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Putting the ‘human’ back into refugee protection

In 2013 while leading a large community based programme for refugees and asylum seekers in Sydney, I witnessed the narrative about refugees turn from humanitarian rescue and welcome to border protection and deterrence. People seeking asylum by boat became known as illegal, rescuing people seeking asylum by sea became a fight against people smugglers, and Mohammed became known as CLC055.

I then witnessed people seeking asylum being sent to Nauru and Manus Island, detained and labelled as illegals or potential terrorists. This was accompanied by a narrative that Australia could not be responsible for all refugees and that we had already done enough. It was not our problem and we had to stop people dying at sea. The humanity of refugee protection had been removed.

In 2016 I had the opportunity to live and work in Nauru running a program of support for refugees to integrate into the Nauru community while they awaited resettlement by the Australian Government. I went there to meet the people subject to our offshore processing policy, the people subject to this dehumanised narrative.

I met fathers, brothers, mothers, children, aunties, uncles, orphans; people who had horrific stories of fleeing violence, death, persecution and who additionally had horrific stories about travelling by sea to reach Australia because they had no hope in the UNHCR resettlement system. Time and time again I had people tell me stories about how they simply were trying to create a better life for themselves and their family, one without fear and persecution. They had no hidden agenda and did not know what they had done wrong.

I also met Nauruans who were kind, generous and welcoming towards me, my family and the refugee community. They too shared a desire for a good life, one without fear or persecution. Yet they struggled with poverty and constant international judgement of their country and its offer of refuge to Australia’s asylum seekers. Yes there were Nauruans who were violent and disrespectful towards refugees just as there were refugees who were violent and disrespectful towards Nauruans.

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” – Mahatma Gandhi

What I saw in Nauru was similar to what I saw in Sydney – humans with similar hopes and dreams trying to create better lives for themselves and trying to reconcile difference and politically motivated fears. I also saw people reacting in fear to what was unknown and different and this sometimes played out in hostility. These acts should not be cause to ignore our innate responsibilities to all humans. It was within this context that I had the opportunity to establish HOST International with a vision for helping communities to overcome these challenges and to keep the focus on every day people doing something to help others in need.

The principle of HUMANITY has been central to the evolution of HOST’s vision. We believe that humanity is about stripping away the politics, fears and difference to focus on what we have in common as human beings. It means helping people access their basic human rights and a sense of identity that is unifying and supports belonging. In practice this means that we are prepared to put politics aside and work with various stakeholders to understand and identify common needs and to activate the community in response. In Nauru the common need was to live in harmony with each other in a small island nation and to make the most of the experience.

I have faced judgement for my work in Nauru and been accused of enabling this unfair regime. However, I believe that humans have a duty to respond when other humans are in need. This includes ensuring that basic human rights are maintained and assisting those who are unable to meet their own basic needs due to circumstances outside of their control. Refugees in Nauru had become voiceless due to their removal from Australia and indefinite detention in Nauru.

Nauruans needed support to integrate refugees who made up 10 per cent of the island’s population. We provided a bridge between these needs in a way that ultimately helped people to survive the experience and to have gained some skills and strength along the way. We did not do this by holding hands or providing charity, but instead by empowering communities to build constructive relationships and to co-design solutions to their needs. We have now taken this work to other communities in the Asia Pacific.

As we head into another federal election I am comforted to see the announcement of the Choose Humane campaign by the Refugee Council of Australia calling for a more humane approach to seeking asylum and refuge. In some ways I understand why the decision was made to re-introduce the offshore processing program in 2013 as a circuit breaker for the uncontrollable boat arrivals at the time, however the resolution for the people subject to it has been long overdue. Furthermore, rather than delivering a sustainable solution, it has permitted other countries to also introduce arbitrary policies in the name of border protection and citizen safety.

It is time for a return to policy that is focussed on our human obligations and understanding the impact on people’s lives in the long term. There are refugees and Nauruans who will be profoundly affected by Australia’s activities for many years to come. We must take time to reflect on how this could have been done better and what the right thing to do is for the refugees still languishing in uncertainty. The refugees who have been subject to offshore detention have done their time and paid the price. It is therefore time to bring an end to this journey for those who have been found to be refugees and provide them with their international right to protection, wherever that may be.

Recent religious motivated atrocities in Christchurch and Sri Lanka only reinforce the need to stop using a language of war and to bring the conversation back to one of human decency. What a great time to appeal to politicians in Australia to rethink the approach of the last six years and to choose a more humane approach both here in Australia and in our region!

“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein
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