Facing the Stranger
Lord Mayor’s Charitable Trust AGM
Melbourne Town Hall, 23 September, 2004
Keynote Address by
Mark Raper SJ AM*
Lord Mayor Mr John So, distinguished guests, and friends.
Looking around this hall today I see many faces. Yours are the
faces of generosity: you make Melbourne’s community philanthropy
a reality: you are private donors, you come from agencies delivering
services, community groups, and pro bono sectors of business. With
us today I also see the faces of timeless generations of traditional
dwellers of this land. Let us honour them. Theirs is the oldest
living culture in the world today. And I see too the faces of tens
of thousands of people helped each day by the 80 year-old Lord Mayor’s
Charitable Trust. You have seen their faces, you
show leadership in responding to their needs, and
you build solidarity. Congratulations and thank
The smell of Spring is in the air, along with a whiff of Grand
Final fever (a national grand final no less), but there is also
the unmistakable aroma of an election. I returned to Australia in
2002 after working with refugees for 20 years. It was after the
Tampa election. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers struck
me in the face. At a public forum, I remember the faces of two asylum
seekers. They were asked what they would say to Mr Howard if they
had that opportunity. The first was a woman whose two children had
been playing in the front of the hall. “Ask any mother”,
she said, “if she would throw her children into the sea to
save herself. Please…” The second was a young man who
captained the “Tigers” a soccer team of young Afghan
refugees. “Mr Howard,” he said playfully, “you
won your election because of us. We helped you, now you owe us.”
Echoing both his own Asian cultural value of a debt of honour,
and our Aussie sense of fairness, he hit the mark. Before the 2001
election, the arrival of a pitiful boatload of refugees altered
the course of the nation and government policies. As we approach
another election, that memory causes us to search deep in our hearts.
It was possible because we were not allowed to know the refugees.
We could not see their faces. But if we are going to find our way
forward as a nation we must know them.
In these past three years, community groups, moved by the faces
of asylum seekers, have mushroomed everywhere - Rural Australians
for Refugees, A Just Australia, Children out of Detention, Hotham
Mission, Fitzroy Learning Centre, church groups, local councils.
Like you in your own fields, I am sure, they all have one simple
method, one simple starting point. They know the asylum seekers.
They meet them. They know their faces.
This solidarity has made a sea change. The Coalition has been forced
to soften its policies. I wish we could say it has abandoned its
policies. I rather fear it has only shelved them. The Australian
Labor Party, the instigators of mandatory detention, is also careful
how it moves now. Too timid in the last election to challenge the
government on border protection, Labor is forced now to espouse
a more ethical and humanitarian line.
What prevents us from seeing the faces of those in need? People
are overwhelmed by numbers, unsettled by change, and their hearts
are closed by fear.
First, the numbers. In today’s world, people are on the move
everywhere. Rich countries face a ‘crisis’ of asylum.
Because of globalisation in travel and communications, asylum seekers
can now arrive anywhere. They are an enduring reality. No nation
today is untouched by refugees, even remote and insular Australia.
When asylum seekers are so many and so distant it is immensely hard
for us to engage with their lives.
Secondly change paralyses. Globalisation generates change. Local
banks, local stores, post offices get closed without explanation.
The result is uncertainty. The arrival of new peoples also changes
society, particularly if they have different appearances, different
cultural ways, and different religions. In such situations governments
have two options: either they can show leadership, and manage change,
or they can blame an external threat or the victims, and appeal
Fear is the third factor. The post Tampa, post 9/11 election was
fear driven. Fear continued just long enough to win. Now we can
see through it. Yet ‘children overboard’ still hovers
in this election, a hollow and ‘dark victory’, a debt
still to be repaid. It was a flawed executive exercise of power,
an appeal to fear at a time when leadership was called for, a reversal
of the ways we want to be there for one another as Australians.
What remedy can we propose to the paralysis of overwhelming numbers,
the uncertainty of change and the blindness of fear? May I propose
that first we need leadership. Second, we must know those whom we
help. Third, we need policies that combine realism and compassion.
First we need leadership. Among the two million Indochinese refugees
who were resettled world wide in the 1970s and 80s, many came to
Australia. Community groups then worked hard to overcome the initial
hostile attitudes, which were no different from suspicions of new-comers
today. But then the government showed leadership. It put policies
in place, and in the process many social attitudes changed. Even
when later Australia moved to slow down what threatened to become
a migratory movement, community groups offered leadership in making
Second we need to help individuals, one by one. May I tell a personal
story? Throughout the 1980s I lived in Thailand, working with Jesuit
Refugee Service. Our mission was to accompany, serve and defend
the rights of refugees across Southeast Asia. We met hundreds of
thousands of people in desperate need. Daily we were stretched to
the limit. Once when in a state of near exhaustion, I heard that
a young Vietnamese woman, who had been taken by Thai pirates, was
being held in a remote Thai town. We felt we did not have the knowledge,
skills or energy for this new challenge. But since my agency had
Thai members and a good network in Thailand, we turned to the delicate
task, working together with the Royal Thai Ministry of Interior,
the Thai police, the United Nations, and we managed to rescue her.
Then, with the help of an understanding Australian Immigration official
and the ready support of community groups here, she was brought
to Melbourne. She is now settled here in Melbourne, has a family,
and only years later can we tell her story. Then, and many times
since, I was proud of Australia. And I am proud of the solidarity
offered to refugees by Melbourne. Having experienced the joy of
that woman’s liberation, I would do it again and again for
the rest of my life.
Third, we need policies that are both compassionate and realistic.
The dilemma of international asylum is this: how does a government
offer protection to those who have left their homes in fear of persecution
or danger, and at the same time preserve the integrity of our state
which welcomes them. It would be folly for the government simply
to open our doors to the world. But it is also a folly to ignore
those who seek our help, and to hide our eyes from the root causes
of their flight. It is a folly not to have an efficient, orderly,
and fair way to meet and listen to those who come to us seeking
help. It is a folly to abandon, as Australia has been doing, the
international set of agreements by which nations work together to
assist refugees and to resolve the conflicts that produce refugees.
This assistance cannot be offered through pre-emptive military strikes.
It can only come through constructive engagements at all levels:
in the countries of origin, in the refugee camps along the way,
and at the point of arrival.
Even in this new age of global refugees, the basic principle of
refugee protection still applies. We must not send back into danger
anyone who comes to us seeking safety. It may not seem practical
in the face of all the demands and needs, but it works. It is artificial
to say, “we will not help these people here, because it will
prevent us from helping those other people over there”. We
have to be consistent. If we wish every nation to join in meeting
the needs of refugees, then we must meet those who come to us face
You represent agencies and business at the service of local communities
in our great city of Melbourne. Melbourne is both local and it is
international. Remember how Melbourne erupted when Greece beat Portugal
in the soccer? In this global age we retain a balance if we can
think globally and act locally.
I am telling you nothing new when I say that our world will be
saved by solidarity, not by isolation; by service, not by egoism;
by engagement, not by avoidance. You have already learned that by
your openness to the faces of those in need, your leadership in
discerning those needs, and your engagement in building community.
* Fr Mark Raper is Provincial of the Jesuits for Australia
and New Zealand. He returned to Australia in 2002 after twenty years
abroad in the service of refugees. During the 1980s he lived in
Thailand as director for Asia and the Pacific of Jesuit Refugee
Service (JRS), and from 1990 to 2000 he was based in Rome as International
Director of JRS, an international Catholic agency now at work in
over 50 countries. In 2001 he held a Visiting Chair in the School
of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In 2001
he was named a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia
for his service to refugees. Last week he received the Australian
Council for International Development (ACFID) 2004 Human Rights
Award, in recognition of his thirty years commitment to the advancement
of human rights.
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