Refugee Week 2023: A reflection from Fr Andy Hamilton SJ

The theme of Refugee Week in 2023 is Finding Freedom. The theme reminds us of the freedom that refugees have lost in being forced from their own nations. They continue to bear this loss in the nations to which they flee, and often find further loss of freedom in nations where they seek protection.

These nations, including Australia, are often unfree in many ways, their leaders yielding to anxiety and refusing to lead in compassion, and their people susceptible to xenophobia. As a result people who seek protection find more obstacles placed on their path which prevent them from arriving, deter them from seeking protection, curtail the freedom of those who do arrive, prevent them from again being united with their families, and exclude them from beginning a new life. Refugee Week focuses our attention again on the lives of refugees. It reminds us how precious freedom is and of the costs of the unfreedom that seeps out from under our lack of hospitality.

When we meet people who are held in detention in Australia after claiming protection, some incarcerated for many years, we witness how lack of freedom corrodes people’s spirits.

 To be separated from your family, to be unable to help them in their poverty and fear for their lives, to blame yourself, and perhaps even feel blamed by them, because you are not there for them, to relive in the small hours of the morning the terror and perhaps torture you have suffered before fleeing, to wait endlessly for the result of administrative processes that seem lacking in justice, to spend week after week, month after month and year after year in a world without  trees, without flowers, without animals, but only fences after fences, gates after gates clanging shut, concrete paths after concrete paths, to be kept alive but excluded from life, to grow distant from those whom you love and are loved by, to grow older and to lose hope day by day –  this is the life of many refugees.

It is no wonder that when people who are free asked you what you pray for, you would answer in one word: ‘freedom’.

Refugee Week keeps in the front of our hearts and minds the people who lose freedom by the fact of being refugees. It also invites us to recognise the little steps towards freedom. We may applaud the small acts of generosity, the small changes in the ways Government representatives behave towards and speak of refugees, and of the small cracks in punitive regimes which bear hope for the future.

With the change of Government in Australia all the machinery of deterrence and exclusion has remained in place. But the change of Temporary Protection Visas to permanent residence is a welcome change. So have been the reviews of the cases of people who have been detained for a long time and the way in which people like the family from Biloela have been given visas. These decisions have put the faces of refugees first. 

In the darkness of our treatment of people who seek asylum we have seen glow worms of freedom. We must keep watching and hoping for the break of day. And, of course, visiting, supporting, listening and connecting with refugees and people seeking asylum.