Refugees: can we forge a humane consensus?

June 20, 2013

World Refugee Day 2013

Three years after the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was formed, it won the Nobel peace prize. The Nobel committee hailed the UNHCR’s work for teaching us ”to understand that sympathy with other human beings, even if they are separated from us by national frontiers, is the foundation upon which a lasting peace must be built”.

A lasting peace is not only the goal of states; it is the fervent hope of millions of people who are forced to seek shelter elsewhere, often in other countries. Many are displaced temporarily by civil wars and famine. Others seek asylum in foreign countries because they fear being persecuted at home, and because their own government is incapable of providing adequate protection or is unwilling to do so. To seek refuge, to rely solely on the goodwill of international agencies or foreign governments, is a desperate decision which leads to years of uncertainty.

Australia has accepted many thousands of refugees over more than half a century, and their extraordinary legacy – individually and collectively – has made us a better nation. The infusion of their cultures, their stories, intellect, innovation and creativity into our neighbourhoods and workplaces has made our lives richer.

Yet, this being World Refugee Day, we recognise with dismay that Australians have hardened their attitude to refugees and asylum seekers. The UNHCR warns that Australia is ”at a crossroads” on asylum. It is reflected in the political dynamic, in the shameful fact that 2000 children are in immigration detention, and that none of the estimated 20,600 asylum seekers who arrived by boat in the past 10 months have been processed. It is reflected, too, in the Coalition’s stated policy that it would turn back boats of asylum seekers.

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These are sad days. This nation’s proud record of reaching out to refugees and asylum seekers over decades is being dismantled by an ugly cynicism. It is being hijacked by opportunists – and not for the first time. In 2001, then prime minister John Howard righteously declared: ”We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” This was then, and remains now, a disingenuous incitement, one that subverts any sense of fair play; it steals compassion from us and implants a fear based around national security.

It is a consequence of our geography and a measure of how much we are a beacon for liberty and justice that, despite fanciful contentions, we do not have complete control over who comes to our country. And yet, Australians complain as countries far less capable are struggling to care for millions who have poured across their borders. Some 45.2 million people are displaced worldwide – the highest in almost two decades.

The Age is not naive about the grotesquely profitable trade of people smuggling which flourishes through agents in Indonesia and elsewhere. But as a wealthy and free country, it is inherent on us to do more. As retiring Liberal MP Judi Moylan urged, we must ”forge a national consensus” so that we can find an enduring and humane approach. We must do so with urgency to avert further loss of life on the seas, but without losing our essential compassion.

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Filed under Asylum Policy, Australian Government and Opposition, Human Rights and Refugee Activists, UNHCR

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