Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

How do we change Australia’s attitude towards refugees?

Why has public sentiment in Australia become so hostile toward refugees?

  • The Liberal/National coalition made an election promise to reinstate Temporary Protection Visas. Considering the terrible effects of these visas, the fact that Australians then elected Abbott into government in 2013, indicates that the majority of Australians don’t care about 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.

One step towards a solution, suggested at a public forum by Professor Desmond Manderson of the Australian National University, is that:

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 FarThis 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.


4 comments on “How do we change Australia’s attitude towards refugees?

  1. william filgo
    February 14, 2014

    I read your review of twelve years a slave, and you ended it with the question, “Why do humans worldwide intrinsically exploit other people?” You have answered that question with all of these posts about the mistreatment of refugees. Most humans do not strive to engage. The caring and thinking of our species are the minority and we will perish with the uncaring and unthinking when they destroy this planet’s ability to support us. We are on a ship and the captain and crew are insane, pity the passengers. In the USA, there are a large number of survivalists that believe they can get through the planet’s death throes and start a new civilization. I don’t think the odds are in their favor. The best of strategies is to live in an ivory tower and have a pleasant life. There is no justice, only favor of birth. I am sorry to be negative, but have you polled our population. Most of the world loves to hate. I read a true story from an author that lives in India. The story is how those that live in the slums will spend their entire lives and little that they have to make sure that anyone trying to better themselves are brought down and taught to never believe they can do better. If the poor will not band together, then will the wealthy help? The wealthy love the status quo and only help themselves to all they can get. Love your family and help all you are able, but do not expect a miracle.

    • strivetoengage
      February 19, 2014

      Hello! It’s been a while since you have made a comment and I wondered if my travel posts had bored you!
      Thank you for your considered comment. I like the way that you bring information for me to ponder. What you said about the slum dwellers is truly saddening. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is a great novel that centres on slumdwellers and also in a way suggests that to strive to change is to bring pain upon yourself.
      I agree with your comment about the complacency of the middle and upper classes and it’s saddening and maddening! I particularly find that among public servants in Australia (a broad generalisation but true in many cases) that the urge to strive for change is dulled by bureaucracy and the desire to maintain a comfortable life.
      Your rather gloomy conclusion is probably correct but I will continue to post here and talk to my friends and family about the need to engage and strive for change! Who knows, I might convince one person to be more outwardly focused!
      Thanks for the comment and I look forward to receiving more.

  2. Pingback: Book review – A Country Too Far | strivetoengage

  3. Pingback: Refugee statistics | strivetoengage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: