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Whatever happened to 'kindness to strangers'?

  • 11 July 2018


It has recently become clear that the brutal Australian treatment of people who seek protection is part of an international punitive policy. Manus Island and Nauru must be set alongside the refusal of Italy to receive refugees from an NGO boat that had rescued them at sea, the separation of children from parents of Latin American refugees in the United States, and the rising popularity of xenophobic politics everywhere.

These events are sometimes attributed to a failure of political leadership. But they may also reflect a deeper cultural change in the Western attitude to strangers. Its manifestations are seen not only in migrant and refugee policy but also in penal policy, international relations and the scope of the rule of law.

To understand the change we should recall the more generous attitude to strangers that followed the Second World War. European leaders, appalled by the two great wars, sought to base international relations on cooperation and the sharing of burdens. They recognised the disastrous consequences of xenophobic nationalism, the role that inequality had in breeding it, and the need for a just and cooperative international order that was rule based and attended to the needs of the disadvantaged.

This vision found expression in international institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and trade bodies, and also in the expanded role of government in shaping a more compassionate society. Most strikingly it was embodied in the United Nations Refugee Convention. This reflected a need for international cooperation in responding to the vast number of people displaced in Europe by the war.

Many of the European leaders shared an explicitly Christian acceptance of responsibility to the poor and the stranger. This vision, which had also been a strand in Socialist movements, found its earlier expression in the Roman Empire at a time of population movements. In contrast to imperial institutions, Christian churches provided relief to strangers and not simply to townsfolk.

The post-war vision of a better world order enshrined a hospitality to strangers that saw in them possibility instead of threat, included rather than excluded them, and allowed relationships to grow instead of codifying and limiting them.

It also inspired penal policies that emphasised rehabilitation over punishment, and refugee and immigration policies that were inclusive and not exclusive. It emphasised a process of inclusion within society, not of assimilation. There was general acceptance that in practice there would be some anomalies and failures.


"This competitive, excluding and