The drowning of compassion

I was trying to explain the problem of asylum seekers to my 7 year old today.  It wasn’t easy.

Miss 7: “What are asylum seekers, mum?”

Me: “They’re people who are escaping from terrible situations in their own countries – like wars – and they’re asking us for help. So we lock them up.”

Miss 7 (with withering scorn, worthy of a teenager): “Can’t we just let them in?? They’re just from another country. It’s not like they’re going to invade us.”

It’s almost hard to add anything to that. The hysteria surrounding asylum seekers is incomprehensible to me. The idea of demonising people who have escaped from horrors worse than any nightmare is just so breathtakingly, devastatingly wrong that I can’t process it. It makes no sense. And to use them for political advantage, the way successive governments have repeatedly done – well. The mind doesn’t even boggle. It just crawls into a corner and rocks, whimpering.

You can try, as politicians have done, to turn it into a moral war against people smugglers. Against the appalling conditions that people suffer in trying to get here. You can argue that it’s about saving lives. But as long as there are traumatic conditions elsewhere, people will try to come here. People will ask for help. You can’t police every kilometre of every coastline and stamp out the people smuggling trade – there is demand. There will be supply.

So here’s a radical thought. Why don’t we learn from my 7 year old? Why don’t we actually make it easier to come here? In the past we have called asylum seekers queue jumpers, notwithstanding the fact that there is no queue. For most of these people, there is no legal, safe way for them to apply for asylum until they reach our borders. So why don’t we setup queues? People will try to come here. Why don’t we help them?

We have this terrible fear of being overrun, whether it’s by the yellow peril, the darkies, or the purple skinned. But here’s the thing – people don’t choose to leave their homes lightly. To abandon their friends, families, lifestyle and language – it’s not a step they take on a whim. Australia has it pretty good, I don’t deny, but I don’t believe for a moment that the rest of the world would leap here if they could.

I’m not suggesting we have no rules – we could still process asylum seekers’ claims and try to determine whether they have a justifiable fear of persecution, and whatever other rules we work on (although a little more compassion would not go astray). But why force them onto rickety wooden boats that sink at the slightest wave, in order to apply? Setup real queues, as close as possible to the major troublespots. Actually seek to help people. Show real compassion.

Sure, there are refugee camps where people can seek help from organisations such as MSF and Oxfam. But there is clearly a huge sense of desperation among people who can’t find the queue, and need help. Why don’t we seek them out? Put the people smugglers out of business by reaching out with compassion to the poor, the persecuted, and the desperate.

Now that’s something I’d be happy to explain to my kids!

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3 thoughts on “The drowning of compassion

  1. Joe

    In fact, I have to think that the cost of establishing positive application and queue management in likely target zones has gotta be similar to or less than the current overhead of extra patrols and people facilities.

    Mind you, someone with a genuine fear-for-safety in their own country may well still want to exit their country (even in dangerous circumstances) rather than stick around for “local” application processing.

    1. lindamciver

      Hey Joe,

      Yes, I think you’re right about the cost – quite apart from the ethics/morality, I suspect it would be a much cheaper solution (plus allowing people to keep whatever they are currently paying to people smugglers). And you’re also right that it’s never going to solve everyone’s problem. But I reckon it would make a positive difference. It’s worth a try, surely?

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