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The Tragedy of Asylum Seekers and Displaced People

Monday, 11 July 2011  | Doug Hynd

I didn't watch the ABC documentary on the Tampa last night because that issue is one of those guaranteed to make me very angry - I feared it would become "a near occasion for sin".

However I did find myself drawn into watching some of the Q&A afterwards. As I thought about the way the questions and responses went it occurred to me that the lack of clarity about the numbers of people who are refugees and the different categories of refugee enabled us, as Australians debating the issues to avoid facing some important questions.

No matter how large the numbers of those seeking asylum are on a global scale, they are nowhere near the total number of refugees across the globe. Many are displaced people within their own countries. Many more are displaced people outside the land of their origin who want to go home.

The moral issue of how we deal with asylum seekers and refugees who seek to come to Australia is important. No question but we need some perspective here. The number of people coming via boats is in the order of 2-3,000 per annum at the moment. The number who seek asylum after arriving in Australia by air is around 9,000 per annum. The fear and anger in the Australian community over this number of people coming by boats is out of all proportion to the numbers involved - contra Scott Morrison.

Surveys have shown that most members of the Australian community think the numbers involved are much larger, 100 times larger and neither of the major political parties have seen fit to get out there and educate people about the facts. Instead we have appeals to fear and prejudice and blatant attempts to de-humanise the people involved. Why we are so vulnerable on this point is an issue that needs thought and self critical reflection that will take us beyond simply using labels like xenophobia as David Marr did last night.

Beyond that the focusing on the relatively small group of asylum seekers coming by boat enables us to dodge consideration of the reality of the much larger groups of displaced people in the world and our implication as a nation or as consumers in helping create the situation that led to that displacement.

For example, our involvement in the war in Iraq helped fuel a massive displacement of people both within and outside Iraq. Our ongoing involvement in the war in Afghanistan implicates us not only in the creation of Afghan refugees but also in the flow on effects in Pakistan and the displacement of people within that country.

On the economic front some of the immense displacement of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa has been fuelled by the push for minerals to sustain our consumption of the goods in which they are incorporated and I won't even go on to discuss the displacement of people in civil wars arising from struggles for the control of diamonds.

So by all means let us explore thoughtfully the issue of how we as a nation-state are to respond to the claims of the vulnerable and displaced who come seeking asylum. Let us not become so obsessed that we assume that even achieving a relatively just and compassionate policy will exhaust our responsibility towards the displaced people across the globe. We are all deeply implicated in their condition. We are, more truly and deeply than we might want to acknowledge, our brother's and sister's keepers.


Doug Hynd recently retired as a senior public servant in Canberra and about to start PhD studies in theology.


This article first appeared in Subversive Voices,

http://doug-subversivevoices.blogspot.com/2011/07/tragedy-of-asylum-seekers-and-displace.html on 8th July 2011. Used by permission.


Keith Binns
July 12, 2011, 4:49PM
G'day Doug. Sense as usual from your mighty pen. I think that the worst thing (among so many) that Howard did was to use and encourage the worst in people (in this case racism and the fear of the other) for his own cynical political advantage. It is a tragedy that Labor has not seen fit to totally reject this appalling aspect of Australian culture.
Ken D
July 12, 2011, 11:41PM
Yes, let's reconsider our perspective and the bases for community fears. And lets take time to listen to refugee stories and value the possibility of offering space and opportunity in this land so they can rebuild their lives. So many talents they have to offer us and the world if we concentrated on helping them adapt to our language, culture and economy rather than spending all that money on razor wire and detention and legal quagmires.

With my prayers for a more compassionate response from church, community and governments.
Siu Fung Wu
July 13, 2011, 2:51PM
Thank you all for the article and comments. To me, the issues around asylum seekers and refugees in Australia is one of the most important moral issues we face. And I feel that the church needs to stand in solidarity with the genuine asylum seekers (which account for most of those who seek asylum in Australia). In our Christian community we have a good number of members who came to Australia as asylum seekers. We have experienced the pain of seeing some of them return to their former countries. We have also experienced the joy of seeing many of them getting their permanent resident visa. With these experiences - and with the clear biblical mandate to look after the oppressed, not least the foreigners among us - I feel strongly that we need to endeavour to have a much more compassionate policy in Australia.
July 13, 2011, 7:52PM
As with Siu Fung Wo I have some strong views on the moral claims of asylum seekers and the importance of developing a compassionate policy and am actively involved in a community group in Canberra that works to support people battling with the bureaucracy.

I was wanting to highlight that beyond that difficult task of advocacy and responding patiently to defuse community fear where we can the task in public policy terms does not end there.

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