Australia — A post in support of a more compassionate refugee policy.
Following the Christchurch terrorist attack, Jacinda Adern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, with much empathy and compassion, said that the attack on the Muslim community in New Zealand, was an attack on all New Zealanders, because “We are one. They are us.” Her words resonated with me, but I had no words to express my sorrow at the death and injury inflicted by one of my countrymen (allegedly). I kept getting stuck on the question – if the murderer is Australian, does that then mean he is us and we are him? I suppose many Australians would completely reject this notion. After all, Australia is a multicultural country and for the most part, we live peacefully with one another. But still, I wanted to know what was in people’s hearts, because how can love and compassion create a more tolerant, inclusive society if, deep down, we are afraid, uninformed, or worse, just plain racist?
So I dug around looking at some polls and surveys on the attitude of Australians to immigrants, and Muslim immigrants in particular. What I found shocked me. The 2016 Essential Research poll found 49 per cent of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration, including 60 per cent of Coalition (LNP) voters, 40 per cent of Labor voters and 34 per cent of Greens voters. Other polls also indicate that such attitudes are widespread. In some parts of Sydney, opposition to Muslim immigration is much higher. Reasons for wanting the ban were fears over terrorism, and a belief that Muslim migrants do not integrate into society or share Australian values. Islamophobia has been fanned by new political opportunists, established political parties, and by elements of the popular press. “Illegal” boat arrivals (not actually illegal) have become the symbol of this fear and the battleground for a more tolerant Australia. We are a divided nation; there is no “I am, you are, we are Australian.”
If it helps, I can tell you stories of how I lived and worked with many Australian immigrants, including a number of people of Islamic faith. My experience of multiculturalism has been overwhelmingly positive. I can tell you about the time I shared a house with my friend, T, who had emigrated from Malaysia. He and his family always made me feel welcome. I could tell you about how I worked with a woman originally from Jamaica. She was such a positive role model. I could also tell you about my former work colleague, M, who is gentle, gracious and intelligent, and a Muslim. A hard-worker and trustworthy, M treats everyone with respect. Unlike many others, M does not engage in office politics, back-stabbing or displays of self-aggrandisement. They are all good, decent Australians. Stories like this are common, not the exception.
Of course, not everyone has had the opportunities I’ve had to mix with people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Or the opportunity to go to good quality, well-funded public schools and universities. Or to have a travel commute of 20 minutes (it is not a trip I take these days and I understand that the commute is twice as long now). Or to have the opportunity of getting a hospital bed promptly at a time when our public hospitals were once well funded and served a smaller population. Buying a house was also within my reach. However, times are certainly changing and demand for public services and housing is much greater now. Perhaps we should blame the growing number of migrants for pressures on our public infrastructure and escalating house prices? Or maybe there are other reasons that these same opportunities are scarcer these days and inequality is increasing?
In relation to asylum seekers, there are countries where people are persecuted for the religious, political and social views they hold, and those countries are not just those with a predominantly Muslim population. Perhaps there are many people living in fear in those places, but they are unable to speak out against tyranny. Should we characterise everyone in those countries by the governments that represent them or the extremists that operate within them? Are we (Australians) any better than those persecutors if we then demonise those who seek sanctuary in our country? Should we blame refugees for the trauma they bring with them, or should we help them heal, perhaps by providing some of the compassion and empathy that Jacinda Adern has so admirably demonstrated?
We are all different; in my opinion, it is not our skin colour or religious beliefs that define us as Australians. Nor are Australians defined by how long we’ve been here or how we measure up to some idealised notion of our national identity (I would not be caught dead in a bikini on Cronulla beach). We are not even defined by our level of patriotism, or lack thereof. We are who we are, and sometimes we are not great (I’m talking about all you bitches and bastards out there), and sometimes we are bloody brilliant. We just are. And that goes for Australian Muslims, or Australian-born Christians. Some great, some not so great. It is the same the world over, don’t you think?
That is not to say I am not concerned about the spread of terrorism and ensuring the safety of our citizens. I am. That’s why I want our Government’s assessment of risk and response to terrorism to be rigorous, egalitarian (ie. non-discriminatory) and as expeditious as possible. I want our political leaders to be unequivocal in their words and actions (and not hedge their bets) in welcoming migrants of all faiths or of none, to the extent that is economically and environmentally possible. Settling refugees costs the tax payer money, whereas skilled migrants contribute more than they cost (financially). I understand this, but I want Australia to willingly accept more refugees, not less. This is important because I want Australia to be a country that gives and not just takes. Further, I want all Australians and those wanting to become Australian, to reject the politics of envy and fear, as well as the mean-spirited policies and programs that go with that.
Finally, I decry the use of slogans — such as “Stop The Boats” — to demonise those willing to sacrifice their lives to reach sanctuary. And yet, as I stood before the memorial to the 353 men, women and children who lost their lives on the SIEV X (a boat carrying hopeful refugees to Australia), I am adamant that we not encourage unscrupulous people smugglers who force vulnerable people onto unseaworthy vessels.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be cruel to be kind. Did that strategy ever work without causing untold damage? Is that who we really are? We could instead build a peaceful and tolerant coalition of the willing across the political spectrum, that would lead a change in community attitudes to Muslims and refugees, and would work together to prevent profiteering from refugees, and I mean that in more ways than one. Is that really too much to ask?