The refugee reality
30 July 2019 at 8:37 am
In this extract from his new memoir, A Lot with A Little, activist Tim Costello reflects on the need for Australia to take our fair share of refugees and reject the language of the new authoritarianism and scapegoating.
Sometimes I have been at a very low ebb. I think I have seen too much suffering and fear my attempts at a response are just spitting into a gale. Why do humans need scapegoats to unify or to hold countries together? It is here, when I am at a low point and ready to walk away, that faith kicks in. Many times when low I hear a divine whisper in my soul that I have not given up on this mad broken world – will you?
But it is not easy to go on and often I have felt I have done enough. Let others fight for the scapegoats of the world. I was feeling like this when I went to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in October 2017, where one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s shocking ethnic cleansing. Though humid, squalid and congested with traumatised, suffering people, at least at this camp the Rohingya are safe from murder and the burning of their villages back in Myanmar. It broke my heart to speak with orphaned children who had seen their parents murdered. More terrifying is to observe intelligent Burmese people become irrational and visceral in their hatred towards the Rohingya, a group so discriminated against that it is illegal to even utter the word “Rohingya” there.
To be stateless is bad enough, but to have your own state declare war on you and render you a non-citizen is the most terrifying thing.
Although Rohingya have been there for centuries, Buddhist priests call them aliens and subhuman. It is almost as if the glue that unites the 125 different minority groups recognised in the constitution of Burma is hatred of the Rohingya. To be stateless is bad enough, but to have your own state declare war on you and render you a non-citizen is the most terrifying thing. This is utter vulnerability with no protector.
Every time I have visited a camp, from Africa to Asia, I have declared, “This camp is here to house the biggest refugee crisis in the world”. The next one inevitably eclipses the former. With 65 million displaced people fleeing war and persecution, I have stopped saying this, as where will it end? It can end only in the hearts of authoritarian leaders from President al-Assad to Aung San Suu Kyi and militaries so they stop scapegoating and simply accept that all humans are humans with rights. Refugees will then return home.
As a response to my despair about refugees I asked Richard Flanagan, one of our greatest writers, to stir our conscience. I invited him to visit refugees working with World Vision on their escape journey from Syria through Lebanon, Jordan, through to Greece and then to Slavic countries. He asked a friend, artist Ben Quilty, to travel with him. In early 2016 they visited the camps and followed the suffering columns of humanity. Richard wrote a magnificent book,
The Great Exodus. It really poses the question: What is our response? Ben Quilty collected drawings from the Syrian children who had survived the war and published them in a 300-page book called Home. These children are now scattered across the world. Richard writes about these pictures of horror:
“That we Australians as a nation have done almost nothing to help these children and their families is disturbing. As to how we might reconcile our sense of ourselves as a good people with these pictures of horror is a question no humane Australian can feel proud in answering.”
Yes, one of the last acts of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, before he was defeated in a leadership vote in September 2015, was to agree to a one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees. It was driven by the emotion evoked by the picture of little Alan Kurdi’s body being carried by a Turkish policeman that flashed around the world. But it was the community grief and response that spoke and dragged his unwilling government to this concession. So different to Canada.
There they embarked on allowing communities to sponsor refugee families, and the response was overwhelming. Canadians were overjoyed to help when freed to do so. They invested their own funds and celebrated their humanity by responding. For the past few years they have absorbed annually 17,000 refugees through private sponsorship in addition to their normal government humanitarian intake. We have been advocating for this. Why does the conservative government resist this? I suspect they do not want such generous goodwill to change the narrative of fear that works politically. Gandhi wrote decades ago, “What is gained through fear lasts only while the fear lasts”.
For now it’s easier to offer up scapegoats called boat people, queue jumpers and Muslims, and use xenophobia for short-term electoral advantage. With leadership from either of the main parties, it does not need to be this way. The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, stood at the airport welcoming refugees to cheering crowds. I think Australians are no less compassionate than Canadians.
I know we cannot take everyone, but all I plead is that we take our fair share.
I know we cannot take everyone, but all I plead is that we take our fair share. That fair share is 42,000 a year, when in practice we took in 12,000 Syrian refugees, then stopped. For comparison, Sweden, with a population of 10 million, took in 200,000 Syrian refugees in the same time period. We are languishing around the bottom of the table in generosity, ranking 59th on a per capita national GDP basis and 97th on a per capita population basis.
The poorest nations have the overwhelming burden. As we spend billions of dollars outsourcing refugees to poor nations like Papua New Guinea and Nauru, it has now somehow become socially difficult to just say the obvious: namely, the mode of arrival in Australia is not the issue of people fleeing and seeking asylum. The mode of transport makes no difference in international law, but boats sure fire up the old Australian fears of invasion. As the only nation continent on earth surrounded by ocean we have leaders stoking that primal fear. Yes, we need to control our borders, but we need to reject the language of the new authoritarianism and scapegoating. As Richard Flanagan says, it is sweeping the world and “is always anti-democratic in practice, nationalist in sentiment, fascist in sympathy, criminal in disposition, tending to spew a poisonous rhetoric aimed at refugees”.
While we accept our leaders speaking in these terms we watch them cut aid that would give refugees hope and then spend billions more on defence. Worse, we cut aid to an incredibly low level but set targets to manufacture more weapons as an Aussie export boost. Now the taxpayer credit to help Australian arms manufacturers is equal to our aid, and we aspire to crack the top 10 arms exporters in the world. Some of those weapons will end up in the hands of these same authoritarian leaders who will create more refugees! It offends my ethics and my faith to see us earning profits by exporting military hardware.
I believe that from the Tampa on, we Australians have been paralysed in a toxic debate about refugees. It has damaged our national soul. Fear and hatred beget fear and hatred. We are a very successful multicultural society, but our hostility to “boat people” and their suffering is ugly and unworthy of an optimistic and caring people. We have cherry-picked the brightest and best from developing nations as immigrants and ignored that those poor countries have paid for their education and lost their talents and nation building.
While I do not begrudge individuals making the choice to leave their country and immigrate here for the sake of their families, and nor do I underestimate the enormous benefit they bring in making us more prosperous, I wonder about refugees who had no choice but to flee persecution and war. Our humanitarian intake is where we can right this imbalance.
This is an edited extract from A Lot with A Little by Tim Costello published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $45 and available in stores nationally.