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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 you.

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 to fear.

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 settlement successful.

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 to 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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