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Local solutions to global refugee malaise



This year many people will celebrate Refugee Week as a wake. During the recent election the hopes of many people seeking protection and supporting them in different ways were raised by the prospect of a change of government. Although their hope may well have been disappointed by a new government, people on Nauru and Manus Island and those languishing in Indonesia, or living in Australia on temporary protection visas, have been bitterly disappointed at the prospect of three more years of harsh treatment.

Oil painting of displaced people done in an expressionistic style. Credit: maniart via GettyFor those of us who share their pain it is time to reflect more broadly on the situation we now face. The continuing mistreatment of people seeking protection in Australia is not simply local. It is part of a world-wide trend to reject people who seek protection, submit them to humiliating and punitive conditions, expel them summarily to places where they claim to have suffered persecution, and arm public opinion against them. We need to think only of the campaign against Central American refugees in the United States, the detention practices in the United Kingdom, the fences built and the influence of anti-refugee movements in Europe.

Throughout the developed world politicians no longer defend, nor citizens share, the understanding that nations should share the burden of people fleeing persecution and war. Many governments boast of seeking only their narrow national interest. Voices of leaders like Pope Francis are not attended to. In this climate the cause of refugees can be expected to have only minority support in coming years. People who support them and work for their just treatment must be prepared to hang in for the long haul in the realistic expectation of only thin returns.

Although animus against refugees always causes them great harm, it is not always animated by ill will. Many people who lack sympathy for those who seek asylum in Australia are motivated by the perceived unfairness of giving them precedence over people held in refugee camps or over the needs of neglected Australians in a time of growing inequality. In society there is a well of compassion, but many are locked out from it.

It is clear, too, that little can be expected from political parties, politicians or bureaucrats. In the absence of an ethical framework that commands respect for the human dignity of people who seek protection and other minority groups, politicians will continue to use their ill treatment as a means to political ends. Even the best of policy proposals will be turned into a weapon against the people they are designed to promote. It will remain important to work with and against governments to minimise the harm suffered by individuals and groups but idle to expect any change in the ideology that controls the treatment of refugees.

This bleak picture suggests the need to build a compassion for refugees at the grass roots, which might influence eventual political change. The most pressing need of refugees around the world is to find people who care for them in simple ways, to visit them, defend them against attack, to feed and clothe them and to offer them shelter.

This comes down to individuals, but their work will be more effective when they are gathered in small communities with a common commitment to respect the dignity of all human beings, to embody respect in their support of refugees, and to share their vision with others through conversation.


"If communities are motivated by respect they will also be communities of justice. The conversations in which they engage will seek a better way in which refugees receive the respect due to them as fellow human beings."


The focus of conversation will be to represent refugees as persons with personal stories and not as problems, competitors or legal definitions. People's attitudes can change when they come to know refugees, hear their stories, enter their lives and appreciate the choices that they have had to make. To work from the grass roots means taking the time to know refugees, to introduce them to friends and to small communities, so that the image of the refugee arouses interest and wonder, not dismissal, fear or apathy. To be a refugee will be a seen as a marker of resilience, not of weakness of spirit.

If communities are motivated by respect they will also be communities of justice. The conversations in which they engage will seek a better way in which refugees receive the respect due to them as fellow human beings.

The conversations will reach out to people who have different starting points, including politicians, focusing first on the human reality of refugees' lives and also on the attitudes to them abroad in society. They can then turn to the differences about what a proper respect entails. Respect in conversation assumes that truth will vindicate itself without need to shout.

Wintering out is a time to put down deep roots, to protect against frost and to prepare the soil for spring.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Refugee Week, asylum seekers, Election 2019



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Existing comments

"If communities are motivated by respect they will also be communities of justice. The conversations in which they engage will seek a better way in which refugees receive the respect due to them as fellow human beings." This can only happen in a genuinely Christian society which has long since been abandoned in Australia. Nothing will change until Western Civilisation and its Civil Law, one of the current major destroyers of society, returns to its roots in Christianity.

john frawley | 17 June 2019  

As always, a strong argument from Andrew. But is also essential to stop wars that are a major cause of the increased numbersof asylum seekers. There was no excuse for Australia being involved in the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Syria,, or use special forces in Afghanistan to conduct home invasions. Nor should Australia assist a US attack on Iran, Brian

Brian Toohey | 19 June 2019  

Compassion for the individual refugee doesn't mean that it is possible for millions of people to leave their country and go to another. Consider what happens to the working class in the USA when there is a never-ending torrent of cheap labour pouring in to the country. It's the law of supply and demand - you will destroy the living standards of the already struggling. Perhaps it's worth considering the failure of the Catholic Church, a leading 'influencer' in the Central American countries, to contribute to better governance in those countries? What might the situation be today if 'liberation theology' hadn't been rejected by the Church? And isn't it much the same here - the Church has limitless energy to campaign against same sex equality or assisted dying, not so much to campaign for social/economic justice.

Russell | 19 June 2019  

Thank you again Andrew. Sadly we live in a world of "me". I completely agree with you Brian, our illegal incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq have in part fuelled this crisis . Remember the disaster that was Vietnam and the "Boat People"? While I disliked Fraser politically, I had to admire his courage in allowing the Vietnamese refugee Boat People to come to Australia. That too represented an abject failure of U.S. /Australian foreign policy. When will they ever learn? Next crisis; Iran! yep "boss" ! we will join in again!

Gavin O'Brien | 19 June 2019  

Thank you Andrew. I share your values. At the core of it, we are brothers and sisters in this world. I try to find out as much fact as I can about the issue and share it. I share your view of Manus etc. Do not believe this is due to racism or inate cruelty; more blunder and political opportunism. With a proviso - I may be wrong. Show me information and I'll change my view. On the broader issues you raise, I see a broken refugee system globally. Suites of policies are needed. The world needs to find a better way of dealing with 70 million people displaced. Act in unison and cooperative intent. I don't think that will happen soon. Policy more often developed unilaterally and in crisis. This issue is mightily complicated and wicked in the sense that policy impact arrows go both ways. Two straight off. Right to seek asylum in countries of second asylum leads to risk taking behaviour and deaths. I thought the deaths of those people off Christmas Island - I've seen the footage of them smashed on rocks - was the most confronting image I have seen. And right to flee leads to asylum channels clogged with those seeking better lives. Australia just rocketed up the charts to 13th on hosting asylum seekers. Australia is now in the big league of hosters with over 200,000 on bridging visas. Their applications will be processed with time. No celebrations here, cause we know this figure doesn't mean more refugees helped. If you are looking for evidence of attitudes towards refugees and migration, the Markus report, the best analysis on the issue, highlights the support for both. Australian people, the report argues, are more supportive of migration and refugees than most other nations, including Canada. Complexity everywhere.

John Kilner | 22 June 2019  

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