REFUGEES … and how we handle this tragedy

Australia has developed a bad reputation when it comes to being a ‘refuge’ for displaced, endangered, scared, hunted and genuinely unhappy human beings. This is very sad – since our entire history is built on ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’ – and I would argue that a number (probably a large number) of ‘immigrants’ were seeking ‘refuge’ here also.

Seeking refuge doesn’t have to only be about extreme circumstances! Why do you choose to leave a ‘home’ country to build a new life somewhere else? The glowing message is usually along the lines of ‘make a better life’ and I guess, ‘the adventure of it’! Sounds positive – both of these declarations. If we go with ‘make a better life’ and think about it, then we can ask ‘what was so bad about your former life that you needed to come to Australia (or elsewhere) to make a better life?’ The reasons can be as mundane as the weather or the economy or as extreme as the regime, intolerance, persecution (religious, gender or disability). Some of the extremes are unbearable to live with – but don’t qualify these people to enter another country as a refugee. It could be that they can choose to live with their situation – because it’s them that is outside of their ‘cultural norm’ (or at least what everyone else is prepared or resigned to putting up with) – or they can choose to go somewhere else to enjoy more freedom.

Now clearly anybody who risks their life and their families (in particular their children) to get on a rickety boat – usually not seaworthy or in fact not seagoing vessels to get away from ‘whatever’ it is; gun-wielding terror, rape of women and children, economic rape (dictators or tyranny) discrimination that affects your entire life (females not able to be educated, being married off young and unwilling, not safe in their own families OR homosexuals living in fear of death OR not believing in or belonging to the dominant religious ideology) IEDs, warfare (some of which is due to ‘do-gooder’ western countries ‘helping’) – ARE DESPERATE! One of the arguments proposed in Australia about whether ‘they are true refugees’ seems to come down to the fact that they’ve paid large sums of money to come here. Therefore, if they have thousands of dollars to pay a boat smuggler, then they must be okay. They must be false refugees. Because clearly the assumption is that having money equals safety, or lack of need! AND clearly this assumption isn’t correct.

If we go outside of Australia and look at the flood of refugees leaving Libya (and Africa) trying to make it to mainland Europe – the numbers are amazing. They are being sent by people smugglers and they have paid to be sent to Europe – but they are often forced on to the boats at gunpoint (I assume because people see the boats and go “no way!”). A CNN article written in April reports that since the beginning of 2015 more than 35,000 have crossed the Mediterranean with 23,500 landing in Italy and 12,000 in Greece. In 2014, approximately 219,000 refugees AND migrants sailed across the Mediterranean and most of these were rescued by the Italian navy and coast guard. It is estimated that 3,500 people died at sea.

Now there is clearly a humanitarian crisis happening. People want to do the right thing, including the governments of the countries being overwhelmed by this ‘sea’ of refugees. But the government also needs to look after its resident countrymen, their culture, resources, wants and needs and we all know and usually understand the pressures that government feel just to meet our own needs. Therefore many of us feel protective of what we have and how it will be affected. The Federal Budget has just come out – and many are worrying about how that affects them. Pensions and welfare, education, health, policing and defence. Shouldn’t our government care about us first!? Only?

Government (and it seems especially so of Australian government leaders) encourage us to fear refugees. They encourage us to fear certain religious or ethnic groups – and I say that yes they do surreptitiously encourage fear of Muslims / Islam. Mainstream media certainly encourage fear (generally). Survival of the fittest is a human’s default mode. That’s how we have arrived where we are – the dominant creature of the earth. And our very first priority is to ensure our families and neighbours are well and safe. But at what point do we accept that we can reach out to others in need? And how do we agree which people are genuinely in need – especially when welcoming and accepting them will make an impact on us? Personally, I feel that apart from how welcoming refugees affects us financially (welfare and when they ‘take our jobs’) and culturally (the good and the bad) how our Australian identity is affected bothers me. We have only been enriched by the multi-cultural country we live in – food being a big one. Vietnamese refugees brought into the country in the 70s have become a well loved part of the Australian community. And generally there is a perception that ‘Asian’ immigrants work very hard to achieve success. Mostly they put the rest of us to shame! If you are accepted and welcomed into a country how much should you be expected to ‘blend/assimilate’?

Cultural differences should be treasured. If I visit Morocco for instance – however uncomfortable I may feel or derisive I am of their ‘cultural norms’ – I have a responsibility to respect their culture. I will cover up and when visiting their mosques or sacred places will show respect. I’m an Irish Australian! We enjoy freedoms unheard of in many countries. We speak our minds, do what we want (within sensible laws) are reasonably carefree, enjoy access to education and home ownership, employment and entertainment; beaches, nature, music, art and freedom of religion! A country ‘has the right’ to decide who enters their country – and I believe that. It’s about getting the right balance and blend. If you are welcomed as either an immigrant who entered through the correct avenues or a refugee you need to respect that our country works for us because of the freedoms we enjoy and the carefree nature of our beings. It doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to embrace your own cultural norms – particularly relevant as many new arrivals will group in communities with their ‘own’ people. But in the wider world, it isn’t right to try to impose your norms on Australians. More and more we adopt changes that allow other ethnicities to feel more comfortable. For example, not celebrating Christmas in schools or Cadbury making their chocolate Halal. In other words, changing our own cultural norms – what makes us Australians predominantly from Anglo, European and Christian heritage – to suit everyone else. Political correctness going mad!

I have a friend who is an immigrant from an African country. When on Facebook a couple of years ago I made positive noises about finding a way to support refugees and she went off her face! After her and her family had lived in Australia for a while, they tried to get her mother over. But they had a real battle on their hands – because of restrictions in our immigration rules. She was so emotional and devastated about how hard they had to work to get her mother into the country that there was NO WAY that she could accept refugee ‘boat people’ making their way here, without going through proper channels! She was livid! Blinkered and immovable!

I was stunned. This family had been ‘allowed’ and ‘welcomed’ into Australia. On the surface they are good people; but really what kind of people are we allowing into the country. They’ve ticked all the boxes – but are there boxes for compassion, morality, heart!? Hey, you LUCKY PEOPLE! Have a heart! Now that you are ‘safe’, look outside yourself for a minute.

I fear – like everybody else! I don’t want things to change. I like what being an Australian means. We were welcomed to the country as Irish immigrants – although maybe Mum and Dad would have stories about how really welcoming people were in the first instance! I like the relaxed pace we live at – whether to follow a religion or not and acceptance that there are a multitude of religious faiths being practised. Welfare available for those that need it, even though that can be abused it is better that we can help those in need, than not.

The EU at the moment is trying to ‘force’ agreement by EU countries to accept more of the African refugees – to spread out the burden. Nobody wants to be ‘forced’ to do anything. People are overwhelmed already – EU countries already have influxes of straightforward ‘migrants’ due to the disappearance of borders. Paris/France being a great example of angry masses of ‘unwanted’ – they have a glorious history and culture to preserve. The Netherlands and Denmark are vocal about their aversion to continued acceptance of refugees and the impact it makes on their culture.

Banning the boats – sending them off to Manus or wherever – might be an ‘expensive’ solution for Australia, because we have to financially support that – but the idea here is to give a strong message that they won’t be accepted without going through proper processes – stop the boats and they won’t continue to arrive. But that makes it someone else’s problem. And it doesn’t help these people. They live in limbo, in terrible conditions, children in detention – no hope for the future. Not only are these people miserable but it makes for new enemies for Australia.

We should ‘accept’ all refugees – process them quickly (supersonic speed) – and if there is no obvious threat bring them into the community, with rules. In particular, they cannot commit a crime (Australian law) within so many years – say 5 – or they are immediately deported! Welcome and support – until proven they aren’t worthy!

Anyway, I’m not any kind of authority on these issues. I’m just a run of the mill Australian middle-aged woman. These are my thoughts and meanderings and I haven’t come up with any solutions. How do we help these people in dire need while keeping our own freedom, culture and security intact? I don’t know – but we should try.