This week, I was there outside the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne as thousands of Victorians turned out to demand justice for hundreds of asylum seekers the Australian Government is preparing to send back to offshore detention. All around Australia, rallies have been organised, churches have offered asylum, and State Premiers have said they will take these asylum seekers and help them start a new life in this great country.
And while all this is encouraging, and right, and just downright good, something bothers me. It’s the underlying attitude that lurks just around the corner from the outstanding advocacy that’s taking place. You can see it in the comments on the Facebook post Amnesty International made, or in the responses to The Age’s article on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ letter welcoming asylum seekers to Victoria. The attitude is a vitriolic dismissal of asylum seekers as unwelcome, and unwanted.
It would be easy for those of us who live in Australia’s capital cities to assume that every Australian is waiting for asylum seekers with open arms – but we know that 70% of Australians in a poll last year backed the Government’s ‘tough’ stance on asylum seekers. Even if the poll had a strong bias, you can’t ignore the fact that a large number of Australians simply don’t want “illegals” in their country, and are willing to live in a continual state of ignorance where refugees are faceless people who are simply getting what they deserve for trying to “jump the queue”.
Now, I think the attitude of those who would back the Australian Government’s stance on refugees in detention is abhorrent. But while it’s wrong for these citizens to label asylum seekers “illegals” and treat them as a faceless minority, it’s also wrong for those who support the fair treatment of asylum seekers to treat dissenters as a faceless group as well. Each person who writes an abrasive comment, tweet, or post against refugees is a person with a home, a family, and a name.
In this sense, most people on the opposing sides of this debate are guilty: we write off the other group as uninformed and ignorant. But eventually, a turning point has to come – just as it did in the civil rights, sufferance, and marriage equality movements. We can’t afford to ignore opposing by only talking to people we agree with – and none of us can ignore the hundreds of asylum seekers currently wallowing in detention simply so others will be too afraid to attempt the journey to the Lucky Country. The fact is that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the past decade will go down in history as a vicious assault on the human right of vulnerable people. But until the majority of Australians adopt this view, there can be no lasting change. At the next opportune moment, influential people will exploit anti-refugee sentiment to grab power.
You want to start a revolution? You want to live in a world where desperate people are treated with respect, love, and dignity? Attend a rally, call the Prime Minister, and get behind your local community groups who are supporting refugees. But just remember: there has to be a point where things come to a head, and this message of dignity gets past those who are already in favour of treating asylum seekers with dignity.
Let them stay, yes. But we need more than a single act of compassion for a small group of people.
Here in Australia, we need a revolution in our country’s thinking.