Refugees. Asylum seekers. Queue jumpers. Family values. Aussie battlers.
Pick the odd one out.
Answer? Queue jumpers. It’s the only one that is absent of an element Australians are actually world-famous for – compassion.
Every couple of years the Dalai Lama comes to Australia and his public talks are hugely over-subscribed because everybody wants to hear him speak. For the most part, he talks about compassion and how we can all engage compassion in our relationships and in the way we move through our lives. He’s sold millions of books with this message and people lap it up.
When the tsunami hit on Boxing Day 2004, Australians donated an unheard-of amount of money per capita to the relief and rebuilding of countries in desperate need. When earthquakes hit Indonesia and Haiti, Australia was one of the very first nations sending relief and getting feet on the ground for search and rescue. When East Timor wrenched itself from the grip of Indonesia and set out to build a self-determining nation, Australian soldiers and charities were there to help in any way possible, providing breathing space for the country’s first democratic elections.
There’s no doubt about it – we are a hearty, friendly and compassionate people and that’s something to be very proud of.
So why can’t we embrace those who land on our shores, destitute, friendless, penniless and hunted? Are we really in thrall to the Tony Abbotts and John Howards of this world, who peddle fear as a means of population control? These asylum seekers are often starving and sick, losing parents and children on the long road to freedom. They leave behind extended families, property, wealth and friends and any chance they will ever have of going back to the country of their birth. Out of sheer desperation, they step out into the abyss, hoping, praying, that somebody out there will catch them.
Apparently, that somebody is not us.
But why isn’t it us? We have this enormous country populated, for the last 200 years, by people arriving in much the same condition as these latest arrivals. We have an economy that’s withstood the worst global crisis since the Great Depression. We have a standard of living that nobody outside the West can even imagine. Are we actually just greedy and selfish? So much that we can’t share? Or are we actually, truly afraid?
The kind of fear peddled by those who want to lock up refugees, or worse – turn the boats around and watch them sink – is base and seemingly defined by an indignant accusation of ‘queue jumping’. As though we didn’t sign an agreement to take in refugees. As though we have no basic human requirement to respect basic human rights. As though people who get on a leaky wooden boat, risk the dangerous open seas, drowning, disease and armed violence, do so simply because they can’t be bothered sitting in an embassy somewhere waiting for their number to be called.
I wonder how many of those against allowing asylum seekers into the country have ever experienced real desperation. I’d bet a dollar not many. But do we need to have experienced their hardship to feel compassion for them? I don’t think we do. I think we can look at them, at their haunted eyes, count the dead bodies, the evidence of torture and starvation and make up our own minds.
These people don’t need to be punished further. They’ve already been through the worst the world can offer short of murder. If we really are big-hearted, friendly and compassionate, then we need to be the one country in the world that stands up for these people and says, ‘Yes, you are welcome here. Your determination, your desire for freedom, your ingenuity and your love of family are all qualities we treasure. Please, make yourself at home here, just as we have.’
The best way to deal with people you think might become enemies, is to embrace them as friends.