World Refugee Day: Messages of Warmth

By · 20 June, 2017 · Features, News
Many people, looking back on their family history, will see someone who sought safety. A great-grandmother who delivered her children to safety during the World Wars, a soldier granted political asylum because he didn’t want to kill, or a family fleeing persecution in their home country. Asylum affects us all. In fact, modern societies are based on planned migration and the contributions of people grateful to be welcomed into their new home. World Refugee Day offers a timely opportunity to reflect on the contributions of refugees, to celebrate their courage, and to reflect on small things we can all do to welcome those seeking safety.

Australians love giving back to their community. We give blood, even though we will never meet the person who we help. We volunteer, we welcome tourists and we donate. Yet this has not translated to the discussion on refugees. To many, the magnitude of asylum can make it a daunting issue, and meaningful actions to help seem hard to find. Last year, there were 65.6 million people forcibly displaced throughout the world while, at home, there has been international criticism of Australia’s refugee policy as cruel and inhumane.

Yet, the need for acceptance and embracing different cultures is stronger now than ever and humanity can be found and created where it’s lacking. It must be embedded in every conversation we have. Part of that is telling the stories of bravery that refugees have, and listening. There are many Australians, from Anh Do, to Majak Daw, to Dr Karl who have powerful stories to tell. Part of that is supporting community organisations that advocate for refugees and celebrate their stories.

But empathy doesn’t need to be a visceral understanding of the horrors of war, of watching loved ones die or being forced to leave them behind, of the everyday struggles of adopting a new culture, or even of systematic discrimination. Sometimes, it is just a smile and a welcoming attitude. Little things like this mean a lot. Even empathising and having an open conversation with someone who sees the issue as black and white, or skims over the suffering of refugees, is powerful.

A critical issue is that the current conversation is awash with misinformation and popular myths that dehumanise the issue. Here are some common ones to understand:

Myth: Harsher policy sends a message to people smugglers and terrorists.

No domestic refugee policy has a material impact on the number of refugees seeking asylum. The message, from academics to former ISIS prisoner Nicolas Henin, to Pope Francis, to the UNHCR, is clear – showing unity and humanity to refugees is the best protection against terrorism and fear.

Myth: Refugees are flooding Australia.

Australia accepts less than 0.5% of the world’s refugees annually. Current refugees make up less than 0.003% of the Australian population.

Myth: Refugees receive more benefits than other Australians.

89% of the benefit rate is paid to asylum seekers that are sometimes forced to depend on it, due to having work and study rights refused. Many have no access to Medicare or public housing.

Myth: Refugees as queue jumpers.

International obligations here are clear – persons with a well-founded fear of persecution may seek safety without discrimination, and their rights must be protected. The UNHCR system doesn’t operate like a queue, though Australia offers a limited number of visas. The process is based on criteria and every valid claim should be accepted as soon as possible.

Myth: Many refugees are illegal immigrants.

Seeking safety is a basic human right. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are people from the US and UK who have overstayed their visa.

Myth: Refugees are dangerous and potential terrorists.

The risk to Australians by refugees is extremely minute. Refugees take a perilous and often deadly path to seek safety, in order to escape from conflict and persecution, rather than taking part in it.

Myth: We should be helping our disadvantaged first.

The two issues are not linked. Australia has the capacity to deal with both. Further, humane processing of refugees is far more cost effective and the economic and social contribution of refugees is extensive. 

Sharing these simple truths is a powerful message. I encourage everyone to stand #withrefugees this World Refugee Day.

World Refugee Day is June 20th; find out more here.

For more myth-busting truths about asylum seekers and refugees, check out the UN Refugee Agency and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

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