Enough of being a country where the poorest, the least, the last, and the littlest are ignored, turned away, and discarded.
I spent a large part of my time as a graduate student doing research on taxation and law in early Islam, and this in reality meant that I had to immerse myself in the history of war in the Middle East, from around the year 622 to about 800. The reason for this immersion in battles and sieges while studying tax law was that states need tax revenue to wage war, and also because conquered peoples are a good source of tax revenue. The names of the cities of late antiquity, and the battles that raged around and in them, remain fresh in my memory, as do the record of the atrocities, the number of people killed, the starving populations in besieged cities, and the humiliation and subjugation of the captured peoples: Busra, Hayat, Damascus, Aleppo, Edessa, Hira, Walaja, al-Anbar, Qadisiyya, Yarmouk, Tikrit, Mosul, Baghdad. It is extraordinary that, in 2014, many of these cities remain theatres of war and conflict, and that atrocities and crimes against humanity in these same places continue unabated. It seems that we have learnt nothing after 1,200 years.
On 12th June the UNHCR recorded 2,792,551 Syrian refugees. Another 65,708 await registration, bringing the total of persons of concern to over 2.8 million. 51.3% of these refugees are under the age of 18: 1.4 million children forced out of their homes and their country, and living in dire and dangerous conditions.
The current civil war in Iraq, with Sunni extremists of ?ad-dawla ?al-isl?miyya f?l-‘ir?q waš-š?m and the Shia locked in a deadly struggle, is creating yet another refugee crisis in the region. What will happen in Iraq fills me with dread; already refugees are streaming into Kurdish-held areas, 300,000 from Mosul alone.
Australia’s focus on refugees and asylum seekers for the last year has been on boat arrivals, and the policy victories it speaks of has been all about the breaking of the people smuggler business model, and of the boats being stopped. Nothing is being said about why asylum seekers and refugees seek out the services of people smugglers and criminal syndicates: they do so because there are no other pathways to safety and protection. Hazaras in Afghanistan and Rohingya in Myanmar find it almost impossible get visas to get to Australia lawfully. As for the option of resettlement under the auspices of the UNHCR: only about 100,000 people a year have this option, when there are more than 15 million refugees around the world.
JRS deliberately focused our World Refugee Day event this year on refugees in Syria and the Congo, for two reasons. One is that Australia needs to get out of its mentality that asylum seekers coming here are an Australian problem that Australia will solve according to its own interests. Refugees are not an Australian problem; they are an international responsibility. We cannot cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and say, it is not our problem, we are only going to look out for ourselves, mate. Of course Australia has already attempted to do so, excising its entire territory from its own migration zone. The only more extreme option Australia has, in pursuit of “border security”, is to colonise a part of the moon, or perhaps even Mars, and transfer the entire country there.
Second, JRS wanted to highlight the fact that the vast majority, some 80 percent, of asylum seekers and refugees are taken care of by the world’s poorest countries, not the richest. There are 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon; practically 1 in 4 persons in that country is now a Syrian refugee. Jordan, with a population of about 6 million, plays host to some 600,000 Syrian refugees. Contrary to what we get told by the politicians, Australia is not being over-burdened; Australia is not being rorted. We are nowhere near doing what we could and should be in terms of our responsibilities and our legal obligations.
Let us not fool ourselves. Successive Australian governments have torn up the Refugee Convention to which Australia is still, as far as I know, a signatory. Australia now systematically violates two key obligations of the Refugee Convention. It refoules asylum seekers; in other words it returns them to countries where their lives are at risk. We know that Sri Lankans have been denied proper processing through the Refugee Status Determination process, and forcibly returned in the last year. The Australian government has done this to Sri Lankan unaccompanied minors, by its own admission. It also refuses to offer protection to asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and does not give these people access to the asylum process.
I hope that we will go back to our communities, our homes, our schools, our parishes, and we will say to our neighbours and friends and families: enough. Enough of being a country where the poorest, the least, the last, and the littlest are ignored, turned away, and discarded. Enough of being a country where those who seek sanctuary are told, “No chance!” Enough of being a nation where those in need of sustenance are shipped off by one of the richest countries on earth to our poorest neighbours.
This speech was delivered by the Director of JRS, Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ, at the opening of Sanctuary and Sustenance, a photographic exhibition held in collaboration with The Wayside Chapel to commemorate Refugee Week 2014. The exhibition can be viewed in Sydney until Friday 27 June. For more information click here.