of Australian policy towards refugees, and to advocate for policies based in respect.

Keeping alive the images of refugees, too, may maintain our hope against hope that when the national mood swings from suspicion of outsiders to a more hospitable outlook, possibilities might open. The little things we can do on the behalf of refugees may one day bear fruit.

When Clough’s contemporary, Charles Dickens, wrote about conditions in the London of his day and represented those stories and faces, this seemed ineffectual at the time. Yet they changed public attitudes to the brutal practices he described. For future generations, too, they have come to describe and judge the England of his time. Truth won out, as it will eventually when our society, too, is judged by our children’s children.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Tharnicaa Murugappan in a hospital bed with her sister Kopika (Supplied/AAP) 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, World Refugee Day, refugee, seeking asylum, Biloela family, Tamil



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Existing comments

I wonder with the passage of time if our society will be judged not by its refusal or inability to accept refugees from inhuman regimes propagating war and persecution or by our refusal to use our capabilities to prevent the persecutors from producing refugees. I am reminded that the supreme judge of all will judge us as individuals one day not only for things we do but also for the things we fail to do. What is the greater oligation - to prevent persecution or to allow it and deal only with the damage it causes?

john frawley | 17 June 2021  

Once again a timely reflection on Australia's great dereliction of duty/ thank you Andrew

john bartlett | 17 June 2021  

Bravo, Andy! It my well take our children's children the time to change perspective, as many of our kids, heaps of them the products of a Catholic education, turn away from the humanity you espouse and blindly shriek out abuse, such as 'Why don't you return to where you came from?', which is the anti-immigration version of 'Why don't you get yourself a bloody job rather than become a burden on the tax-payer?' Cringe, howl, weep, gnash your teeth; but whatever you do, don't forget to also dance into the night, those of you who stand up for the underdog!

Michael Furtado | 17 June 2021  

Thank you Andrew for reminding us of the very moving images of the four-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan, being comforted by her sister Kopika. It is a stark reminder to Australians of the inhumanity of Australian refugee policies of the past two decades. Bothe LNP and ALP governments have followed the policy of punishing asylum seekers who come to our shores by boat . This is despite the fact that many have been through harrowing experiences of war and terror before they arrived. ironically, those who arrive by air are not treated so cruelly. Our current bunch of political leaders appear to be suffering from CDS - Compassion Deficit Syndrome - and their treatment of these people is inhumane. This is badly affecting Australia's image internationally. Australians of goodwill must make greater efforts to demand that all refugees must be treated with compassion.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 17 June 2021  

Michael Furtado. I find your affirmation in addressing Fr Andrew, that "...many products of Catholic education turn away from the humanity you espouse..." very damning of Catholic Education. I believe, after a living experience of some two generations of Catholics which also includes seven of my own children and 18 grandchildren that Catholic education has failed miserably - perhaps the greatest failing and tragedy of the post Vatican II Church. My experience does not, thankfully, include the Jesuit schools in that momentous failure which seems to pervade the non-aligned Catholic Education State/Diocesan systems and erstwhile Catholic schools now devoid of any members of religious orders.

john frawley | 17 June 2021  

If we are going to make a change to the Australian government's hardline treatment of refugees/asylum seekers we need to appeal to self indulgent and insecure streaks within the populace. We are fast becoming a very top heavy older population. Unless we sooner , rather than later balance out the demographics with ready made families such as the one above, our workforce will be pitifully inadequate.

Lucia Werner | 17 June 2021  

This is a timely reflection. There is little sense of a worldwide agenda that will advance the cause of the welfare of the displaced. During Covid times, the numbers of displaced people only grew. Biden's ascendency has been one hopeful light. The USA are the traditional heavy lifters of resettlement and support for the efforts of the UNHCR. But apart from this, I cannot see one hopeful trend.

John | 18 June 2021  

A compassionate and relevant essay. If only our leaders would read it and meditate on such stories, something good might follow. Thoughtful comment by John Frawley.

Brett | 18 June 2021  

It has been illuminating in the recent fortnight to learn that some newer members of the federal “Liberal” Government actually do still understand the meaning of the word “liberal”, and want to stop their government’s cruelty towards this family. But then out trots the usual parade of ministers, demonstrating how their only contemporary understanding of the word “liberal” is how to apply it to the truth. With a nostalgic fear-stoking of people smugglers, unscrupulous operators rorting the system (the Liberals DO know that “sport”, of course!), inevitable shipwrecks, preventing deaths at sea etc. etc., they again inspire us to detest. It is only right and fair that this family be sacrificed for Truth, Justice and The Australian Way. Magnificent! "The Christmas Island Deterrent" does remind me of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" as the Ghost of Christmas Present warns: “There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

PaulM | 18 June 2021  

Yep, this is more than putting a human face to the perils of being a refugee; we're being served up selected images of not only a now hospitalized young girl but also the Jesus look-alike Boochani is a face we seemingly can't get enough coverage of; the book, the painting and now a musical extravaganza; ain't he hot property? The word is apposite; deliberate repetitive image-burning until they're a brand... but you can make up your own values for them, in your imagination. The ABC particularly has been grinding the plight of these carefully chosen pin-ups to our screens and recently lambasted the government for spending $3 million on island detention for the Biloela family quartet, this amount pales into insignificance when ABC (tax payer) air time is repeatedly devoted to them on Q&A, 7.30 report, 7 PM and daily news with a stationed report crew, Afternoon Briefing, the Drum and inspired "Stateless" series and an episode of Back Roads team to visit Biloela to find the back story. So Andrew's notion of our imagination holding faces has also skewed from "refugees" to the select photogenic few; how are we able to generally fathom this most prejudicial of human traits - because of what a special someone looks like?

ray | 19 June 2021  

Thank you Andrew for drawing our attention to the plight of the (so called) Biloela family. This concession by the federal LNP government to allow the family to reside in Perth is not an act of compassion but a response to immense public pressure. It's important to consider that this family is the 'tip of the iceberg' regarding Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and asylum seekers in Austrlia. They are grossly over-represented in the government's rejection of visa applications, and there continues to be an unrelenting effort by Home Affairs to send them back to a dangerous Sri lanka, where the United Nations has called out this current and previous governments for the persecution of the Tamil minority, and the never ending harrassment, torture and at times murder of returned refugees and asylum seekers. May the Biloela family be returned to Biloela and other Sri Lankan Tamils be given a chance to live here permanently and without fear.

Peter Coghlan | 21 June 2021  

While we are all responsible for refugees, the wars that drive them away from their homes, the inequities in society etc., I would like to hear a louder voice from the Catholic Church. While I have heard sections of the church speak up for refugees, there has been very little from the more prominent leaders.

Catherine Wallace | 21 June 2021  

Ray: ‘deliberate repetitive image-burning until they're a brand’. Very astute imagery. That’s what we need in the Church, bishops who are a brand to their flock and to the wider public, Brand St. Paul.

roy chen yee | 21 June 2021  

It pains me that John Frawley and now Brett should read my comment as an attack on Catholic schools. The missing variable in my doctoral research (UQ, 2001) identifies the problem as the private sector location of the Catholic diocesan systems, now increasingly joined by congregational systemic arrangements that charge fees thereby perpetuating a class-differential identity to Catholic schools that doesn't obtain in similar other comparative Catholic educational jurisdictions in other countries. The cumulative effect of this difference, while not denying the generous charitable work that Australian Catholic schools undertake, introduces an element that militates against the justice that Catholic schools manifestly practice elsewhere. This demonstrates itself in the diversity of the Catholic school student body, which is still more contained and monocultural in Australian Catholic schools than those in the developed world elsewhere. It needs also to be remembered that while Australian Catholic schools do an excellent job of educating and valorising the social and academic standing of Indigenous students, they do so only as a result of generous public funding and not through commitments to policies of inclusion. And that's the rub: true acceptance and celebration of difference only happens when children rub shoulders with others of difference!

Michael Furtado | 21 June 2021  

Michael Furtado: 1. ‘charge fees thereby perpetuating a class-differential identity to Catholic schools that doesn't obtain in similar other comparative Catholic educational jurisdictions in other countries’; 2. ‘while Australian Catholic schools do an excellent job of educating and valorising the social and academic standing of Indigenous students, they do so only as a result of generous public funding and not through commitments to policies of inclusion. And that's the rub: true acceptance and celebration of difference only happens when children rub shoulders with others of difference!’ 3. https://johnmenadue.com/michael-furtado-why-quentin-dempster-malcolm-turnbull-and-john-warhurst-are-wrong-about-catholic-school-funding/ My understanding of your article is as follows: Catholic schools located in posh parts of town get lower public funding per student. As a result, they have to charge higher fees (Manly vs. Wynnum). This discriminates against poor parents who want to send their kids to a Catholic school. Catholic schools should receive the same per student support as a state school so it can open its doors to all poor parents who want to send their kids to a Catholic school. Why is the obligation to all poor parents, not just to Catholic poor parents? The piper plays the payer’s tune. The Catholic ‘character’ is not just to be sympathetic to the ‘poor’. Isn’t it also a relevant consideration that I send my boy to Catholic school so he won’t have to share a classroom with a boy who wants to wear a skirt, or my daughter to one so she won’t have to share a classroom with a boy who is wearing one? What is Catholic ‘character’? And why should the State (which has no religion) pay above and beyond what is essentially the bookkeeping cost saved by not having extra (ie. Catholic) children in the state system? Yes, we don’t want to replicate some snobbish upper class culture that doesn’t like Aborigines and asylum seekers but the sharp end of the funding stick is will Catholic schools be forced to replicate certain behavioural norms that contradict Church teaching.

roy chen yee | 22 June 2021  

Good morning Michael F. Sorry about the pain! I didn't read your comment as an attack on Catholic schools. Rather I was commenting on your drawing attention to the fact that many Catholic school educated people have turned away from Catholicism and its principles and I have blamed this on the inadequacy of education in Catholicism (its philosophy, apologetics, teachings and practice) none of which have anything at all to do with funding. More likely, I suggest, is that some teachings have been sidelined because they interfere with the comfort of our modern self-indulgent society and their promotion might pose a risk to public opinion and hence public funding. Regardless of what the underlying causes might be, however. the truth is that most Catholic schools teach bugger all about Catholicism and in some, because of the need for qualifying points for university entrance, teach a bloody sight more about other religions than they do about Catholicism.

john frawley | 22 June 2021  

I might leave Roy's gender-bending paranoia to the psychiatrist's couch, where it rightly belongs; except to cite the eminent Rector, Ross Jones, of that illustrious Jesuit academy, St Aloysius' Milsom Point, who valiantly states in reference to the school's decision (in an article published elsewhere in this esteemed journal) to support a transgender student (whose bodily characteristics are being altered through surgery or hormone treatment to bring them into alignment with their gender identity) that the school regards the matter of student 'plumbing' as irrelevant to its care of them. As to John Frawley's much more generous and kindly response, most bystanders would say that the phenomenon of Catholic non-practice cannot be entirely laid at the door of the Catholic school which, in my view, does an excellent job of providing a 'holding place' for young persons under attack primarily by a Church determined to wind the clock back, both on its Copernician axis as well as its snail-paced Darwinian evolution so as promote the kind of fortress image that makes no sense and will not engage, even critically - but more importantly intelligently - with the modern world and its deep complexities, as illustrated by Roy's bilious backwoodsman remarks.

Michael Furtado | 23 June 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘gender-bending paranoia to the psychiatrist's couch, where it rightly belongs….bilious backwoodsman remarks.’ The motif of the ‘progressive’ is that everything progresses. It should not be surprising to him that while, once upon a time, sin was sealing your wallet against the needs of others (reflected in the idea of a fee-paying school becoming a replicator of those values held by parents who can afford to pay fees, and preceded by scriptural examples such as the parable of Dives and Lazarus), the understanding of sin has evolved to enquire of behaviours which dispute Logical Unity as to what humans are. God does not reproduce godlings. Angels do not reproduce ‘angelings’. (In the one scriptural reference to where angels reproduce, borrowing human females, the products appear to become extinct like dinosaurs.) Why do creatures exist as sex and gender but for rational reproduction of mind as well as body? If God is rational, his actions are purposive and humans are bound by teleology. If sealing your wallet is an expression of human will which defies the divine teleology of money, why is not homosexuality and transgenderism defying divine teleology to do with rational reproduction of bodies and minds?

roy chen yee | 24 June 2021  

And the answer, Roy, is that we simply don't know; except that to reduce the mind of God, who is essentially unknowable, to the august mindset of thirteenth-century Aquinas, himself borrowing his sublime teleology from pre-christian Aristotle, is to reject all human contribution to our reflections about being and doing - much of it Judeo-Christian and which, in a way, does not clip God's wings for foreseeable future. Meantime, Christian theology also provides us with pastoral insights about what it is to be human, that somehow never seem to penetrate the gloom of sin and doom that seems to preoccupy you, Roy. In pastoral settings, Catholic religious educators pay particular attention to what we used to call The Introit. A Sacred Space is created, soft music of an invitational nature piped in, serving the needs of the 'too-busy' passer-by, absorbed with mind-chatter and unaware of the possibility of the Divine. As the pulse settles, one's inner spirit is awakened to other possibilities: the Sound of Silence and then of obliterated Nature, leading hopefully to a glimpse of the Presence Of God. Andy always incorporates this, even as he never abandons his love of Justice. Why don't you try this, Roy?

Michael Furtado | 25 June 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘mind of God, who is essentially unknowable….’ The essence of Infinity is, logically speaking, always unknowable but some of the periphery has been disclosed as continual revelation, enough to know what is dirty pants to the ‘Presence of God’. ‘clip God's wings for foreseeable future’: as would be the case if you insist to him that the dirty pants are not.

roy chen yee | 27 June 2021  

To use your allusion, Roy: your mind-set well and truly spoils this discussion (and, I'm saddened to say) profoundly lets you down. It is well to remember that none of us brings unsoiled fruit to the Table of Discussion, which, in this context, is surely the Table of the Lord.

Michael Furtado | 28 June 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘none of us brings unsoiled fruit to the Table of Discussion….’ No, and none of us should be making a jaunty snack of it at the table either in some show of defiance.

roy chen yee | 29 June 2021  


Michael Furtado | 30 June 2021  

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