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Refugee crisis demands and defies sustained reflection

  • 21 January 2016

Last week we were again reminded in small ways of how challenging an issue is the forced movement of peoples. In an address to the diplomatic corps in Rome Pope Francis offered a universal view, urging compassion for the hundreds of thousands of people pressing for protection in Europe.

In Australia, figures on self-harm and the use of force in detention centres, and the confirmation that the Save the Children workers in Nauru were unjustly blamed and expelled, showed how rancid is our local treatment of people seeking protection.

The movement of people seeking protection from violence both demands and defies sustained reflection. Part of the challenge lies in the sheer number of people displaced by violence and the attendant homelessness, insecurity and discrimination they suffer. These numbers are the more daunting for those who live in the nations where people seek protection and a decent life.

The conflict that underlies the violence that leads people to flee is also very complex. At its centre now stands IS, as earlier stood al Quaeda.

IS feeds on the conflict between Shiite, Suni and other groups and particularly on the antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict and consequent displacement of people are intensified by the military participation of other nations with their own competing economic and political interests in the region, including the United States, Russia and Turkey.

A particular challenge for Western observers is that IS professes a corrupt version of Islam, which feeds on and fuels historical prejudice against the West and Christianity. 

The brutality exhibited by this bastard derivative of Islam and the fact that most people who flee are Muslims also feeds into historical Western prejudices against Islam and Muslims and resentment at the insubordination of former colonial servants. Those who seek protection are often vilified and the crimes of a few attributed to the race and religion of all.

A further challenge to reflection lies in the IS strategy of fomenting terrorist actions in the West and in other societies it deems hostile. Terrorism induces fear, which in turn deepens prejudice, encourages repression that will alienate Muslim minorities and draw recruits to IS.

It also leads Western societies to abandon the humanitarian traditions enshrined in the rule of law. They then take on the brutal selfishness already attributed to them by IS.

In this complex mixture of issues, history and attitudes it is easy to forget that what matters most in the flight of peoples