A cursory nod, a closed hand, a blind eye and a dead heart

Margo Kingston
25 October 2001
Sydney Morning Herald

The Howard Government's policy on asylum seekers ties logic up in knots, writes Margo Kingston.

WHEN you sponsor an underprivileged Australian or overseas child, you know you won't make a dent in the overall problem. You do what you can, to give hope to a life. This is the core of the humanitarian instinct. You receive reports on the life and the connection adds meaning to your life. This is a reward for the gift of hope.

Mainstream Australian politics has excised the humanitarian instinct and the reward is an agonising leakage of hope in ourselves.

Our leaders responded with a cursory nod to the news of the death by drowning of hundreds of men, women and children risking life in the quest for hope from us.

Before all the facts were known, before the survivors told their stories, the leaders tore each other to shreds about who was to blame, not for the horror, but for the fact that the boat left Indonesia. They poured their emotion into bitterness for political advantage, none left for the dead or the traumatised survivors or grieving relatives in Australia.

Yesterday morning on the ABC's AM, Mark Willacy asked John Howard this question: 'Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf says his country now has 2.5 million Afghan refugees and he says Australia won't even accept a boatload of 200. Given our involvement in the campaign against terrorism aren't we obligated to maybe accept a few more people that are fleeing this sort of regime?'

Howard replied: 'A few hundred is not going to make a difference when you're dealing with 2.5 million. The way to deal with this problem is to help it at its source, change it at the source, not to imagine that by us taking a few hundred you're going to make any indentation into that huge problem.'

He was not asked to make a difference to 'the problem', he was asked to make a difference to the lives of 200 people on our doorstep, asking for our help.

The Government insists that the humanitarian instinct is self-indulgent. It says people with the means to get on a boat to here rather than wallow in the camps of the damned those who can show us their faces as they ask for our help have no greater claim on our consciences.

What about those who cannot look us in the eye, some of whom are even less safe than those fleeing persecution who can, the Government asks?

To which I respond: Should we eliminate our instincts of compassion and empathy for a persecuted human being who does enter our space? Doesn't that make us less human when we do?

If we turn away, and they die asking us to take another look, is a sense of responsibility an inappropriate human response?

Yes, the refugee crisis is huge, too huge for any country to make a dent in, so huge only the world acting in concert can make a real difference. But the little bits of the problem that enter our orbit and connect with our values become part of our experience, and how we act or not act affects who we are.

At least Howard didn't run the standard argument that the dead were queue jumpers. That label has been ripped off our political justification for what we've done. Millions of refugees in Pakistan and Iran are in no queue. Some of those pay a people smuggler to get them a false Pakistani passport to fly to Indonesia, where funded by Australia the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has assessed 500 people as genuine refugees and put them in a queue for resettlement.

It hasn't moved. In desperation, at least 24 genuine refugees in the immovable queue got on that boat and drowned.

Why did we refuse to take any in the queue until May, when we said we'd resettle a mere 40 with relatives here? (None has come yet.) If we did, says the Government, the people smugglers would bring more refugees to Indonesia and the queue would get longer!

We turn our backs on the refugees who find a way to get near enough to look us in the eye and plead for a future, and if they die still trying for hope, we blame each other for letting them leave the place we won't take them from.

This is where the death of the humanitarian instinct has led us. To dead hearts.

* John Howard's ABC interview can be heard on smh.com.au

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