Parable of the unwelcome strangers


'World Refugee Day' by Chris JohnstonThe year is 2001. You live in a large sharehouse on the south side of town. The place has millions of rooms and people are always coming and going. One day a stranger knocks on the door. 'Help!' he shouts. 'The people in my house are trying to kill me! I need to hide here for a while.'

Instinctively, you reach for the door handle. A wrinkled hand, old yet firm, grabs your wrist. You look up and see your landlord, a bald man with thick rectangular glasses and bushy eyebrows. 'We will decide who comes to this house and the circumstances in which they come,' he says, sternly.

He locks the door.

Later, you watch as workers erect a chicken wire enclosure on the traffic island near your neighbour's place. A sign reads 'Processing Centre'. The stranger is placed inside.

Every morning for the next seven years, you stand by the window, watching. Thousands of strangers are now crammed into the small enclosure. They wrap their fingers around the chicken wire and shake it. They say they want to be let out, to see a lawyer, to live and work in the house. They say they have done nothing wrong; they are simply fleeing for their lives.

The old landlord steps in front of you and closes the curtains. 'Just ignore them,' he says. 'They're lying. They should have waited their turn.'


Then, in 2007, something astonishing happens. The old landlord dies. He's gone, just like that. A new landlord takes charge, a nerdy man with square spectacles who speaks a different language. He opens the curtains and points at the enclosure on the traffic island. 'We have a moral imperative to prioritise the streamlined decommissioning of that facility,' he announces. Nobody is quite sure what he means.

But it doesn't matter, because he keeps his oddly worded promise. You sit by the window, watching as the enclosure is boarded up, a smile spreading across your face.


The year is 2010. The new landlord has been murdered. Stabbed in the back. A house meeting is called to elect a replacement. You sit among your fellow permanent residents — more than 20 million of them — gauging the discussion.

The first candidate stands. He's a bronzed, blokey guy with ears like radar dishes that he tunes into people's fears. 'I will take direct and real action,' he says, 'to protect our property, and stop the strangers.'

'If necessary, I will turn the strangers around. Force them right back up the garden path.'

The next candidate stands. She's a fiery red head, and says the same words over and over again in a hypnotic accent. 'Moving forward,' she says, 'we need a regional approach, and that means a regional processing centre, moving forward.'

'I am in discussion with our neighbour Jose about a new processing centre on a different traffic island so we can move forward differently,' she adds.

The room is silent. You look around at your fellow permanent residents. They lived here when the old landlord was in charge. They saw the group of strangers suffering out the front because no one would let them in. They witnessed the overcrowded enclosure, the strangers with their lips sewn together, the children behind chicken wire. And they know many of these people were eventually let into the house — they were held in that enclosure for no good reason.

You expect someone to stand up and say 'these strangers are in need'. You expect someone to say 'we have an obligation to these people'. You expect someone to say 'I was a stranger once, but you let me in'.

But wait — the residents are applauding. They're giving a standing ovation. 'A tougher stance,' they say. 'We don't want any bloody strangers hopping the fence into our backyard.'

You can't believe what you're hearing.


The year is 2011. A decade since you first met that stranger at the door. A decade in which little has changed. The red-headed woman has reopened the old enclosures. Once again, strangers are locked up, screaming to be let out. A respected doctor, Resident of the Year no less, says the enclosures are sending the strangers mad. Nobody listens.

Exasperated, you call a house meeting. 'Fellow residents,' you say, 'we pride ourselves on giving everyone a fair go, so we should give these strangers the benefit of the doubt.'

The residents murmur uncomfortably among themselves.

'Perhaps these strangers are not lying. Perhaps they really are fleeing from danger?'

The residents stop murmuring and stare.

'And besides, the number of strangers is very small, far too small to affect our way of life if they are let inside.

'Finally, we should remember that we ourselves are strangers to this house. We barged in and kicked out the previous inhabitants, so we have no right to say who can come and go.'

The residents are silent. Then a ruddy-faced man in singlet and thongs staggers to his feet. 'Look mate,' he bellows, 'if you don't like it here, why don't you just piss off where you came from?'


You stand on the traffic island near your neighbour's place, your fingers wrapped around chicken wire. You should have known this would happen. Of course they were going to throw you in the enclosure. By questioning their way of life, you showed you were different. In their eyes, that makes you a stranger. And, as we've all come to learn, strangers aren't welcome anymore.


Greg FoysterGreg Foyster is a freelance journalist who has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Crikey and New Matilda. Greg's website. Today, Monday 20 June, is World Refugee Day.

Topic tags: World Refugee Day, asylum seekers, christmas island, nauru, manus island, john howard, julia gillard



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Existing comments


Sue | 20 June 2011  

We don't compare well by world standards


David & Betty | 20 June 2011  

This writer tries very hard to be funny. He may write a story about the 20000 families in Australia without a home and the tens of thousands of refugees trying to come to Australia the correct way. It is almost comical that on the page on which the story was publishes, two respected charity organisations are asking for donations for poor people in Australia.

Beat Odermatt | 20 June 2011  

Greg, that is a very moving piece of writing.

Paul W Newbury | 20 June 2011  

A hilarious and superbly worked out piece - congratulations, Greg Foyster!

My reaction is to reflect sadly again on the nation John Howard identified as 'We'. He knew there was a great fund of ignorance, prejudice and mean-spiritedness out there that he could appeal to. (Tony Abbott sees it slightly differently - for him our nation is full of stupid people who can't realise that they're being manipulated by mindless slogans, and that they won't realise how dumb he really thinks they are. Does the redheaded lady really have the basic decency she keeps claiming, or is she still so paralysed by looking over her shoulder at the gent with the bushy eyebrows that she's too terrified to act as a human being? (Sadly even the nerd turned out in the end to be like that!) In any case, she too is making a judgement about 'us' that is not at all flattering. If 'we' really are as they all think what a mess we're in. Do we have to wait for Greg Combet for genuine vision and leadership? Bob Brown has them both, but our feeling so secure with our two-major-party system makes it unlikely he'll get a guernsey. Once, going overseas, one could be proud to tell people that one was an Australian.

Joe Castley | 20 June 2011  

Isn't it interesting that different people may receive the same piece of writing in vastly different ways . I felt my heart wrenching & my eyes tearing up at the pain in this touching parable by Greg Foyster . Other readers remark, ' This writer tries very hard to be funny. ' and, ' A hilarious and superbly worked out piece .' Such is life I guess.

Some elected leaders demonstrate humanity . Ours don't.

DavID HICKS | 20 June 2011  

Good stuff. It is essential that we keep up the good work of trying by all and any means to get our fellow Australians to refocus their view of this matter.

Jim Jones | 20 June 2011  

Good story. Made me think about how I regard refugees - so far have been mostly sitting on the fence - a simple story can have a great impact. A wonderful parable.

pat | 20 June 2011  

I fail to understand why the leader of the Greens has become the darling of the middle class? Maybe they feel guilty about the poverty in our outer suburbs and crisis in Indigenous communities across Australia.

I am sure that Julia Gillard is currently low in opinion polls, but she is far more capable as a leader then her predecessor. It seems that both major political parties are very close to each other with their strong policies for the advancement of our economy and their true passion for the needy in our communities.

Australia has done better than ever in its history because of good policies. Labor and the Coalition have overcome the narrow minded class war mentalities and work for Australia. I just hope they can continue to work for the good of Australia and let the extreme left and right remain isolated.

Beat Odermatt | 20 June 2011  

Thank you for publishing this (alas) timely and convicting parable on World Refugee day. I hope it gains a circulation even wider than here - and that it becomes a historic reminder soon, rather than an uncomfortably accurate current statement.

Julia | 20 June 2011  

This is brilliantly written.

I also liken it to locking up a man in the garden shed for years because they knocked on the back door.

Marilyn Shepherd | 20 June 2011  

My reaction on reading this piece was:
'But, I'm third generation. Does that mean I have no home?'
This is a very accurate description of what we are doing.

Margaret McDonald | 20 June 2011  

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Bill | 20 June 2011  

Thanks for the kind comments!

Marilyn, I like your idea about asylum seekers coming in through the back door. I wonder, where does the queue people are jumping fit in?

There's definitely scope to extend the parable...

Greg Foyster | 20 June 2011  

You made me cry at my inaction.

Glen Avard | 21 June 2011  

Powerful writing. This will be regarded as a dark age in Australia's history. Thank you for using your gift in this way. However, I feel powerless.

Marg | 21 June 2011  

Wonderful stuff, Greg. Thanks for writing so beautifully about such a difficult and painful matter.

And by the way, there are no queues. A young woman, a refugee explained that they, refugees and asylum seekers, flee because their home (their country) is on fire. She said that of course the doors are blocked and congested when there is such upheaval. She described using the traffickers as 'jumping out of the window'. She said, if some people who were trying to save their lives from a fire were jumping out of the window because they could not reach the door, would the rescuers place them back in the inferno?

I knew a young African girl, unattached and a minor, who was trying to get to the UNHCR in Nairobi, but could not because she did not have money (a bribe) to clear her way through the gatekeepers. She was trying to get into the queue, but simply was denied access time and again. It was a very complicate story, but you should know that she was finally recognised as a refugee and given a visa. The so-called queue had failed her badly.

Eveline Goy | 21 June 2011  

Congratulations Greg!
It puts the situation in graphic terms.
Lets hope some politicians can hear you!!
God bless

jean Sietzema-Dickson | 22 June 2011  

I'm with David Hicks in assessment of whether this was meant to be funny or not. Sardonic yes, funny no! And as with most sardonic commentary, an attempt to get people to open their ears when they seem to be deaf to a straight forward statement.

Could Beat Odermatt please explain what is the correct way for refugees to try to come to Australia? John Howard and his Labor predecessors would have us believe that the UNHCR acts as a travel agency with formal procedures and tidy queues. This myth is currently perpetuated by the present Labor government.

And why should the fact of poverty in Australia cause us to close a deaf ear to refugees from the wars we indulge in? Surely there are plenty of well-off Australians who can see that both groups need whatever assistance we can give - as a nation and as individuals.

I do hope that all who doubt the reality of the claims made by asylum seekers who risk their lives to come to Australia are watching the current SBS TV special - "Go back to where you came from".

Ian Fraser | 22 June 2011  

I was touched. It's necessary to tell and retell this 'story' in different ways until we hear. It's true we have the poor within our country - they are strangers too. .

Melita | 24 June 2011  

I am sure that the writer has absolutely no sympathy for ordinary Australians, their aspirations and fears. His writing included comments like “Then a ruddy-faced man in singlet and thongs staggers to his feet.” It shows a level of snobbery with contempt for the ordinary working person.
It seems that some of the trendy social issues like “boat people” are far higher on the agenda of the chardonnay socialists then trying to help ordinary Australians. They are sure that none of the asylum seekers ever will join them on a game of golf or on a snob’s only charity event. Ordinary Australians may live in outer suburbs, may struggle with a mortgage and their car repayment.

Ordinary Australians may feel a level of fairness which is not shared by the Botox and BMW people.
Ordinary Australians may be angry that millions have to be spent in trying to save lives of people trying in rickety boats. Ordinary Australians may not understand that we should have two ways of entering Australia, a legal way and a way which provides so much extra money to people smugglers and their allies.

Beat Odermatt | 24 June 2011  

The danger with emotive, biased storying is that it tries to answer a complex issue by just turning the focus of prejudice towards Australian citizens. It doesn't further the storying that includes a better world for all, including Australians! Most Australians want to improve the situation for others. How best to do that is the issue. Some annoying self-righteous people believe they, out of everyone in the world, know the answers.

Not everyone thinks taking in refugees helps the countries they came from in the most constructive way. Not everyone is convinced that speeding up processing will decrease the "attraction" to some to make a living by loading up leaky boats with desperate people. Not everyone is convinced that Australia can support more desperate people without it affecting our lives in seriously negative ways. Not everyone 'knows' all refugees are 'noble'.

Not everyone, including Mahatma Ghandi, thinks it is good to 'let the winds of multiculturalism knock you off your feet'. Not everyone thinks they have all the answers. Silencing and stereotyping those who want thorough investigation into all the answers to global problems, is a bullying attitude. Deep democracy allows deep discussion, especially if you disagree respectfully,and without prejudice.

Leonie | 25 June 2011  

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