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Why has public sentiment in Australia become so hostile toward refugees?
As I sat quietly concentrating on my work in my Intermediate Arabic class on Wednesday night the retirement-aged man sitting next to me tried to draw me into an argument. His opening gambit was “Asylum seekers to Australia are all young men who refused to conform in their home countries, they come to Australia, make trouble, make money to send home and then bring their families here.” I suggested to him that actually more than 90% of asylum seekers to Australia are eventually assessed to be true refugees, to which he retorted that if they just did what they were told they wouldn’t have to flee. When I mentioned the persecution of Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka and that many are fleeing to escape rape, torture or murder he scoffed saying they never considered themselves Sri Lankan in the first place. I realised the futility of the discussion and calmly stated that I was there to learn Arabic, our world views are very different, and I didn’t wish to have the discussion with him.
We need more information, communication and images if we are to influence public opinion and ultimately government policy to favour asylum seekers.
A good example of the information and communication needed to influence public opinion is this report, by Amnesty International, on the terrible conditions in Australia’s offshore processing centre on Manus Island.
Another excellent mechanism for changing the prevailing attitude towards refuges is the new book, A Country Too Far. This exciting new anthology boasts contributions from top Australian authors including Geraldine Brooks. The anthology is by turns thoughtful, fierce, evocative, lyrical and moving, and always extraordinarily powerful. The publisher claims that A Country Too Far makes an indispensable contribution to the national debate:
One of the central moral issues of our time is the question of asylum seekers, arguably the most controversial subject in Australia today. In this landmark anthology, twenty-seven of Australia’s finest writers …[bring] a whole new perspective of depth and truthfulness to what has become a fraught, distorted war of words. This anthology confirms that the experience of seeking asylum – the journeys of escape from death, starvation, poverty or terror to an imagined paradise – is part of the Australian mindset and deeply embedded in our culture and personal histories.
While this anthology is exciting in that it has brought together unique contributions from some of Australia’s finest writers, like Professor Manderson, I believe that it is through the sharing of actual refugee stories that true empathy can be achieved. In 2004 Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally edited from the Sydney PEN Writers in Detention committee, Another Country which includes writing by 30 detainees, refugees and former asylum seekers.
It is initiatives like this that will help Australians to change their attitudes to refugees because sharing a story is a powerful way to influence someone. I believe it is ‘the fear of the other’ that makes people afraid of refugees and that fear can be expressed as hostility. If refugees stories can be shared then surely people will be touched by how alike they are to those refugees rather than feeling different. By way of example, a Triple J radio talk-back session on World Refugee Day on 7th April 2005, illustrates nicely how prejudices fall away with interaction. Michael, an HR manager at a meat processing plant in the south-western part of New South Wales called into the session and I have paraphrased him here:
At various times we have had up to about ninety Afghani men on Temporary Protection Visas working for us. Through interacting with them my opinions on refugees and the application process for permanent residency has changed. The guys that we’ve had working for us have come from all sorts of professions for example schoolteachers, truck drivers, farmers. They’re just ordinary people and they’ve got families left and they are trying to send money home. Anybody that’s different to us is always regarded with some sort of fear and suspicion but I guess you don’t have to scratch the skin very deep and they’re just ordinary people underneath.
While I was in Malaysia in January, a Burmese refugee shared his story with me. Similarly, an Ethiopian refugee drove my cab in Denver in 2006 and shared his story of fleeing a massacre, living in camps in Kenya until finally being accepted to live in the USA. It wasn’t until he stopped at the airport and climbed out to help with my bag that I noticed he wore a prosthetic leg. He was very excited because he was applying for a visa for his new wife to come to the USA from Ethiopia. My grandfather was a refugee from WWII and I have friends who are refugees from more recent wars and these refugees have made Australia their homes and are contributing to Australian society like everyone else. I have been to a couple of author talks by refugees and theatre productions sharing stories of the terrors faced to force one to leave home and the long and arduous journey from conflict zone, through camps in border countries, bureaucracy and then detention centres in Australia, uncertainty of temporary visas, loved ones left behind, and each time my understanding and empathy expands. Refugees, I encourage you to share your stories and help to change public opinion.