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Whatever happened to 'kindness to strangers'?



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.

The Geneva Refugee Convention was adopted on 28 July 1951 and opened for signature. ©UNHCR/UN Archives/ARNIThese 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 micromanaging spirit is apparent in many areas of public life in the West. It owes much to neoliberal economic ideology. Strangers are seen as rivals and so to be excluded."


This vision has faded. International organisations like the United Nations and its associated bodies concerned with human rights and refugees are increasingly judged purely by whether they support the national interests of the participant nations. International relations are fragmented into conflicting national interests, and any transnational bodies like the European Union are under increasing pressure.

These institutional changes reflect a broader suspicion of strangers who are seen as rivals and competitors, as offering threat and not possibility, and demanding control and exclusion, not space for growth. To deal with strangers requires fool-proof systems and exceptionless rules. Suspicion breeds fear; fear generates hostility; hostility feeds further suspicion.

This competitive, excluding and micromanaging spirit is apparent in many areas of public life in the West. It owes much to neoliberal economic ideology. Strangers are seen as rivals and so to be excluded.

Immigrants and refugees are treated increasingly severely, so suspicion and fear of them grow, and controls to exclude them are tightened. In Australia even the manifestly absurd claim that Australian borders and population will be at risk if we accept into Australia a thousand or so people from Nauru and Manus Island is given credence.

The same spirit leads governments to exclude people suspected of criminal behaviour. They limit bail, impose mandatory sentences, and lessen access to programs designed to rehabilitate them. People are defined by wrongful acts and are seen as irremediably hostile. Stricter laws increase anxiety and fear, which in turn generate harsher punishments. A single car theft by a young person or a crime committed by someone given bail becomes evidence that the rule of law has broken down and that the community to which they belong is evil.

The legislative and policy hardening in the attitude to strangers will not be quickly reversed. But people at some stage will recognise that they damage and impoverish society. Whether, in a world where the Christian tradition on which an earlier generation drew is unavailable, politicians will be receptive to a more generous vision of society built on just and hospitable relationships, is an open question.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: The Geneva Refugee Convention was adopted on 28 July 1951 and opened for signature. ©UNHCR/UN Archives/ARNI

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees, asylum seekers, nauru



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Existing comments

You’re suggesting, Andrew, that the self-serving behaviour that we see in the West reflects a cultural change and you reference the post-war refugee program as evidence of the pre-change culture. But what if that momentarily generous response was an only aberration and that what we are seeing now is actually an intrinsic characteristic of Western civilisation?

Ginger Meggs | 11 July 2018  

Even though it is a very serious occasion the picture taken in July 1951 does reflect a time when the milk of human kindness was much more evident. After two devastating world wars people, it seems, wanted to show gratitude for life. How the world has changed. We all know how good it feels to help someone we don't know. Economic prosperity should mean being rich enough and strong enough to give things away to those countries who need our help. And then we'll be more generous to ourselves. It's a hope worth holding on to.

Pam Connor | 11 July 2018  

Theodore Roosevelt described America’s highly successful immigration policy thus: “It is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here.” But around the 1970s, the West implemented loosely-defined policies of multiculturalism and globalization. Who benefited? The US Economic Policy Institute showed that between 1973 and 2014, productivity grew by 72.2% but wages grew by only 9.2%. Politicians downplayed the effects of de-industrialization which destroyed entire communities. Open borders are supported by multinationals and by activists like billionaire George Soros who, since 1997, has given over $100 million to groups that support “immigrant rights”. His goal is to flood America with people who will support extreme-left policies. In France, a tenth of the Jewish population have emigrated in the past decade in response to Muslim violence against Jews. Journalist David Goldman wrote that last May, in Budapest, he walked “from my hotel to synagogue wearing a kippah, crossing the city four times…I wouldn’t attempt that in France or Germany.” People are rebelling against disastrous policies implemented by rulers without their consent.

Ross Howard | 11 July 2018  

Our Church parishes need to consider what more they could do to be kind to strangers. Are there any empty parish buildings that could be used for emergency accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic violence? Are parish resources being spent on expensive church renovations when they could be spent on building accommodation for homeless people? One Melbourne football club has bought up many houses to house homeless people. No wonder so many Catholics relate to their local football club than they relate to their local Catholic parish. And to see Church leaders dressed up like Roman princes and living in expensive buildings is to me not consistent with the Gospel image of Jesus of Nazareth, the barefood Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head. If Christians don't speak up for great change at the 2020 Plenary Council, I can see the Catholic Church in Australia becoming even more irrelevant to the lives of good Christian people. Many of the clergy seem to be more interested in material advancement than in living the Christian life, although some do set a great Christian example. I particulary admire Pope Francis, with his outreach to the homeless and the refuges.

Grant Allen | 12 July 2018  

Ginger, your scepticism may well be justifiable if certain practices of the ancient cultures that are tributaries of Western civilization, and of the Church itself, were the only determinants of the West's legacy. Fortunately, they are not, and I'd say we are better off for it.

John | 12 July 2018  

If neo-liberal means free market, then I guess I'm a radical neo-liberal. So I'll offer a neo-liberal perspective on the claim that neo-liberalism (the free market) seeks to exclude strangers. Consider South Africa. Who were the most vociferous opponents of apartheid in that country? Free market (neo-liberal) economists such as the South African W H Hutt. In his classic "The Economics of the Colour Bar"(1964), Hutt explained that apartheid originated as a labor-union mechanism, driven by white labour unions, for artificially restricting the supply of labor and thereby driving up wages for the privileged whites. He further explained that nearly all the ensuing legal disabilities for blacks in South Africa stemmed from the problem of labor union political influence of the white unions. Hutt wasn't an outlier: he was a member of the ultra neo-liberal Mont Pelerin Society and his views on the evils of apartheid were welcomed and spread abroad by its membership. Another neo-liberal minor classic is "A Theory of Racial Harmony" by Alvin Rabushka, which documents the success of Hong Kong, in which people of many different racial and religious backgrounds – strangers to each other in many ways – happily co-existed and co-operated in one of the most free market regimes in history, and demonstrates how the free market was the key factor. These thinkers are my heroes that have greatly influenced my social philosophy. Yet I'm told that as a neo-liberal I must therefore hate strangers!

HH | 12 July 2018  

Thank you Andrew for another very insightful article. The recent attack on all things African by the Murdoch empire in Melbourne and some TV executives well reflects your points.

Tom Kingston | 12 July 2018  

HH, I've never thought of neo-liberals as haters of strangers, rather, as lovers of money. Left-liberals, such as I, would usually agree with Andrew, but on this issue I sort of don't. I think we should probably halve (at least) our migrant intake and increase our refugee intake, but there are limits to how much 'difference' a community can digest over a short period, without being changed in a way that it doesn't want to be changed. I'm not sure the comparison with post WW2 works - I don't recall organised terror networks at that time that resulted in, for example, concerts for teenagers being bombed. I think we can be sensible and more generous to refugees at the same time. Pity we don't have governments prepared to give it a go.

Russell | 12 July 2018  

It's not 'the practices of ancient cultures' that engender my skepticism John but rather the last 500 years of Western Christian imperialism!

Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2018  

The world has gone to the dogs! And no I’m not thinking AFL. I wonder Andrew if the failure of Christianity in the Western world is not the real cause of this tragic descent from a stance toward mutual respect and cooperation of care for the suffering whether from hunger or oppression. If I reflect on some of Australia’s politicians who were educated in Catholic schools - some of them even Jesuit run schools - I am staggered at their expression of ideas and support for policies that appear to me to conflict with the most basic of Gospel values. While the public may well write off the Catholic Church because of the criminal paedophile behaviour or equally criminal cover ups that have occurred I believe the failure of character by our political leaders has caused even more widespread misery. Where is the politician calling for compassion an an end to Australiaholding hostages on Manus and Nauru? When those in the Opposition hold to a bipartisan stance for fear of a public backlash I know that cowardice and a lack of faith in their ability to call forth the humanity of Australians rules their thinking.

Ern Azzopardi | 12 July 2018  

Russel, thanks. 1. But no more than they hate or fear strangers do neo-liberal economists per se love money – except that they appreciate the economic efficiency of indirect exchange (via money) over direct exchange (simple barter), a point on which economists of all stripes concur. As to loving money in the sense of privileging the creation of wealth over any other choice in life? It’s sufficient, I submit, to cite the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard in his neo-liberal textbook “Man, Economy and State” under the section “The Problem of Growth” (pp. 962-3 in the free online pdf edition). The reason why Rothbard sees growth as a “problem” is because most mainstream (NON “neo-liberal”) economists without further ado assume the pursuit of economic growth (wealth accumulation) to be the highest value for which we can strive. Rothbard, the archetypal “neo-liberal”, objects. “First and foremost is the simple query: “What is so good about growth?”” To insist that growth is the greatest goal is, for Rothbard, to improperly import an ethical assumption into economics. Economics has no say, he insists, as to whether one should favour the production of wealth over other possible goals in life. The neo-liberal position reduces to this: if on a free market everyone decided to forsake the pursuit of material wealth and choose other goals, such as spiritual, intellectual or aesthetic “growth”, or even just leisure, there can be neither complaint nor approval from economics, correctly conceived. The notion that free market economists want everyone to be grasping for gold is risible on the barest acquaintance with their writings. 2. I think your views on immigration/refugee intake should be seriously considered.

HH | 13 July 2018  

The only part of the story that gives our politicians a fig leaf, is that "stopping the boats" has prevented many hundreds of lives lost to drowning. And fowled the ruthless "smugglers` " business plan. What we need is off-shore processing in regional countries of first entry for entry of true asylum-seekers in Western countries...not necessarily all in Australia. This option of course was destroyed by a vicious collaboration between the Greens and Tony Abbott...just playing politics!

Eugene | 13 July 2018  

I find it a breathtakingly blinkered and narrow view that sees only self-serving behaviour in Western Christianity's influence in the modern world, Ginger. It is also unfair to the many missionaries who have dedicated their lives to working with the poor and outcasts in foreign lands, often at great personal risk.

John | 14 July 2018  

Fr Andrew, after WW2, Australia welcomed European migration en masse in a spirit of inclusion and shared cultural values. Projects like the Snowy Mountain scheme embraced former enemies Italians, Germans as well as Irish and British immigrants. But these days with mass Muslim emigration occurring, people have a right to be suspicious because members of a Supremacist religion pay lip service to becoming Australian and often have no desire to assimilate or adhere to our laws and customs. Let's not for get recent events in Germany after the mass Syrian exodus. During the 2015/2016 New Year's Eve celebrations, there were mass sexual assaults, 24 rapes, and numerous thefts in Germany, mainly in the Cologne city center. Similar incidents at the public celebrations in Hamburg, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Bielefeld. German police estimated in a document leaked in 2016 that 1,200 women were sexually assaulted and 2,000 non European men were involved, acting in organised groups. Incidents involved women being surrounded and assaulted by groups of men on the street. Cologne police chief Albers stated perpetrators in his city were reportedly men of "Arab or North African appearance" and said that Germany had never experienced such mass sexual assaults before. Wikipedia.

Frank Armstrong | 15 July 2018  

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