Reflecting on this Refugee Week

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This year Refugee Week has been swallowed by the disruption caused by COVID-19, and by the fracturing of society in the United States. In a world where people naturally turn inwards, those who seek protection from persecution receive little public attention or sympathy. It becomes all the more important to reflect on the world of which refugees are part and why their lives matter to us.

In this Fiona Katauskas cartoon, under the title, 'Social isolation'. Three figures sit in a prison on an island. One of them says, 'And they thought six weeks was hard'.

A starting point of reflection is to compare the present situation of refugees now with that of thirty years ago. At that time public conversation about refugees normally paid at least lip service to the UNHCR Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Underlying the Convention was the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which demanded respect for the human dignity of each human being, so forbidding the treatment of them as means to an end. In the case of refugees this implied that to respect the rights of refugees was the responsibility of all nations.

In practice it was discharged by neighbouring nations who received refugees, and by other nations which, generally through the UNHCR, supported them with shelter, food and safety, assessed their claims for refugee status, and so opened pathways to life outside their own nation.

Despite this cooperative and principled framework, however, it was not a golden age for refugees. Not all nations subscribed to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, nor to the Declaration of Human Rights. Those that did often found ways of evading the framework. In Australia an early fateful decision was to detain indefinitely people who came by boat to claim protection. Initially a stratagem to prevent access to the protection of law, the certainty of detention was soon seen as a means to deter others from seeking protection. The corrupting force of this practice and its rationale has worked its way through Australian public life since.

Although imperfectly observed, the framework governing the treatment of refugees was an agreed starting point of conversation, and governments felt the need to argue for restrictions on their human rights by appealing to clauses in the convention. Advocates for justice for people who sought protection had strong support from a minority of the population.

Refugee Week this year is celebrated in a very different world. People continue to seek protection from persecution and from wars, but the nations involved in fighting or supplying weapons take no responsibility for the refugees they create. The UNHCR is inadequately funded to support the people who need protection. Mostly impoverished neighbouring nations often turn them back or encourage them to seek protection elsewhere. When they make their way across seas or overland to European nations they are denied entrance. In the course of this rejection their human rights to food, shelter, safety, education for their children and respect are often routinely violated. They enjoy little public support.

 

'The lives of refugees depend on the resolution of that larger choice between dystopia and hospitality.'

 

The weakened international commitment to refugees reflects a corresponding diminishment of respect for universal human rights and for the institutions which transcend purely national interests. President Trump is the public face of this change, withdrawing from international agreements designed to promote peace and cooperation, imposing trade embargoes with no thought for the effect on the human beings whom they will affect, and subordinating even human life to business. Elsewhere, too respect for the rule of law is weakened by populist appeal to fear and the consequent legislative entrenchment of systems of control and secrecy.

For society the treatment of refugees is the canary in the mine. In Australia the creation of the Manus Island system and the sophisticated regime of dehumanisation that it spawned have presaged the creeping growth of control, secrecy and militarisation in other areas of public life. Public conversation about movement between nations and our relationships with other nations, too, are now conducted purely in terms of our short-term national interest, usually defined in purely economic terms, not by the respect that helps people less fortunate build a better future.

When seen against this background it is understandable that refugees have little place in the minds and hearts of Australians. Those seeking protection are shut out. They are not seen, not heard.

Where to from here? Perhaps the principal challenge to us in our concern for refugees is to hold together companionship with people who seek protection and attention to the larger movements in Australian society and the world over which refugees have no control, but which nevertheless shape their lives. The risk of fragmentation that the coronavirus threatens and its embodiment in the unfair and divided society in the United States are a warning of dystopia. But they also represent an opportunity to envision a hospitable society in which the dignity of all human beings is respected.

The lives of refugees depend on the resolution of that larger choice between dystopia and hospitality. Once again refugees will be canaries in the mine of society. Both for that reason and also out of respect for their humanity, they call for the small kindnesses of support, advocacy, visits and support for the legal and other agencies that have stuck by them and given them hope. They also call for critical attention to the world which we by participation or by silence will shape.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Illustration by Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees

 

 

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Existing comments

Concern about the pandemic overshadowed our perceptions. This was an immediate threat to our lives, and particularly the lives of vulnerable people. An understandable reaction. The fracturing of society in the United States has been appalling to watch, however there are some heartening signs. A society suffering many deaths from COVID-19 nevertheless took to the streets and protested, a heartfelt reaction to oppression. Here in Australia it is a minority of people who acknowledge and care about the situation with refugees. This minority though has a voice, thankfully. Our society can choose hospitality. Our government and opposition put a lot of effort into assisting the nation during the worst of the pandemic threat. A realisation that we have the capacity to be generous is possible.
Pam | 11 June 2020


The change in the Australian attitude towards refugees is exemplified in the constant proclamation of Australia as a ‘tolerant society’ rather than a welcoming one. We should not merely tolerate people who should command a humanitarian response to their well founded fear of persecution. We should welcome and assist them and, most importantly, work with the international community to stop the persecution in their homelands.
Juliet | 12 June 2020


Dear Andrew, thank you for your article. The magazine Eureka hopefully one day can be renamed "Eutopia". Until that day, can you please refer me to a (preferably catholic) charity for refugees ? Thank you and have a fine weekend, God Bless, Marcel BMW
Marcel WERPS | 12 June 2020


Thank you Andrew, for your consistency, in bringing the plight of refugees to mind. Our treatment of refugees in detention on manus Island and elsewhere. makes me cringe with shame at being an Australian.How have we let successful Govt's. get away with this brutal treatment..While we in Australia ,continue to illegally imprison innocent people, there may be no peace in our land. How do they get away with breaking the law when it suits? Our country is not such a 'lucky country' Could it be bordering on a dictatorship.?
Bernie Introna | 12 June 2020


I am ashamed at Australia's cruel treatment of refugees... We can do better than this! We can be an instrument of good in this world. Let us show compassion to every human, made in the image of God!
Bernie Introna | 13 June 2020


Hi Marcel, I recommend Jesuit Refugees Service Australia (accessible by website) as a group locally and internationally committed - in the field, and in advocacy forums - to work with and for refugees.
John RD | 14 June 2020


In my area of a country town, there are a small number of refugees. I've noticed people reach out to them, often. I just wave to one family. They now wave back. Another has accepted a small bag of my home grown tomatoes. Its an Australian story. It was the same in my childhood in the then slums of the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Every street had "refo" families. My mother grew tomatoes. She shared them with everyone. I recently asked my Iranian refugee friend, who speaks on the issue of offshore detention regularly, if people here have been cruel to him. He looked horrified. "No, never, the opposite." We laughed. Many things are going on at once. The difference now, what has propelled harder attitudes globally, has been the exodus of 12 million people from Syria. The scale and scope of the problem. Leaders are struggling in this environment. There is little global leadership now on this issue. Leadership that would build up cooperative and coordinated responses. I keep writing to MPs. I include gentle, anecdotal stories. [MPs are often yelled at.] Stories of my Iranian friend who is in much better mental health now. The progress at school of the Yazidi little girl. The ledger on refugees may have been stained by detention. But one day, I believe, things will change a little. Call it hope. And I will keep growing those tomatoes, waving and writing.
John | 15 June 2020


Most Australians are conservative and comfortable with charitable actions but not the struggle against injustice, as your responses here and the strong opposition faced by Kate Galloway in the article prior to this indicates. Instead of positing charity and justice against each other, it is as well to consider the reflection of Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago, who called both responses the two sides of Christ's Seamless Shroud. In some sense, while charitable and philanthropic actions are all that we seem to be left with, its vitally important to reflect that opposing the law - even at risk of breaking it - has a commendable tradition in Christian sacrifice and martyrology. Thomas More understood this well in the dystopian times in which he lived and even his most trenchant critic, the dramatist Hilary Mantel, describes in shocking detail the role that her anti-hero, Thomas Cromwell, played in tracking him down. Andy's words, as usual, are exquisitely well-chosen, but, I felt, needed an actual account by which to illustrate their deep and profound poignancy. It must surely follow that while our attention to charity must never cease, acting against injustice must also be its necessary and complementary moral imperative.
Michael Furtado | 15 June 2020


Michael Furtado, especially in these times of violent protest, if one is going to defend or encourage the opposing and breaking of law as a commendable part of the Christian tradition, then it may well need to be said explicitly that such a way of proceeding applies only to unjust law, as Thomas More himself advised and demonstrated.
John RD | 17 June 2020


"When seen against this background it is understandable that refugees have little place in the minds and hearts of Australians." That may be true for those in detention. Yet here is a study that shows the enormous support and welcome that refugees in Australia feel from the community. https://theconversation.com/the-neighbours-were-always-very-welcoming-and-warm-little-things-count-to-help-refugees-belong-140449 I'll point out that the research applies to those with permanent protection visas. As the authors state, "the security of permanent protection provides a bedrock for high levels of trust in both the Australian community and institutions.” The majority of refugee respondents reported strong trust in the government (a lot of trust, 85%) the people they work and study with (78%, a lot/some) the people in their neighbourhood (75%, a lot/some) the wider Australian community, to a slightly lesser extent (67% a lot/some). I don't believe any government policy should embrace cruelty as its starting point. But there is a larger narrative and experience that needs to be faced here. Is this not worth reflection, consideration or celebration during a Refugee Week?
John | 21 June 2020


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