As we witness the Australian Government’s response to refugees and asylum seekers who are denied their most basic rights, John Haren reminds us that our best human moments are inclusive.
The first plane dispatched from Australia retrieved just 26 people from Kabul after the Taliban takeover. It was a gesture of tokenism amid a humanitarian crisis and symbolic of what was to come. Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that Afghans already in Australia, despite the fact that they could not be sent back to their home country, would not be accorded permanency if they had arrived by boat. This, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority have been found to be refugees under Australia’s extremely rigorous, some would say excessive, review mechanisms.
If anyone was unclear about the Government’s attitude towards asylum seekers then this statement of intent during the hypercharged surge of the Taliban into Kabul was clearly not about inclusivity. It’s an approach that underscores the hard heartedness of successive federal governments that have inexplicably denied the basic rights of people seeking asylum in a country replete with people from all parts of the planet making significant contributions to our society.
When we seek to discriminate on the basis of race, colour or creed, (or mode of transport in seeking asylum), the humanity of each of us is diminished. Governments may hide behind the cloak of the fear of terrorism, or concerns about ‘Australian values’ being under attack, but for ordinary people seeking a life free of trauma, torture and alienation, a nation’s hard-line policy that flouts international covenants is perplexing. It reflects on all of us.
For Afghans seeking asylum in Australia to be reminded, immediately after the fall of their country to a fundamentalist conqueror, that they will never settle here is a dagger to their hearts at the very time loved ones back home struggle for survival.
Inclusion and exclusion are the yin and yang of our human society. That we can celebrate the sporting success of a Sudanese refugee at the Olympic Games at the same time as ignoring the plight of an interpreter who assisted Australian forces in resisting the Taliban is a quirk of distorted priorities.
That we can include the immigrant business person bringing financial assets but exclude the asylum seeker fleeing persecution says much about what we really value. It reveals a government mindset which is not about inclusion, not about compassion, but about utility.
What use is a family who settled in Biloela, escaping conflict and persecution in Sri Lanka? Ask the people of that community and they will tell you the contribution this family makes. Ask the Federal Government and they will create a myriad of bureaucratic and inhumane roadblocks to ensure they can’t stay because the boats will apparently start sailing again.
Australia claims a proud, if somewhat complex, history of multiculturalism. Apart from relying on migration to infuse so many aspects of our social, cultural and economic life, Australia has responded to crises. We have been part of the inclusion process. Eastern Europeans made their way here after World War II. After the fall of Saigon, we accepted escaping Vietnamese boat people in their tens of thousands. Post Tiananmen Square we gave Chinese students the right to stay. Syrians were welcomed in large numbers at the height of the civil war. We responded because we were moved by the inhumanity of these events. We found a way to be human in the face of brutality and oppression.
Our best human moments are inclusive, welcoming and compassionate acts toward others. They transcend ego and take us to a place of solidarity. Compassion, when it is offered unconditionally, makes a difference. Examples from daily living provide a clue. A simple fall on a footpath, which elicits a helpful response from others, can quickly overcome physical pain, restoring our faith in those around us. A meal prepared for a grieving neighbour. Checking on an older person living alone during a heat wave. A casual nod to a stranger walking on the beach. Simple acts recognising another’s human need for acknowledgement.
We underestimate our impact on others in the ordinary course of life’s events. We can forget the impact of simple human action on others, positive or negative. Compassion when offered at the international level reverberates around the world. We may be land masses separated by nation status, but we are one human race, on one planet.
The Australian Government often claims that the nation’s contribution to lowering carbon emissions is insignificant in the scheme of things. We are a small country with little impact on the rest of the world. At the same time we enter and exit conflicts in lock step with the United States without a second thought about the magnitude of the human and capital resources we commit. Finishing in sixth place on the gold medal tally at the recent Tokyo Olympics, Australia matched it with countries with far greater populations. And yet we cannot find the wherewithal, the resources, or the political will, to accept more than a token number of people in their time of extreme need.
The Good Samaritan found a way to overcome any prejudice or misgivings to save a stranger. He put any concept of ‘the other’ aside to focus on the humanity of the person in which we all share, but often forget. For each of us, a useful refrain would be, there but for the grace of God go I! We are humans, first and foremost. By dint of the place and time of our birth we can be in the most precarious of circumstances. Note the plight of the Uighurs, the Rohingya or the West Papuans. In a country with space, resources and a record of multicultural success, is it too much to expect our political leaders to be generous and inclusive?
‘Inclusivity – a political challenge’ was awarded first prize in The Good Oil 2021 Writers’ Award.
John Haren has been engaged in the community sector for over 30 years, including eight years as CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in South Australia. With a social work and social policy background John has worked with the homeless, asylum seekers and refugees, people with disability, those with mental health challenges and in the health sector. John lives in Adelaide where he writes on many contemporary social issues and is working on his first novel.