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Refugees are the canaries in the mine



If society were a mine, refugees would be the canaries in it. Their condition reveals whether the currents of public air are pure or toxic. By that standard the present currents in Australia are noxious. They mark a change from the first generous response to the coronavirus to the meaner reconstruction of the economy.

In this Fiona Katauskas cartoon, Dutton says, 'The bad news is you may have refugee status and chronic health problems but we're cutting off all financial and accomodation support in the middle of a pandemic...' The crowd asks, 'And the good news?' Dutton replies, 'Congratulations! You're now job ready!'

Initially the government acted decisively for the common good. It shut down economic activity and limited some individual freedoms in order to save lives and protect public health, and supported people whose livelihood was threatened by the shut down. People responded generously.

Now, however, as attention turn to how we can live with the virus, the focus on the common good has given way in many Western societies to demands from different groups to serve their particular interests by opening economic activity. Respect for persons and the common good has been sacrificed to individual freedom in the name of economic growth. The result in the United States and Europe has been the uncontrolled spread of the virus, economic stagnation and an increasingly alienated population.

As Australia prepared to revive economic activity while living with the virus, it could have based the recovery on respect for persons and the common good, or on an economic expansion in which people are measured by their economic usefulness. The government’s treatment of refugees is a guide to which path it has chosen to take. Its vision of the place of refugees in Australian economic recovery as expressed in the Budget and elsewhere is not encouraging. In a world-wide crisis the Budget cut by almost a third the number of refugees and people accepted from overseas.

The same emphasis on narrowly construed Australian needs is evident in foreign aid. Existing foreign aid programs will receive no extra funding, though welcome funding is given to respond to COVID in Timor Leste and the Pacific. Effective aid programs in impoverished nations in Asia and Africa, however, are likely lose their support. This restriction and narrowing of focus in aid seems to reflect a self-interested concern about China’s activity in the region more than the needs of vulnerable people.

The attitudes of the government to refugees are most clearly shown in the treatment of people who have sought protection from persecution in Australia. The support available to people living in the community will be cut by half from last year’s budget to $20 million. Over three years the amount allocated has fallen from almost $140 million, mainly by denying services to people in need. During the coronavirus crisis charities have already seen a massive rise in applications for help from people who have lost jobs and have been denied any government assistance.

The people most severely affected by the withdrawal of government support are those who some years ago were transferred from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia because of severe health issues. The group, which includes many families with children, were housed in government facilities and received a living allowance but were forbidden to work or study. Earlier this year the Department of Home Affairs decided to close this program. People would have to leave their accommodation and all income support, but would be able to work. They must also leave Australia in six months. In the last month it has begun to enforce these changes that will affect about 500 people, giving people three weeks notice to find accommodation and work.


'The harsh treatment of refugees has made it easier for governments to discriminate against other groups in the community. To expect people to venture into this noxious air in order to rebuild an economy is a big ask.'


Finally, more money will be available to meet the massive costs of offshore processing and expanding the detention centre on Christmas Island. Australian detention centres will continue to house people for year after year. Although the government failed in its bid to strip people detained there of their mobile phones, they remain prevented from receiving visitors during the COVID threat, and their mental and physical health continues to suffer.

When seen from the perspective of the people affected by them, these changes pile misery on misery on top of that caused by the coronavirus. Like other people In Australia, those who seek protection have struggled with the threat that COVID has posed to their mental and physical health. The elements in their struggle include unemployment, loss of the little support they might have received, anxiety about their welfare and that of their families, and the restrictions on movement and association imposed in lockdown and detention.

In addition, they have shared none of the supplementary income provided to help them deal with these afflictions. Now many of them will join many other Australians who enter the ranks of the homeless and unemployed, but they alone will be stripped of all support. It takes little empathy to imagine particularly the anguish and despair of people who have been excluded from education, English courses and working experience in Australia, with no connections in the Australian community, and in poor health, as they enter this new world, and have the added anxiety of being liable to exclusion from Australia in six months. The effects of this on children and their families, on their human spirit and their resilience can only be guessed at.

Seen from the perspective of the government these changes will justify the rightness of its view that people who seek protection are not Australian, are not entitled to any of the rights and privileges of other Australians, might properly be driven from Australia by hardship and deprivation, and be made to suffer conspicuously in order to deter other people from seeking protection and so to justify those responsible for the policy. People who seek protection are not persons with faces but a category, not subjects of their own lives but objects of policy to be handled and discarded. They are not entitled to respect.

Seen from the perspective of humane observers these changes might be seen as vindictive. The plight of people affected will arouse their compassion and anger. The changes lack the respect owed to any human being. They reveal a government that is not concerned for the common good based on respect for a shared humanity, but privileges the humanity of some chosen human beings at the expense of others.

This partiality has been evident also in other areas of government policy in response to COVID-19. Its exclusion of overseas students and university teachers from benefits was not based on economics or on need but on political prejudice against them. The harsh treatment of refugees has made it easier for governments to discriminate against other groups in the community.

To expect people to venture into this noxious air in order to rebuild an economy is a big ask. The dilemma for governments is that people’s confidence to spend will depend on their confidence that they are respected and that the common good is being served. The treatment of refugees corrodes the trust needed for people to look beyond their own security and to spend freely. If the government does not show respect or look to the common good, how can it reasonably expect people to follow its exhortation to spend generously rather than its mean example?



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees, asylum seekers, auspol, COVID-19



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Existing comments

Fr Andy has delivered another of his excellent articles, arguing for common decency in our Federal Government's treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. Having just read Celeste Liddle's article in which she refers to the Government's increasing fees for studies in the Humanities, and Leo Mares's article on climate change anxiety among many young people, even us older Australians can be depressed by the Government's increasingly inhumane response to the real needs of many in Australia. Some among the many who need assistance are citizens, including the people Celeste and Leo have highlighted in their articles. The people Fr Andy writes about are in a worse position because they had mistakenly believed in the reputed generosity of Australians to help people in need. We have been generous in the past - witness the Southeast Asian refugees welcomed by the Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser, and the largely student groups from China after the Tien an Men Square massacre welcomed by the Labor leader, Bob Hawke. Liberal's Howard and Labor's Rudd put a stop to that generosity, with respectively, the Tampa incident and denial of residency to any refugee who arrives by boat. Not only depression, but we older Australians can also suffer anxiety as we wonder where our nation is heading.

Ian Fraser | 30 October 2020  

Ian Fraser asks the direction in which Australia under this conservative government is heading is towards Trumpism. All the hallmarks are there. So what we have to hope is that Trumpism is defeated next week, so start saying your prayers, brothers and sisters, because I don't think the world would survive another 'four more years' of chaos. The mendacity, meanness and mediocrity of the Morrison government gives us little hope of improving the situation soon. But don't give up hope. That's all we have left. Greed has a way of undoing itself if it is exposed. The more light is shed on the crooked and callous, the better chance we have to change for the better. Protest and exposure by our media are our best means of doing that.

john willis | 30 October 2020  

The idea to support people in our region (Pacific and East Timor) makes a lot of sense. We see how countries in Asia managed to move from poverty to prosperity whilst in Africa, corruption and tribalism continue to support a thriving guilt and people smuggling industry, hampering the effectiveness of foreign aid. When we see charities in Australia paying their CEO's often hundreds of thousands of dollars a year then people will understand that just "giving" is not a solution to the problems of the world. Australia is still doing a fantastic job of helping people from all over the world and to deny this fact is just untrue and unfair. Australia has always been very generous to migrants and refugees.

Beat Odermatt | 30 October 2020  

Wrong!!!! Beat Odermatt! Wrong! The plight of some refugees in our country is pathetic and mean, as is pointed out by Andrew Hamilton..

Bernadette Introna | 31 October 2020  

Andrew Hamilton's analysis on our declining lack of generosity in Australia is regrettably accurate and not a surprise. I found myself imagining in 2012 the then opposition leader Tony Abbott and his shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison high-fiving every time a refugee boat crashed onto rocks on the Indian Ocean coastline. Their glee gave us an idea of what was to come. In Government, they have demonised refugees and dispatched them indefinitely to remote places so they are out of sight, with little or no regard for their mental and physical wellbeing. and the Labor opposition is not offering a better policy option. Despite the Government's callous mean-spiritedness on refugees, the federal Treasurer was recently wringing his hands about how the Victorian government's cruel covid restrictions were detrimental to Victorians' mental health.

Paul Begley | 03 November 2020  

I suppose we have to look at the covid stats as well Fr Andrew. Aus cases 27,595 deaths 907 Pop 25.5m Percentage 0.001% death % 0.033 to contraction Canada cases 237,000 deaths 10,179 Pop 37.6m Percentage 2.7% death % 0.043 to contraction USA cases 9.28million deaths 231,000 Pop 331m Percentage 0.28% (way below Canada) death % 0.036 to contraction But that aside, well may the Treasurer wring his hands at the mental health of Victorians as they emerge from the lockdown. Of course the occupants of Kimba in the Flinders Ranges will have to put up with his sell out of their territory for $85m so they can slowly die of radiation poisoning over the next 200 years to accommodate his nuclear waste dump.

Francis Armstrong | 03 November 2020  

"made to suffer conspicuously in order to deter other people from seeking protection and so to justify those responsible for the policy"- my heart breaks to read these telling words because they are so devastatingly true. This latest cruelty has nothing to do with the budget - it is pure vicious politics. On the ground groups of Samaritans are scrambling for the onslaught of homeless destitute people. In Victoria it is families and children who will be hardest hit. Those little born in Mita Detention Centre at Broadmeadows went to school for the first time last year. Tiny mites in their too big, new uniforms setting off on the journey of childhood like any other Australian child. Now to be uprooted from home and school as they start to forget the misery and stress of the prison environment into which they were born. Surely it is time these people were forgiven by the Government and allowed to resettle in Australia where they have peace and many friends. Thank you Father Andy for never forgetting injustice.

pamela curr | 07 November 2020  

Why all the hand-wringing about the treatment of refugees - citizens of another country - when Aboriginal and Islander people, Australian citizens all, live in worse conditions all their lives? Our Indigenous Australians do not get the same level of housing, financial support and other benefits given to refugees. There are noticeably fewer Aboriginal and Islander students at the private schools in my area than there are African refugee children. Now, pleaser notice this : I'm. to saying that we should not take in or support refugees , but where is the justice in giving to citizens of other countries, displaced by internal or external enemies, while denying that level of care to our own, the ones that WE have displaced? Wring your hands about the treatment of our own.

Maria | 07 November 2020  

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