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Refugees - Artisans of Peace

Talk for the Refugee Discussion Forum at Greenwood Uniting Church for AUSTCARE Refugee Week 2002

"At the end of our lives we will be judged by love."

St. John of the Cross

"Then I am going to take you from among the nations and gather you together from all the foreign countries, and bring you home to your own land."

(Ezekiel 36, 24-25)

There is the story of the poor man sitting on the side of the street who was kicked to the side by a self-important person who hurried by with his busy entourage. The poor man stood, waved his fist at the 'important' people and called out, 'May all your desires be fulfilled!' Surprised onlookers asked his meaning. 'Well', replied the poor man, 'if all their desires were fulfilled, they would have no need to kick me'.

The past twenty years have been marked by cruel conflicts, by violent and massive disrespect of human rights, and by the forced displacement of millions of people. This violence stems from disrespect for the dignity and rights of the human person. Yet the corollary should also be true. From the respect of people will come peace. Or, where people are respected, there will be peace. You take time this evening and during this Austcare Refugee Week in order to understand better this call to be artisans of peace, and to make plans for how to live it out.

"The city of the merely human", wrote St. Augustine, "is built on love of self at the expense of the other. Whereas the city of God is built on the love of the other at the expense of the self." And in another place he said: "If the times are bad, then let us be better; then the times will be better, for we are the times."

Stories of refugees - artisans of peace

May I give two examples of women refugees, themselves artisans of peace, who have inspired me.

Nguyen Thi Lan of Vietnam

In 1981 I was asked to initiate the Jesuit Refugee Service in Asia. Soon after, I went to stay a few weeks on Indonesia's Galang Island, where there were then 12,000 Vietnamese people. With the people at that time was Father Gildo Dominici, an Italian Jesuit and former missionary in Vietnam.

One day when a woman came to see him, Gildo asked if she would tell me her story. I call her Nguyen Thi Lan for the moment. She and her husband had planned to leave Vietnam with their two children, a boy and a girl, but just before leaving she discovered that she was pregnant. Her husband therefore left first, with their oldest child, a boy. When his boat arrived safely in Malaysia he sent word for her to leave. So when the second child was born, a girl, she bought a passage on another small boat for herself, her two daughters and her sister. But the boat was not well provisioned and the leader was no sailor. After some days they ran out of fuel and drifted without power. Her own stock of water and food was soon exhausted, but the boat leader would not share what he had brought. The woman pleaded for the sake of her children who were melting in the heat. He refused. He kept what supplies he had for his own family. Finally her children died in her arms and ultimately her sister, too, died of thirst and exhaustion.

Eventually they touched land and were brought to the camp. Lan was safe, but carried only one thought in her mind: revenge. She would come in the night, with a knife or any other means, to kill the man who had murdered her children and her sister. For weeks she lived in total grief, mad with the desire for revenge. She talked sometimes to Father Gildo, but he saw that she was unable to listen.

Then one day, with a different face, open and determined, Lan came to the priest and announced that she would forgive the man. "Very well," said Father Gildo, "the Lord accepts your change of heart, and you can put this matter behind you." "No", she said, "I want everyone to know that I forgive him." So she brought that man in the middle of the Sunday prayers - though he was not Christian and she was only then discovering what faith is. She said, "I forgive you."

It was a liberation for her. And what a liberation for him! Everyone knew him as a killer. And what a change took place in the life of the whole camp. Many people took courage from her action.

It is an axiom of our faith that God's grace can overcome any evil. But to be in a situation of evil and see it turned around - that is a powerful experience, a shock. My encounter with Nguyen Thi Lan in that first refugee camp was a revelation. This event and others like it have been for me what the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor must have been for the disciples. During the past twenty years of working with refugees in many places, the courageous example of that woman has reminded me that reconciliation is possible, not only for an individual person but also for a community.

Anne Noeum Yok Tan of Cambodia.

Soon after that, in Phanat Nikhom camp in Thailand, I met a Cambodian woman, Anne Noeum Yok Tan. There she was looking after a unaccompanied children while awaiting her resettlement in France. Ten of Noeum Yok Tan's children had died under the Pol Pot regime. One by one, her husband wrote a little poem or reflection on the back of each one's baptismal certificate. When he too was killed by a Khmer Rouge cadre, she gathered the precious folios together and fled. On the way, in the jungle, she met by chance with her two surviving children, and proceeded on to the border. Ultimately the collection of poems were published in a book dedicated to the martyrs of the Cambodian Church, called Veilleur, ou en est la nuit?, or "Watcher, What of the Night?" and subtitled, "The Little Book of the Dead". In her introduction she wrote the following words.

With this book I have given you what is dearest to me. My life is not easy now, but I do not despair. I hope in God. I believe God is my Father and will not abandon me. One day I shall join my husband and my children and we shall be all together again. Ten of my children are dead, and my husband has been killed, but I do not hold it against anyone. I have no spite against anyone at all. Nor did my husband hate the Khmer Rouge. He did not want to avenge himself for the evil they had done. I am like him. If I meet the one who killed my husband, I will not hate him, for I have no hate in my heart: I have accepted to strip myself of everything. In any case, I am not the only one to suffer. It is a whole people, a whole country that suffers as well. But one day, I am sure, Cambodia will once again know happiness.

Meeting these two women so early in my time of working with refugees was providential for me. What precious lessons they demonstrated for me. They taught me how valuable it is to accompany and listen to the refugees. But also they taught me that women are natural artisans of peace.

The global refugee situation

There are evidently many immediate causes for the conflicts flourishing throughout the world since the end of the Cold War. One can name poverty, inequality in access to the world's resources, the uncontrolled commerce in weapons, the emergence of age-old tensions over identity, whether they be in expressed in territorial, ethnic or religious terms. Yet among all the reasons, one cannot easily site bad luck. We are not simply witnessing natural disasters, but tragedies created by the hands of people. If there is human cause, then human response is called for. This world needs artisans of peace. The signs and needs of our times invite us to this response.

Refugees demonstrate the worst in human society, and the best: the willingness to oppress others and the willingness to assist. Refugees are drenched in human value. Only a society without values will ignore refugees. It is in our national interest that Australia treats refugees justly. Refugees are not new. For as long as intolerance and oppression have been part of human history, there have been refugees. And there will continue to be refugees as long as conflicts continue. In this era of globalisation, it is ironic that although most wars are internal, the forces of globalisation make refugees too a global matter. The modern means of transportation and communication, as well as the dramatic flows of capital and the shifting needs for labour forces, all tend to globalise the refugee problem.

During the Cold War refugees were trophies. Now they are threats to security. Rather than searching for ways to protect the rights of asylum seekers, many States try by all means either to ignore or to block them, introducing harsh legislation to protect States against refugees and migrants. The new refugee crisis is this, that the international set of agreements designed to offer protection to refugees 50 years ago and consolidated only in recent decades, is now at the time it is most needed, being dismantled piece by piece by the very States that signed it into force. We ask why Australia, which helped to draft the Refugee Convention and which the government of Bob Menzies signed in 1954, is working so hard, against the interests of refugees, and against the efforts of the many states to find considered, compassionate, collaborative solutions.

Who are the refugees

Every continent and every region of the world is affected by forced displacement of people. Over the past 20 years almost every country in Africa, for example, has either produced or received refugees. Generations of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have known no other life than a refugee camp. Denied education, children lose their hope in the future. Adults lose their roles, their skills and their dignity. Communities become dependent and cultures are atrophied. Lost generations linger in legal, social and political limbo, often ignored by the international community. When not ignored, the lives of refugees risk distortion in the media.

Why do they leave home?

In classic migration theory, three sets of factors influence human movement: Push, Pull and Networks. Multiple factors are at play when a person chooses to leave home. Studies have revealed that the top ten reasons for asylum seekers coming to Australia are 'push' factors. (1)

The principle imbalance in today's world is in the uneven distribution of the world's resources. The contest for control of these resources is a root cause of the conflicts that lead to forced displacement of people today. Among 'push' factors then, obviously we list conflict, as well as persecution or human rights abuse, and loss of freedom. The weakening of the nation state contributes, for example, when there is a breakdown of law and order, or collapse of the local economy, or inadequate local services and porous frontiers. Sheer poverty accentuates the crisis created by conflict. If people are living close to the line, then it takes little extra push to make them leave, no matter how profound and spiritual may be their attachment to home and land and to the spirits of their ancestors. As populations become more dense, environmental disasters such as droughts, floods and earthquakes, also create massive displacements of people. Another "push" factor is that, as economies deteriorate, minority groups frequently become scapegoats and again they move in order to escape victimisation.

'Pull' factors are reasonably obvious: family ties, the decisions of community, ethnic or political leaders to move as a group, the desire for education for oneself or one's children, the future of the children in general, the likelihood of getting employment. Sometimes the decision to leave is motivated by a long nurtured, even erroneous dream, that "the streets of California are paved with gold", and that it is worth sacrificing everything to reach there.

The basic networks are ethnic and family ties. So Kurdish people leave home by the thousands to reach Germany where already 2 million Turkish people live, among whom is a sizeable Kurdish population. Travel is often facilitated by other networks: organizations of traffickers and smugglers. The distinction between traffickers and smugglers is this, that traffickers exploit their victims, often holding them and their families in bondage for years until a debt is paid. Smugglers on the other hand provide a service, admittedly an illegal one, but they are often the only agent who can provide a refugee with a passage out of an even more dangerous situation.

Refugees and Australian society

The contemporary politics and rhetoric about asylum seekers go to the heart of Australian values. Look at the sympathetic reporting of the victims of drought today, and remember the bushfires in the Eastern States last summer. Contrast how politicians and the media speak about the bushfire or drought victims, with the way they speak of the people arriving at our shores seeking asylum. The response to families affected by the fires reflects the best in the Australian community. All feel one with them, and stand with them in spirit. We ask ourselves what we can do to help. Yet in the case of the refugees and asylum seekers, how can we meet them as individuals? They are known only as stereotypes. Fears are evoked, not allayed. There is not full disclosure of the facts, nor of the personal stories which could evoke our deeper understanding. The political face is obdurate, and our leaders play upon fears. This hardness of heart creates a sense of hopelessness.

This week Austcare, as expert in refugees, matches its knowledge and experience of refugees abroad with the challenge faced by Australia today. Refugees are not new. For as long as intolerance and oppression have been part of human history, there have been refugees. And there will continue to be refugees as long as conflicts continue. In this era of globalisation, it is ironic that although most wars are internal, the forces of globalisation make refugees too a global matter. Austcare helps us to put into practice that useful maxim: "Think globally, act locally".

Concluding remarks - ethical considerations and practical proposals

The goal of current Australian asylum policy appears to be simply that no unvisa-ed person will land in Australia, or if they do, will want to stay. In this way, it is argued, our asylum and migration program is kept 'orderly'. In order to achieve this goal, the judiciary is silenced, liberty is taken from innocent persons, and excessive amounts of public money is wasted. The government argues that the correctness of such a goal justifies these measures. In this way it is arguing that the end justifies the means. This argument is the antithesis of morality. It is classic utilitarianism.

Australia may be the end of the earth, but it is no longer inaccessible. Unauthorised movement from the third world to the first world, from insecurity to security, from persecution to protection is to be expected. Criminal syndicates are willing to cash in on the market for assisted passage. As states become more rigid on border control they drive desperate people into the hands of smugglers. Asylum seekers have a right to seek safety in Australia, yet our country is not seriously at risk of being over run by asylum seekers. Nonetheless it is important that we respond to their needs and prepare for their arrival at our shores. A clear and firm policy is required, which balances respect for the rights of those seeking protection and respect for national sovereignty. Those who arrive present a management challenge. Australia can and should engage constructively and collaboratively at the root source of the conflicts that create refugees, it should cooperate in a more multilateral way with other States in easing the burdens of refugees in flight and of the countries that host them.

Here are some practical proposals which I believe would lead to a fair, workable and efficient asylum policy:

  1. Stop negative rhetoric.
  2. End mandatory detention, by releasing asylum seekers into the community after processing and identification, as is done in many European countries that receive vastly more asylum seekers than in Australia. Maintain the constitutional protection of appeal to the High Court.
  3. No new detainees should be sent to Woomera or Port Hedland or to any remote desert prison.
  4. TPV holders in the community should be eligible for the normal service benefits of all other residents.
  5. TPV holders should have the rights noted under the Convention # 28: notably family reunion and right to travel.
  6. Restore the 'migration zone' to include all Australian territory, and end the 'Pacific Solution' of forced transportation to other destinations.
  7. The immigration regime should not be designed in adversarial way. This is inappropriate for an issue that potentially divides the community. Success stories should be identified. So too should the sinister activities of racially motivated groups.
  8. Look for a sense of moral proportion. We pay a high moral price for political gains at the expense of other national values that we cherish.
  9. Work towards international cooperation, especially with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Pakistan, but also with other target countries, to resolve people smuggling.
  10. Create flexible humanitarian quotas for the current major source countries, in collaboration and consultation with other recipient countries. Seek multilateral rather than unilateral solutions. Australia could open its doors more widely than at present.
  11. Through clear, strong leadership, seek a better way forward and persuade the Australian people to see the justice of these measures.
  12. Make a larger contribution to UNHCR and UN activities in source countries, especially those burdened by wars that the Australian government has endorsed.

There is no virtue in appearing strong by attacking the most vulnerable people on earth. The strength of any society is apparent in the way it protects the weak. It is precisely the vulnerable who make the world safe for humanity. Moreover refugees have helped to build Australia. Refugees are natural artisans of peace.


(1) Kerry Murphy, "Refugees in Australia: Unwanted Strangers?" Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, Occasional Paper No 3, September 2002.

Mark Raper SJ

7 October 2002

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