Australia’s response to refugees fleeing persecution: sympathetic words and limited promises

ANDY HAMILTON SJ reflects that in refugee policy, kind words and empty promises in a crisis are not enough – strong political leadership is required to welcome refugees even when populist opinion has turned against them.

The Russian war on Ukraine has provoked heart-wrenching scenes of long columns of refugees fleeing to escape death. These images and the courage shown by Ukrainian people in resisting the invasion have inflamed opposition to the Russian invasion.  Poland and some neighbouring nations have received refugees hospitably. Other nations, including Australia, have pledged support, as they did earlier in Afghanistan.

These promises of support are to be welcomed. They recognize the suffering of people expelled from their homes, separated from family members, deprived of the use of their native language for everyday life, torn from their culture, and with little hope of returning quickly to their occupied nation.

The plight of such people at the end of World War 2 prompted nations to make agreements to receive refugees hospitably. The agreement helped many people to come to Australia, which in turn benefited from their skills and their high character.

More recently, however, Australia has led the world in finding ways to exclude refugees and to punish people who flee to Australia. In Melbourne, ill people transferred from offshore detention after years languishing there have the torment of being held in hotel rooms in a suburban street, seeing people walking freely and playing in the park opposite. The average time people who sought protection spend in detention is now almost two years. This is the emblem of a brutal policy, the harsh reality that lies behind the sympathetic words and limited promises made by our governments when first their nations were occupied.

Refugees from the wars in the Middle East and Africa in which Western nations took part, were also once the objects of pity and popular sympathy. Now they have for years found themselves confined to crowded refugee camps, shut out of European nations and subject to increasingly harsh treatment if they cross national borders. 

In refugee policy, kind words and empty promises in a crisis are not enough. Also needed is strong political leadership to welcome refugees even when populist opinion has turned against them. We have a responsibility to protect people who are driven from their homes whether they are our allies or not.

In Australia we should demand an end to the brutality of indefinite detention, the provision of permanent protection to those living in limbo on temporary visas and radical generosity from the Federal Government in supporting refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine and elsewhere.