Somewhere at this very moment, in the dimmed corridors of Parliament house in Canberra, Cabinet is discussing the fate of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat.
For those who’ve come across the seas*
Considering the comparatively tiny number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, they sure do cause a lot of knicker-twisting in Canberra!
Perhaps it’s because they represent a great and complex global challenge.
The issue of people fleeing persecution and seeking refuge is a tricky one. It can quickly grow beyond what we can hold within our realm of understanding. It’s an ungainly beast of many parts, many inconsistencies and variables: so many people, so far away, so many problems. How on earth can we fix this mess?
The natural response is to shun engagement with the issue altogether: this is too difficult, it is impossible, it will always be this way. And why is it our problem anyway?
But there are parts of this beast that are within our capacity to change.
What if we were to apply empathy and imagination?
We are capable of great depths of compassion and generosity – as human beings, as Australians.
What if we were to approach the issue from another direction? To deal with it in manageable chunks? What if we were to look at the specific parts of this monumental challenge over which we can have control?
We need to begin somewhere. We can start by breaking this enormous and overwhelming challenge into manageable parts and addressing these parts one by one.
The thing about strangers is this: we don’t really give a shit about them.
Also, they’re a bit scary. And weird. Oh, and their food smells funny.
Remember a couple of months ago when everyone was talking about the SBS doco Go Back to Where you Came From? It was all anyone could tweet about. The show had us all aflutter with indignation and hope in equal parts.
“I just don’t like black people” said Raquel from Western Sydney.
Raquel was defiant in her sense of entitlement and she wore her self-professed racism like a badge of which she needn’t be ashamed. She declared that she came from a long line of racists: “my grandfather was a racist…”
“I don’t like asylum seekers and refugees, I think they should stay where they belong.”
The show enlightened its participants but equally importantly it shone glaring fluorescence into the darkest corners of our nation’s fear of strangers.
“When the boat crashed coming into Christmas Island, I thought: serves you bastards right,” said Raye from Queensland.
WHOAH! Breathtaking, right?
The participants retraced the incredible journeys of many asylum seekers – a process which triggered predictable transformations in their viewpoints. Hard-wired beliefs were challenged simply by the recognition of humanity in people who were previously strangers. That’s the miracle of empathy: getting to know someone and understand what motivates them allows us to feel their suffering and in turn triggers a natural human response – to help. By the end of their journeys the participants on the documentary wanted to help because they has seen the suffering of asylum seekers and it had echoed within them, triggering the basic human response of compassion.
If my family was in danger, what would I do? If I lost a baby because civil war prevented me from accessing medical care, how would I feel?
“The big problem of this world is to educate the system to touch hearts. If I touch your heart, immediately you are able to understand me,” said Masudi, a refugee in Kakuma Refugee Camp, north-west Kenya.
It is simply human nature to protect people we know and care about above those we don’t know (or worse, those of whom we are frightened, or those by whom we are threatened).
When we can recognise shared humanity in other human beings we can begin to understand what motivates them.
Empathy, miracles and educating the system to touch hearts
Empathy can unlock incredible depths of human understanding and compassion. And this is perhaps the greatest flaw (or most wicked genius) of our government’s continued bumbling string of policies relating to asylum seekers.
If these policies didn’t have such awful ramifications for so many human beings, Australia’s strategies for dealing with asylum seekers would be absolutely hilarious.
“Let’s not process them in Australia, let’s spend millions of dollars sending them to other countries where other people can deal with it!”
“Let’s create a legal fiction which allows us to disown certain parts of Australian waters so we can pretend that alleviates us of our international humanitarian responsibilities!”
Offshore processing allows the government to pursue its strategy of dehumanising asylum seekers.
If we can’t see them, if we can’t hear their voices or have conversations with them about their stories, then we will never have the opportunity to engage the most basic and instinctive of human reactions to suffering: compassion.
Yeah, remember compassion? It’s been a while. We’re pretty good at it when it come to other Australians though.
Fleeing danger! Seeking safety! Yep, it really IS that simple
Seeking asylum is a pretty simple concept. It isn’t about queue jumping. It’s not about terrorism, or imposing culture, or stealing jobs, or having better opportunities to make more money. Seeking asylum isn’t even about a quest for a better life (although a better life is a happy by-product).
Seeking asylum is about following the simplest human instinct, common to us all: it is about fleeing danger (or persecution, as it’s termed under international law).
It is important not to conflate the concept of asylum seeking with other forms of global movement such as migration. Migrants might choose to come to Australia because we have a wonderful lifestyle and many great opportunities. But asylum seekers do not “choose” Australia. In fact, they have no choice to make, so they simply seek safety. They seek a life without danger, for themselves and their children.
While many Australians might be scared of dangers they imagine to be attached to these strangers, the vast majority of asylum seekers simply want to escape genuine persecution.
Ahhhhh! But the problem is SO BIG!
It’s easy to look at the huge numbers of displaced people and the many complicated problems that contribute to irregular global movements of people and to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But that’s no excuse for inaction. And it’s certainly no excuse for fear mongering.
Our government must be made accountable for our international humanitarian obligations with regard to asylum seekers.
Interestingly, Australia was once a leader in this area. In fact, we even helped draft the Refugee Convention. (I know, right?! Hard to imagine.)
Yet recent history has seen us performing legal acrobatics to avoid not only the international obligations to which we have committed, but also basic standards of humanity.
Sure, it’s a complicated issue. But we can take this huge challenge with all these moveable, unwieldy parts and we can begin by locking down just one section of it. We can start with this one section – contemplate its contents and examine our own capabilities. We can engage our compassion, our creativity, our innovation and resources, and we can use these to create solutions.
We can begin by processing asylum seekers in Australia
It’s what most Australians want and since our leaders refuse to lead us with compassion, humanity and vision, it’s time we start leading them.
We can end mandatory detention
We all know about the horrifying effects of the government’s mandatory detention policy – a policy which persists, and which shames us all. Mandatory, indefinite detention throws already traumatised and vulnerable people into an excruciating limbo – with often tragic consequences.
There are genuinely effective alternatives to mandatory detention. We can build on the successes and learnings of existing community programs and we can work to expand their capacity.
Upon these beginnings we can build further progress
We can start looking at our humanitarian program and how we can better facilitate the inevitable global movement of people that occurs as part of the reality of our world. Australia can take a leadership role in the region, rather than scurrying around and unearthing ever more ridiculous legal gymnastics to evade responsibility.
With these beginnings, we can assemble cumulative building blocks toward a broad and sustaining justice – a justice that can define this government.
There is little point in making Australians feel guilty for an appalling recent history of asylum seeker policy. Instead we should focus on looking forward and creating genuine mechanisms to address the challenges of global movement.
We simply need to remember what it is to be human and to have the capacity for compassion.
It is not good enough to say this problem is too big and too complex. We are each individually and collectively capable of so much more. We simply need to get started.
*What do you think the chances are that somewhere at this very moment, Julia Gillard is saying: “oh, to hell with it, we have boundless plains to share!” Yeah, pretty slim.