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Oppressing compassion in Europe and Australia


Europe is complicated right now. Thousands walk through its borders seeking asylum. Governments scramble for cohesion.

Woman reaches out to refugees past legs of authorities. Artwork by Chris JohnstonBut something simple has emerged — the compassionate impulse of European people.

Borders are being built and defended all around the globe. These demarcations have one law inside the line, and another outside.

When borders are pierced, like has happened this summer in Europe, communities on either side have a chance to view each other without the intermediaries of authorities, media, states, concrete and barbed wire. A veil drops. People suddenly see what asylum seekers look like.

This summer, many Europeans realised that asylum seekers look just like them. A spontaneous outpouring of compassion followed.

Asylum seekers set up camps outside railway stations, arrived on tourist islands, sailed into lethal seas and walked across borders in their thousands. Equally, thousands marched in support of good refugee policy, turned up to welcome asylum seekers, opened their homes. A tsunami of goods were donated.

The police in Hungary tweeted a request for donations. The response overwhelmed them. They begged people to stop donating. Facebook groups popped up: someone offered a truck, someone else took time off work to drive it to the jungle, Lesbos island or Serbia.

Interpreters and lawyers are being dispatched to the Hungarian border. New coalitions of volunteer doctors, teachers, carpenters and transport workers emerged, ready to pull up their sleeves. Following the Pope's call, churches across the continent had emergency meetings on how to house families.

When refugees walked into Europe, away from distant distress sites, their presence made the global issue visceral for Europeans. Asylum seekers became proximate and real by appearing within familiar territory and cohabiting space.

Hannah Arendt, reflecting on Jewish refugees during World War II, said, 'We cannot choose who we cohabit the earth with.' Europe's relatively recent memory of refugee movement within its borders, when people fled Nazis, makes a difference. The fear of repeating Nazi practises has been very present in media coverage here, and stopped many practises that might otherwise have occurred.

Australia doesn't have asylum seekers walking en masse through ordinary streets. Our border is one of established hatred. Asylum seekers are corralled into concentration camps offshore where suicide, riots, abuse, and human rights and international law violations occur under government mandated secrecy.

'Stop the boats' policy denies ordinary Australians their compassionate impulse. It pushes asylum seekers out of sight and makes it impossible to pierce the veil. It creates a history that our children will face judgement upon. It denies humanity's collective memory after World War II.

Government oppression comes in many forms. Many asylum seekers have experienced explicit forms of oppression. But there's also the oppression of compassion within a nation's borders. How can ordinary Australians respond when violently enforced borders prohibit asylum seekers from cohabiting with us?

Back in Europe it remains complicated. Frontlines are overwhelmed with donated material goods. Calais came to resemble a wasteland where piles of inappropriate clothes were dumped; donators didn't have the foresight to check the needs of those living in limbo. Rain and wind scattered stuff to the mud.

There's footage of refugees rejecting donations. This occurs when people are corralled, stopped from taking trains, or pushed behind barbed wire by border police and soaked in teargas. What does material aid mean when you're frozen without freedom at a border?

Now across Europe borders are haphazardly being reinforced. There's violence, anti terrorist forces and batons. Some governments aggressively close borders. Europe splits.

This retardation of compassion results in camps, violence and further persecution for people running from exactly that. Ordinary people can be as compassionate as they like, but the border, and all it represents, follows asylum seekers into Europe until governments recognise their rights.

Cornel West says, 'Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public'. Refugees exist because compassionate politics has been trumped by security and economic imperatives. Obligations to refugees can be met without sacrificing security, economic wellbeing or imposing violent borders.

This requires policies of pre-emptive compassion, rather than screeching tabloid fear-mongering, tear gas and arrests. Over summer ordinary Europeans illustrated there's justice within the continent. This begs for reflection in policy. Governments exist to provide security, but also to respond to their people's compassionate impulse, and enable it to be nurtured and channelled into healthy communities and law.

Governments meeting their international obligations is pre-emptive compassionate politics and might have averted the currently explosive fault-lines and border enforcements.  

Oppressing compassion is a powerful control mechanism, which feeds fear politics. As Rashi, medieval commentator, says in Numbers 13:18, 'If they live in open cities, they are strong, since they are confident of their strength. But if they live in fortified cities, they are weak.'

Bronwyn LayDr Bronwyn Lay worked as a lawyer in Melbourne before moving to France where she now works as an legal consultant for international NGOs. She is also the creative director of the Dirt Foundation and her book Juris Materiarum: Empires of Earth, Soil, and Dirt will be released in early 2016. 


Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, refugees, Europe, Hungary, Austria



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Existing comments

You point to many heartening current examples of the compassionate recent treatment of refugees in Europe. This compassion is not uniform and I fear that, with seemingly no end in sight to the brutal continuing civil wars raging in Syria and Iraq, where the majority of these refugees come from, the sheer numbers which will attempt to flee, possibly for years and years, may eventually harden people's hearts and turn them against the refugees. I think this is a real problem refugees and refugee advocates face in most places. Some advanced countries - like Japan - take no refugees at all. Australia - in comparison - comes out rather well. This is a massive crisis and I fear our involvement in these two civil wars will exacerbate matters. It would be good if peace in the Middle East had a chance. Sadly, there appear so many interested parties, all hell bent on pursuing their own selfish interests, that I fear this will not happen.

Edward Fido | 27 September 2015  

"Oppressing Compassion", at the borders and inland is not the real problem; only a symptom of the greed and pride that resides in our hearts. To be really compassionate we need to remedy the cause that displaces so many.

Roy Fanthome | 28 September 2015  

Well done on writing a positive article that makes a constructive and thoughtful contribution (rather than the whinging we so often hear in the media!). The quote from Hannah Arendt is just as relevant today.

George | 28 September 2015  

I understand when people feel our military involvement might exacerbate the situation in Syria, however the current situation has developed over the last 4 years because stronger world voices with peace as the ultimate aim did nothing except look on from the sidelines as evil forces moved in and destroyed their country. The years under Assad's rule were bad enough. Could you imagine living under those conditions? I am wondering how many Australians have followed up their public compassionate pleadings to our government to take more refugees with monetary donations to aid agencies who CAN help. World issues cannot be solved totally by governments. PEOPLE must act.

Judy Hembrow | 28 September 2015  

It is a dangerous thing to suppress the compassion impulse of people. Without it, we become inured to cruelty and indifference and when this happens, everyone will suffer, even ourselves and our children. Just as happiness and love are contagious, so too can be negativity and indifference. We need to snap out of our present phase of inhumanity before it hurts us beyond repair.

Eveline | 28 September 2015  

It has taken the exodus of Syrians from the horrors their country has become and for them to arrive en mass in Europe for The US, its allies and Russia to engage in earnest discussion and action to find a solution.

Anna | 28 September 2015  

I think on of the things worthy of consideration that must come out of all this is thinking about BORDERS. Why? What do they mean in an internationalised 21st Century? A difficult topic! In Oz, we have 8 countries + a principality & we haven't been able to do away with borders - although we are, more or less, one people!

Brigid Walsh | 28 September 2015  

"Obligations to refugees can be met without sacrificing security, economic wellbeing or imposing violent borders" Really? Sounds nice. The sheer numbers that arrived on Europe's doorstep make this statement sound glib and unrealistic.

Marie Belcredi | 28 September 2015  

I find this article to be naively optimistic. The word compassion or compassionate occurs many times and it is assumed that the native peoples of Europe have it in endless quantities. It is also assumed that refugees/asylum-seekers are moral and upright, presenting no concerns to their new hosts. The fact is that around three-quarters of those arriving in Europe are men in their twenties and thirties. As they pour into makeshift shelters in Germany, these young men are now wandering around the streets of towns waiting for their claims to be processed. Their very presence is causing the locals concern. The good intentions of these would-be Europeans is not taken for granted by all the natives. The headmaster of a grammar school sent a letter home to the students' parents. In the letter he wrote the 200 Syrians staying in the school's gymnasium were ‘...mainly Muslim, and speak Arabic. They have their own culture. Because our school is directly next to where they are staying, modest clothing should be warn... revealing tops or blouses, short skirts or miniskirts could lead to misunderstandings.’ Masses of migrants who have a different culture may challenge Dr Lay's assertion that "Europeans realised that asylum seekers look just like them."

Gerald Lanigan | 28 September 2015  

The whole issue of 'borders' highlights the dangers of nationalism as one's key identity. The European experiment of the 'Eurozone' is also being challenged with this mass migration currently underway - these refugees are entering a Eurozone where borders have become more fluid in economic, cultural and social terms. Who are we in Australia - a continent with sea borders - to be judging how or what a new experiment - the Eurozone - should/could be doing in this regard. I belong in a large blended, diverse family. The dialogue involved and the attention required to attend to vulnerability, is massive. The collision between expectation and possibility is frequent and challenging. Shared-accountability and shared-responsibility transcend any 'border' identities. Let's hope that the leaders and key decision-makers who are charged with addressing this refugee movement can remain mindful of, and open to, encouraging the refugees to also find ways to address their needs. A website that may help work through some policy and structural issues is: https://www.mapw.org.au/. Every bit helps.

mary tehan | 30 September 2015  

Great article Bron! Keep up the good work!

Gilda Mason | 30 September 2015  

I write from a plane of 250 people heading to Australia. Many are Australian Muslims heading home from Haj. But there are some people migrating. Some of the 4000 that do so weekly. And there is a refugee family, heading from Iran. One of the 268 who do each week and soon to increase to in excess of 500 refugees per week. This hardly seems like “hate filled” borders. There are complex threads of refugee policy, often seemingly at odds to each other. There is a disconnect here between advocates, who are right in their focus on the cruelty of detention, and the wider views of the broader community. Advocates often “overreach” when speaking about broader refugee policy, in their broader claims about refugee policy and in their language. While several thousand were in detention camps, over 40,000 have been resettled. Its incorrect to say there are no opportunities for compassion. The recent report from government showed how welcomed refugees felt. It’s incorrect also to say that Europeans discovered compassion this year. Europe has a massive refugee population, and people with no papers. I talked to many migrants, some asylum seekers, on the streets of Paris. The “no man’s land” many find themselves in. This compassion existed, it just went unreported. It’s also incorrect to say Australians are a compassionless people. If people were in boats, off shore of Australia, they would respond. Australia’s response to the tsunami suffering was without parallel. Howard led with his call to “give till it hurts.” And people did. This issue reflects leadership, or lack of leadership. But it’s about more than that. I think of the quote, “cant judge history by looking at the second hand movement on a clock.” I feel this has been done here. Austria’s far right party will shortly overtake the Social Democrats, on the back of hostility to what is happening.

John | 01 October 2015  

In my original post, I commented that Dr Lay was naively optimistic about the mass immigration that is taking place in Europe. With respect to the migrants, she was suffering from a delusion that the migrants were essentially of good will. The only negative behaviour that she noted from them was that they refused donations. However, they were not culpable. Their behaviour was an understandable response to various European governments denying them their freedom. This is a hopelessly fallacious reading of the migrants. The fact is that the migrants come from many different countries. Many are bringing the ancient hatred and prejudices of their homelands with them. Thus in refugee shelters different nationalities clash one with the other. Christians, Kurds and Yazidis live in fear of the very persecution they fled. Salafist Muslims enforce their version of Islam on others, making everyone pray and women dress according to their standards. Violence is endemic. The article below makes very worrying reading IMHO. Europe is facing a crisis that will continue to unfold for decades yet. I do not see how it can end well. http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/6614/germany-sharia-refugee-shelters

Gerald Lanigan | 02 October 2015  

Excellent responses from John and Gerald L. There is a massive cognitive dissonance going on amongst the Left over the current condition of Europe, of which this post is symptomatic. One is reminded of severely anorexic girls, ogling their skeletal frames in the mirror and sighing with satisfaction. Or modernist religious orders, with numbers plummetting from the thousands to a handful of octogenarian grey heads within a matter of decades, cooing about how it's all "the movement of the Spirit". Europe is in auto-demolition, but the Left is rejoicing over its "compassion". There are more than 500 no-go areas in France, for example: sharia enclaves which police, ambulance and fire services refuse to enter for fear of attack. France is being conquered, street by street. But this is all fine. It's "compassion" in action! We should be taking it on here in hate-filled Australia! So says the Left.

HH | 06 October 2015  

I just want to clarify that i do not believe Europeans are more compassionate than Australians. And that i believe in sensible, reasonable government policy and not blind emotive reactions, which leads to different sorts of oppressions. Also, as someone living in France, no-go zones where sharia law reigns do not exist here. This was propaganda issued after the Charlie Hebdo murders, mainly by Anglo media sources such as Fox News which was laughed at here. France is a nation very fierce about laicite - the principle of secular public culture and law - and while this is contentious it means that the creation or tolerability of areas of religious law separate to the state are unimaginable and as a guest here I respect that immensely. Compassion, understood on a mature level, does not mean giving the guest your home, your children,your livelihood and belief system - your everything. But it does mean being reasonable about embracing the stranger, the persecuted, those wanting to share life on this planet in safety. As i stated, governments need to take care in managing policies of compassion and fear in equal measure. And there is such a thing as pragmatic compassion, but it doesn't mean violating international law. These laws were built upon a reverence of refugees from the Halocaust.. and lest we forget.

bronwyn | 09 October 2015  

Readers can use the web to test Ms Lay's verdict of the situation in France and Europe. Here's a start: http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/5128/france-no-go-zones

HH | 09 October 2015  

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