Refugee persecution is stupid


Does this sound familiar?

To persecute [refugees] is stupid from the purely practical point of view, since it not only creates a justifiably resentful group in the community, but also loses the value of the technical skill and loyal service from which the nation might otherwise benefit. As a matter of principle, nothing could be more indefensible than to break the implicit pledge of civilised treatment ... and by letting hysteria take the place of reason, to betray the very cause of justice and humanity ... Conduct so reprehensible should not be tolerated in this State or Commonwealth.

It sounds modern, but this call for decency in the treatment of refugees comes from an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald almost 71 years ago: 24 July 1940. The paper was responding to a deputation of religious leaders who called on the government to remedy 'the oppressive treatment of refugees'.

At a time of war, fear of 'enemy' nationals blinded many to the fact that most 'aliens', whether refugees or immigrants, had come to this country to escape the terror and devastation of fascism in Europe and Japanese militarism in Asia.

In a period of rumour and alarm, it must have taken courage for leaders of Christian and Jewish denominations — and a major newspaper — to speak out against the 'persecution of aliens'.

Fortunately there were many, religious and secular, with both the courage and the persistence to lobby governments, organise help for those unjustly interned, and challenge public prejudice. Their success can be measured by the fact that by 1942, thousands of 'aliens' were proudly serving in the Australian military and in essential services.

Now we have another wave of refugees escaping terror and devastation. And again we have rumour and alarm in some sections of the community, and too many politicians who seem ignorant of the simple truths spelt out in the Sydney Morning Herald's July 1940 editorial.

There are also many individuals and groups doing their best to assist the refugees and to challenge the mandatory detention of men, women and children for months and years.

Surely it is time for the leaders of every religious denomination in this country to speak with one voice, so that hysteria no longer takes the place of reason, and justice and humanity flourish. 

June FactorDr June Factor is Honorary Senior Fellow at the Australian Centre School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: June Factor, refugees, asylum seekers, sydney morning herald editorial



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Existing comments

Thanks for this voice of reason, June. We have evry reason to show compassion to refugees, not least because Jesus was one. The practical and moral reasons for caring are all linked.

Messages like this need to be shouted from the mountaintops to counter the shrill hysteria of certain journalists who demonise refugees and in the process bring out the worst in people. You only need to read the comments of some journalists' blogs to see the hatred that is coming out of people about this issue.

Nils | 18 March 2011  

A timely reminder that the tides do not flow only one way. May we all remember our better selves.

Robert Smith | 18 March 2011  

How true the racist language that engenders fear and hatred of asylum seekers.Last week I visited the war cemetery at Cowra and reflected on the waste of human life - 234 POWs shamed to be incarcerated and willing to die rather than endure that pain. Nearby the graves of other internees 76 years old, 56 years old, 85 years old and such ages - obviously in Australia many years yet locked up because of our fear of Asians, Italians and others. Do we ever learn the lessons of history? of the Gospel? "Lord that we may see."

Elizabeth Brown | 18 March 2011  

Very well put Dr Factor. I wholeheartedly agree. Australia is a multicultural country. We would not be where are were it not for rufugees who have come here since before WW2. Now we have the popular press primarily focussing on a handful of young blokes lighting fires on Christmas Island.

These would be young guys angry, impatient and bored with being in detention. They just want to get on with a new life. We must keep things in perspective. There are more important issues demanding attention and support. Christianity is about compassion and caring. Not "me, me, me"; "We don't want these people"; "turn back the boats". Let's get real.

Lynne | 18 March 2011  

a great article just goes to show that nothing changes Please God that people of good will, will make a difference this time

irena springfield | 18 March 2011  

The government breaks the law, the opposition makes it worse and Gillard condones shooting at refugees in a giant prison on a mound of birdshit and the media largely cheer.

I m reading a book called Border Crimes by Michael Grewcock which outlines our long history of persecuting refugees.

One day we may be refugees and we should hope that no-one wants to jail or shoot at us.

Marilyn Shepherd | 18 March 2011  

A great article but I think you overlooked a critical point in this complex problem.

The refugees coming to Australia were mostly from Europe whilst the refugees of today are from the Middle East and Asia. Hence it is easier to demonise the current refugees.

Vernon V Yen | 18 March 2011  

Vernon to some extent you are right. Earlier refugees were European. However, postwar Italians and Greeks looked different from "us", and it took at least a generation before they were treated as equals. Unfortunately, racism, in my opinion is still the root of the problem in this country.

Lynne | 19 March 2011  

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