“We used to be better than this”
Speaking passionately about our treatment of refugees Tim Winton said “we used to be better than this” reminding his listeners of Australians opening their arms to the thousands of Vietnamese who came as refugees after the Vietnam War. Why have we become so unwelcoming?
Faced with the plight of the Rohingyas, a persecuted minority from Myanmar, denied citizenship, prevented from attending school and used as slave labour, floating abandoned in the Andaman Sea, the Australian government refused to have any part in responding to their needs. It was the compassionate response of Acehnese fishermen towing the abandoned boats to shore that galvanized Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia into action but failed to move the hearts of the Australian government.
If there is a bushfire, a tsunami, a flood, Australian people respond with overwhelming generosity – food, money, clothing pours in, but desperate people seeking protection from persecution and violence and arriving by boat meet a wall of fear and antagonism. The more draconian the government measures to “stop the boats” the more positive the response from the majority of Australians. What has brought us to this point?
The UN Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said ”Australia is a very strange situation…it has the most successful resettlement program I can imagine, and the community integration is excellent. The problem is when we discuss boats, and there of course we enter into a very, very, very dramatic thing. I think it is a kind of collective sociological and psychological question.” Part of the problem is fear – fear of the unknown. Few Australians have actually met a refugee, looked into the eyes of a young Afghani girl raped by militia, seen the hope on the face of a young Sri Lankan mother who has brought her baby to safety or known the joy of a Rohingya boy going to school for the first time.
With asylum seekers stowed “out of sight and out of mind” on off-shore islands we can avoid an encounter with their humanity and the harshness of their realities. The enquiry conducted by the Human Rights Commission gave a bleak account of self-harming, hopeless and increasingly ill children detained for ever-increasing periods on Nauru. If we are to do better, then fears must be confronted and the essential humanity and human needs of people wanting no more than to live in safety and love their children in peace, is recognised and responded to. There but for the grace of God go any of us – we can do better.
During this Refugee Week held from 14-20 June, the Refugee Council urges Australians with courage let us all combine – may we have the courage to take one action to support refugees and asylum seekers: write to your local MP about the situation of refugees; offer a refugee employment or housing, volunteer at the House of Welcome, Jesuit Refugee Service, Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, Catholic Social Services, St Vincent de Paul, Refugee Networks, Jesuit Social Services.
Words: Coordinator Loreto JPIC, Libby Rogerson ibvm