NO ONE could watch once proud Syrian cities or the Gaza torn apart by rockets and bombs and not feel a profound sympathy or sense of “There but for fortune go you or I”. Or could they?
Almost daily, at the moment, we see on our own TV screens the plight of people displaced by war fleeing to another, hopefully safer, place. The other day, I watched as people were evacuated from the war zone around the crash site of the MH17 in Ukraine. They fled by car, with as many people as possible crammed in with some possessions.
I wondered what would happen if they arrived at a town a safe distance away and the mayor said “Sorry, we don’t accept people who come by car”, or gave them a tirade about the irresponsibility of travelling across a war-torn region, as we do to people who travel over the sea. At times the circumstances may indeed warrant the risk.
Australia doesn’t want refugees. Inconveniently, however, we have signed the refugee charter, so now we fabricate concern about people making unsafe passage and construct an argument that we must be cruel to safeguard their lives.
There was a stage under the Labor Government when Australia was not processing refugee claims from people from Afghanistan. Why? Probably to keep the number of accredited refugees down. What was extraordinary about this was that Australia was at the time part of an American invasion force in Afghanistan. That should have given us some understanding that there was actually a war going on there and wars usually generate refugees.
Labor excelled itself in its term of government seeking to be as tough – read cruel – as the previous Liberal government had been. As they sought to degrade the asylum seekers, they degraded themselves. Both sides have tried to undermine the dignity and the humanity of asylum seekers by calling them boat people, illegals, economic migrants – anything but refugees or asylum seekers. The Human Rights Commission has highlighted the appalling conditions imposed on detainees and more recently the cover up of the number of children suffering mental illness in detention.
Australia did not always behave like this. Refugees from the Vietnamese war arrived by boat and were welcomed and settled in Australia by both sides. Only this year, one of those refugees, Hieu Van Le, was appointed the next governor of South Australia. Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, on both sides of politics, knowingly avoided awakening the skin-deep racism in the Australian community, choosing to lead and manage a situation for which Australia was partly responsible.
On ABC Lateline recently, Richard Flanagan, longlisted for the Man Booker prize, drew the parallel of our treatment of refugees today with the Japanese brutal treatment of POWs and Asian civilians in the construction of the Death Railway. He summed it up thus:
“The thing about evil, the thing about something like the Death Railway, is it doesn't begin with the first beating or the first execution on something like the Death Railway, it begins decades before when public figures, intellectuals, politicians and so on, begin putting about in society, in their societies, the idea that some people are less than people and that then anything is justified - it can be justified being done to them. We now see those same ideas of people less than people taking hold in our own society.
“We now have a situation where whatever one thinks about the refugee situation, we treat them as less than people and you cannot have that. It is a moral sickness. In the end those ideas will escape Manus Island, they'll escape Nauru and they will start to poison us and we should care about them and we can stop them but if we don't you can reap a terrible and bitter harvest.”
I admire Richard Flanagan for his wisdom and insight. This is a chilling assessment of a situation for which we must all take responsibility. It is an uncomfortable juxtaposition of Japanese imperialism and cruelty with our own treatment of detainees, people who have not committed a crime but whom we lock up in appalling conditions.
With conflicts occurring around the world, the flow of refugees is not about to stop. As more and more desperate people clamour for a new and safe start, will we redouble our efforts to repel them? Probably, but the message in Flanagan’s assessment is that the hardening of our hearts against conscience and morality has other implications and in the future these may not be as far from our lives as the treatment of refugees is today.
August 3, 2014
Great read, nice to read a morally rich article in times of moral bankruptcy.
August 3, 2014
For local people who wish to discuss this issue further, Mitchell House will host "Potluck Supper and Politics" on refugees and war at 6.30pm on Thursday August 7. Please bring a plate to share and $2 donation to Mitchell House, 6 Murray Street, Wonthaggi. Inquiries: 0407 307 231.
Jessica Harrison, Wonthaggi