In Australia, we have an issue with refugees and asylum seekers. I mean, not an issue with how many we get, an issue with how we treat them.
Essentially, we’re a massive island that enjoys all the freedoms and comforts that the first world offers, but there are countries around us that don’t have these freedoms. These countries also act as a stop along the way for refugees (from places like Afghanistan) that are escaping persecution (from people like the Taliban).
Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is inhumane and contravenes several international treaties and conventions we’re signatories to: it is Australia’s official policy to stop boats of refugees entering our waters. Even if they manage to get into our waters, we imprison them indefinitely in detention centres in third-world countries. Even the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights has said:
“UNHCR would be concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection… Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international law obligations”
You can see this article for a good summary of our legal predicament and this article from Amnesty International about the appalling conditions we subject refugees to. This was written in 2012 and still nothing has changed.
The problem is, I’m pained by the asylum seeker issue and I don’t mean I feel terrible for asylum seekers. I really do, but what I mean is that it pains me now, even to talk about the issue. It seems that no matter how much advocates and volunteers and even politicians do in opposition, refugees and asylum seekers continue to be treated appallingly in Australia. Honestly, sometimes I wish I could forget about it, and sometimes I can. I’m ashamed to say that mostly my life carries on and the issue is shunted to the back of my mind.
Of course, as soon as I realise I’ve forgotten about it, I feel guilty that I’ve forgotten. The same goes for saving the environment and housing the homeless and not wearing shoes made by children in China and not having solar panels and not giving more to charity and… the list goes on.
And then… I don’t know… My life carries on and the day-to-day stuff comes up and those terrible feelings caused by thinking of refugees in detention and not doing enough about it, go away. I carry on with my life and forget about the insidiously horrifying fear that my whole life is just a superficial distraction from doing what I know I should be doing for the rest of world.
That reality, lurking there just below the surface, is terrifying. If I’m to bear it for a second and put it into words, it’s the fear that my priorities have been completely wrong and that if I am to have any moral consistency, I should change my entire life to try and help those in need. In the face of this realisation and all the consequences it would have for my life and my loved ones, it’s almost a necessity that I forget it immediately.
And so, I carry on, and in a way, I engage in the same behaviour as my government: I try and reinforce the borders of my ego, my day-to-day life, so that I don’t have to face this terrifying possibility.
The interesting thing is, on reflecting on this issue in a personal way, I see many parallels to the processes going on in government.
In realising just how hard it would be for me to change my life to live up to my own conscience, I can understand why it’s so hard for the government to face a social conscience; I understand how hard it is for those in power to lose their comfortable jobs and voter base; I understand how the government can ignore that they’ve changed the issue into one about ‘Sovereign Borders’, rather than helping people in need.
It occurs to me, that if the left-wing people I associate with want to stop getting resistance from more conservative parties, we need to take a different tack than just trying to make them feel guilty about being bad human citizens. Let’s stop being hypocritical and start treating them as humans.
If I’m to follow through on this reasoning, a solution presents itself. It’s a lesson that we’ve heard from modern activists and all the way back to the beginning of philosophical thought. Carl Jung expressed it like this: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes”: perhaps the answer is stop trying to change other people’s minds and to start changing ourselves.
This solution isn’t comfortable because it relates to our own underlying fears that we are not good enough – everything we are wants us to blame other people (or evolution or society or anything else). My fear is that nothing will change if we refuse to face our own weaknesses; nothing will change if we continue to listen to the excuses that allow us to live inside comfortable borders we do everything to protect.