It was announced this week that the Australian Government had given $40M in aid to the Cambodian Government, along with $15.5M for the International Office of Migration, to support the refugees our country will send to Cambodia this year for resettlement.*
Yes we (a first-world country) have sent refugees who have sought asylum from us to Cambodia (a third-world country with all its associated financial and social challenges) and we’ve sent along a nice package of money to assuage our collective conscience and make it palatable (kind of).
Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere, European countries discuss ‘doing something’ about the refugee situation while leaving one country (Italy) to do most of the ‘doing’ and rescue those who are perilously close to drowning in local seas.
And in the last month we’ve watched countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia squabble over who should rescue those floating in leaky boats off their shores; possibly risking the possible loss of life while the discussions were held.
The rhetoric of most of these countries is usually focused on ‘stopping the boats’ or ‘cracking down on people traffickers’. But strangely, not many seem to focus too much on why the people get into the boats in the first place. And some of them are also very quick to suggest those refugees aren’t really genuine anyway. Any suggestion of compassion doesn’t seem to feature much at all.
And so it goes.
I don’t generally use my blog to make political statements but I find in this case, I just couldn’t keep quiet anymore. So tomorrow or the next day I will write again about psychic happenings or self-development. But today, I shall write of something else I feel passionate about – compassion and people who ask for our help.
Refugees, however they come, are asking for our help. They are part of a global phenomenon of displaced people that isn’t going away anytime soon. Refugees (including those who arrive by boat) are generally people who are desperate for a better life. Why else would you put your safety, and that of your family, in the hands of a dodgy bloke with dodgy-looking boat? Rational thought would suggest you need to be pretty desperate to take that action.
Refugees are sometimes the human result of wars the West have instigated over the last few years. Other times they are the result of wars or violent repression we have ignored or felt powerless to act against. As human beings, I believe we have a responsibility in these situations to ensure these displaced people are treated with dignity regardless of how they arrive and what their claim is. However, if half the stories about Australia’s detention centres are to be believed, then I guess we’re failing on that front.
As someone who has worked with refugee communities and heard first-hand some of their stories of survival, I can’t help but feel moved by their plight. I’ve also been inspired by their determination to make a life for themselves and ‘give it a go’ in countries where they are often greeted with suspicion and misplaced judgement.
I’ve watched one family walk down a street where every second ‘local’ person turned and rudely stared because they were so very black (being African) and everyone else there was so very white. I squirmed inside to see it and wondered how the ‘locals’ would feel if the situation was reversed. I also wondered how many of them realised just how hard those parents worked to support their family and keep food on the table.
So now, in Australia particularly, I watch the images flicker across my television screen of desperate people in the middle of the ocean and listen to politicians point fingers and pass on the ‘issue of refugees’ to a third-world country. And I listen to those same politicians (and some members of our media) as they determinedly seek to insidiously make the words ‘illegal arrivals’ part of our vernacular when under international law it is legal to seek asylum whenever you believe your life is in peril.
In a perfect world, people who feared for their lives would assemble in an orderly fashion at a desk somewhere and politely request assistance. They would hand over all their relevant documentation (because they would have had time to collect all the relevant documents before their departure) and their claims would be assessed. Unfortunately, in many places in the world, this is simply not an option because people can’t reach a processing centre in the first place. Other times the thought of spending years in refugee camps in desolate conditions is too hopeless to consider. Some will instead risk everything to give their family a better chance because the alternative has become too awful.
I’m not so naïve that I believe we should simply open our doors and say ‘come on in’ without checks and balances. There needs to be a process to ensure those who seek asylum are genuine and processing needs to be timely (not take years and years as it often seems to now).
But I think we need to remember the meaning of compassion and that it doesn’t just apply to our nearest and dearest. Compassion shouldn’t be applied selectively. When someone asks for our help, regardless of whether their request conforms to our idea of appropriateness, as humans we need to provide assistance. We need to remember our compassion and acknowledge that although someone looks different to us on the surface they are still humans (just like us) underneath. They love, feel pain, bleed and try to do their best, just like us.
We are all responsible for each other. Like it or not, we are part of a global community. And when we forget our compassion for others, when our view becomes so narrow that we find it easier to point the finger, convince ourselves it’s not our problem and then pack people (who have been proven to be genuine refugees) off to a third-world country (with a nice wad of money to salve our conscience) there is something seriously wrong.
I would so like to see our politicians remember what compassion is. I would like them to find a new way to approach this global problem that isn’t based on prejudice and passing the buck. I would like them to acknowledge sometimes people seek our help because they need it and we have an obligation to treat them as human beings deserving of our respect.
Locking them up in off-shore detention centres where rational and well-balanced members of the community such as the Australian Medical Association say the conditions are appalling, is not the answer.
Passing legislation to legally stop journalists and others reporting on the refugee issues and conditions in those centres is also not the answer.
And sending refugees off to a third-world country with enough of its own problems is not acceptable either.
Remember compassion and find a better way. Seriously, I beg you. Find a better way than what we’re doing right now. I know we can.
*Statistics taken from ABC News reports http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-04/refugees-from-nauru-detention-centre-arrive-in-cambodia/6521972