The figures are horrific: today, the world faces the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, as of June 2015 almost 60 million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes.
One in every 122 people on the planet is either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum: a figure equal to the world’s 24th most populous nation. (Australia, by way of comparison, is ranked 51st out of 200 countries.)
Out of a total Syrian population of just under 22 million, a staggering 7.6 million people have been internally displaced and a further four million have left the country as refugees. The flood is unabated.
The astronomical statistics can numb the reader, but behind the cold figures are the individual tragedies of millions of human beings who have fled persecution, war, famine, and even genocide.
Their suffering is beyond our experience …
Their suffering is beyond our experience, but none of us lack the mental faculty of empathy, and with a little imagination we can put ourselves in their shoes.
Sadly, too, half of the world’s refugees are children. The shocking photograph of a gendarme cradling the drowned body of little Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach should be etched into our brains.
Nor should we forget that poor man, a father himself, who retrieved the little corpse. Nor should we forget that little Alan was just one child out of untold thousands who have died.
Just as shocking as that child’s death were the malicious and unfounded claims that his father was a people smuggler; claims which have their basis in fear, ignorance, and racism.
The unfortunate events on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other German cities have unfortunately fed xenophobic and even racist fears about asylum seekers. The mob attacks on German women and girls were inexcusable and the perpetrators deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law—and deported.
Let us not forget, however, that the Middle Eastern and North African gangs responsible represent only a tiny fraction of the 1.1 million recently-arrived asylum seekers in Germany. Most asylum seekers, regardless of religion, gender or ethnicity were horrified.
Moreover, lest we think that violence against women is something particular to the Middle East, let us remember that 1 in every 3 German women and girls have been sexually assaulted, overwhelmingly by white males. This point was made by German women who protested both the violence and the attempt by the far right to scapegoat whole categories of people.
The role of the West in destabalisation …
We should remember, too, the role of Western countries in the destabilization of the Middle East.
While the roots of the present crisis can be traced back to the actions of imperialist powers in the aftermath of the First World War, many of the precipitating factors are of much more recent vintage.
These include in particular the ill-judged and even criminal invasion of Iraq, which destroyed a state and transformed the region’s tiny band of Islamist fanatics into an international terrorist threat.
It is, alas, all too easy to demonize asylum seekers whose language, dress, and customs are different to ours; to forget our shared humanity.
This is why Heather Kirkpatrick’s great documentary film, “Mary Meets Mohammed” ( Waratah Films, Hobart, 2013 TT HERE ) is well worth viewing.
The film tells of how Mary, an aging Tasmanian battler, meets Mohammed, a young Hazara man who has fled death and persecution in his native Afghanistan.
Mary, initially fearful and hostile to the asylum seekers in the nearby detention centre, comes to see Mohammed not as an alien “Other”, but as a human being worthy of her respect and sympathy. In the end, she comes to love him like a grandson.
Every Tasmanian should see this film.
*John Tully was appointed as Honorary Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne following his retirement last year. He is the author of nine books, including six non-fiction historical works and three novels, the latest of which, Robbed of Every Blessing, is set in Van Diemen’s Land after the Napoleonic Wars. His latest non-fiction work, Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties was published last November in New York and tells the story of the dispossession of the American Indians in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley. John was born in the UK but emigrated to Tasmania with his parents as a child. Today he spends as much time as he can at his holiday house in the Central Highlands.
• James Dryburgh, Right Now: Australia, Becoming the Other ...Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński spent his life immersed in human conflicts all over the world. Reflecting upon decades of observation, he concluded that the Self is not a solitary individual – its composition includes the Other. In simple terms we use the concept of “Other” to distinguish between ourselves and those of different traits – such as nationality, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Since the Howard era, collective Australia, “public Australia”, has been obsessed with negative perceptions of the Other and in doing so has damaged the Australian Self. Heading toward the 2001 federal election and fearing defeat, Prime Minister John Howard embedded a strong concept of the Other into our public language with the now infamous words: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” We heard the clear implication that “boat people” (they) are not like us. The Other was demonised with parroted lies about children being tossed overboard by “the kind of people we don’t want in Australia.” At least since the time of Plato, it has been understood that for politicians it is easier to pander to our inherent vices than to harness our virtues. It is also well known that when fear increases, society becomes more conservative …