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Refugees are the canaries in the mine

  • 29 October 2020
  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.

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