“A refugee is someone who has survived and who has a tremendous will to create a future.” – Amela Koluder
For World Refugee Day, 20 June 2020
In January 2020, the Australian media showed us images of navy ships rescuing Australian bushfire refugees who had been forced to flee by boat. In a nation that has spent years vilifying refugees as ‘boat people’, it seems surprising that Australian media commentators failed to grasp the universality of the refugee experience.
It has been said that Australians tend to lack empathy for others who are from outside their own personal experience, whether homeless people or Syrian refugees. Our relatively affluent, comfortable existence divorces us from collective experiences of war, catastrophic natural disaster, or some other unforeseen intolerable hardship that might create large numbers of refugees. The scope of such a forced mass migration seems unimaginable to us. Yet the UNHCR reports that of the 70 million displaced people in the world today, nearly 26 million people are recognised as being refugees. Amnesty International Australia reports that the world urgently needs to create a new, global plan for refugees based on a meaningful and fair sharing of responsibilities, and that affluent nations are not doing their fair share.
How do we, as human beings, respond to the real-life plight of refugees? Our culture promotes the ideas that refugees are strangers and non-citizens within a world that so often equates human rights with citizenship. In a cross-cultural global acknowledgment of the shared humanity of strangers in our midst, even the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences declares its support of humanist principles: “The essence of humanism is recognizing oneself as another. This recognition should be extended to everyone and in particular to those who are suffering, such as refugees, both young and old.”
Life-long learning does not end when we walk our of our classrooms for the last time; indeed, the vast majority of our experiential life learning is probably just commencing at that point. As part of this learning, we need to expose ourselves to stories, cultures and lived experiences from others who are from outside our own existential bubble.
For adults, there are many books that provide a range of stories and testimonies across space and time, teaching us that the refugee experience did not start or end with World War Two. One example on this list is a shocking indictment of Australia’s own crimes against humanity regarding current refugees and asylum seekers. Children’s and adolescent literature portrays a wide variety of age-appropriate stories that make the refugee experience accessible and understandable to children of all ages.
In this relatively lucky but uninformed country, we must educate ourselves about others who are forced to flee their home countries because of their religion or non-religion, sexuality, nationality, cultural/ethnic grouping, gender or gender identity, and race. Many experience ongoing discrimination. Women and children (who comprise up to 80% of the world’s refugees) and LGBTQI refugees are among those who face heightened difficulties in their home countries, and within those refugee camps or host nations to which they might flee. How can we think of ourselves as fully human if we live in denial of such common human experiences? How can we call ourselves compassionate if we ignore this suffering? Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility.
Given the onslaught of discriminatory messages against refugees in our mass media, and the nationalist ‘White Australia‘ tradition which still taints our religions and culture, we need to commit ourselves to starting and encouraging new conversations about migrants and refugees in our local communities.
Thinking locally may mean delivering education campaigns, undertaking practical activism, literally rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in the lives of our neighbours; and local community outreach, including grassroots upgrading of community services. It is far better to build bridges than walls – particularly because such benevolence is often reciprocated.
Dina Nayeri suggests that we have a moral obligation to create a welcoming society: “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.” We would benefit from exploring what this means. Welcoming involves more than simply saying hello, and safety encompasses more than simply supplying a physical environment.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 is the title of both a safe-sex campaign and an artistic response to lockdown – and more. In a broader context, these words also suggest a humanist response to pandemic. Love can turn strangers into family. What does it really mean – to borrow a religious phrase – to love our neighbour? As human beings and humanitarians who claim to uphold common humanity, we need to remember that during the time of COVID-19, refugees face particular hardship. Any reasoned conversations about economic or social recovery after the pandemic must include recognition of, and solutions for, the problems faced by our human family in refugee populations and among others outside our geographic location. Human rights and human compassion do not start or end at a national border.
And yet Australia seems torn by competing ideologies. While our Parliament hypocritically proclaims that racism and discriminatory immigration policies are anathema, it continues to practice policies that arbitrarily detain and neglect refugees and asylum seekers. Nor is Australia alone in such hypocrisy. Following World War Two, the modern world community established the United Nations and its humanist precepts, typified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decades later, such inspiration and optimism have failed to come to full fruition. Denial of equal access to justice and the world’s resources has not only impoverished the poor but has ultimately adversely affected all of us. umair haque explains the ultimate cost of our collective world choice to not adequately help others:
“…the world still hasn’t built global systems. Not a single one. We still don’t have a Human Healthcare System — and so of course pandemics erupt. We still don’t have a Worldwide Basic Income — and so of course the poor have to cause a mass extinction just to subsist. We still don’t have a Global Education Agency — and so of course authoritarianism and fascism spread like wildfire. We still don’t even have a Worldwide Climate Agency, Fund, Bank, or Mission — and so of course the rivers, oceans, and skies go on being charred…”
Such profound failure need not discourage us from the task. Oxfam reports that inequality is not inevitable – it is a political choice. We must create political will for change. Just as modern movements such as #MeToo and Climate Change protests and #BlackLivesMatter show that change can begin with grassroots activism, we need to call for a Universal Basic Income for all people, universal health coverage, universal food security, and other aims to ensure universal health, welfare and social prosperity.
Our ability to dream for a better, noble world offers redemption for ourselves, our human society, and for our planet. We should adopt such ideals as those within the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, and make these our philosophy and aspiration. Gandhi’s words challenge us today: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” Changing the world begins with changing ourselves. We can embrace the old adage ‘The Personal Is Political‘ and embrace our role as agents of change.
World Refugee Day contains a subversive message: to change the world, we must accept the refugee as a role model: their courage, resilience and determination to hope for a better future against seemingly overwhelming odds. We must cast off all philosophies, attitudes and actions which ignore and exacerbate the sufferings of others. For too long, humanity has squandered its resources, its good will, and its potential. A better world requires the active involvement of better citizens, and that is who we must become. That is surely the ultimate form of humanism.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn