How did we lose our compassion?


A FEW hundred boat people have us all in a lather.

It might even grow to a couple of thousand. And supposedly our country, our way of life, the way we think, our religious beliefs, our cultural norms and the opportunities for our children will all come crumbling down!

How did we get to the point where we have lost all ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes?

Since Australian settlement there have been influxes of Irish and Chinese; post-World War II Jews and others; Greeks, Italians and Vietnamese.  More recently, it is the Middle East and Eurasia. All these groups have added to the rich tapestry of Australia’s culture.

Those who worry about the influence from places such as Afghanistan seem to forget the contribution made over the last century in opening inland Australia by earlier immigrants from that part of the world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Article 14 states: “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. It is a pretty fundamental concept, but somehow the media barrage, exacerbating fear of boat people, has blinded many Australians to some of our main values.

The US grew to its greatness through a huge influx of immigrants. Their attitude from over a century ago is illustrated by the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus”, engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

Although the US no longer retains this tradition, it reminds us that this time of mass migration played a huge role in building a nation rather than destroying it.

There is a fear of terrorists who will use the boats to by-pass Australian security. However, in August 2002, the director-general of ASIO told Parliament that of 5986 boat arrivals, not one was found to be a security risk; they were simply refugees looking to a country that upholds human rights.

So we throw them in detention. Or worse still, we throw them into detention somewhere off our shores.

Asylum seekers are not criminals or illegal immigrants. It is not the migrants that are undermining our way of life, but rather the response of consecutive Australian governments driven through an unfounded fear.

Italy received just less than 40,000 boat people in 2008, while Australia’s whole humanitarian program in 2008-09 was less than 14,000 and the numbers of boat people simply minuscule by comparison.

Compare Australia’s humanitarian aid to Canada’s, which received over 30,000 refugees in 2009. Citizenship and Immigration Canada states: “Our refugee protection programs have helped refugees bring their experiences and skills and their hopes and dreams to Canada which, in turn, has contributed to an even richer and more prosperous society for us all”.

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