Time to look within

Saturday marks the close of Australia’s Refugee Week. A week that began just days after our government expensively settled a class action – litigation that alleged its negligent treatment and unlawful detention of refugees – and that ends today with debate about the government’s proposed changes to citizenship law.

It was a week that incorporated World Refugee Day on Tuesday, a day conceived in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a convention born from the profound and murderous convulsions of World War II. It was also a week in which our planet experienced greater numbers of refugees and displaced people than at any time since the war’s end in 1945.

It was a week in which the RAAF suspended flights over Syria, after a United States jet shot down a Syrian one, and Russia declared international coalition jets fair game west of the Euphrates. This might remind us that we’ve committed our military to complex and bloody convulsions in the Middle East but have great trouble in accepting those fleeing it.

At the end of Refugee Week, Australia is lobbying for a three-year position on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Elections are in November, and we’re competing – as if it were an Olympics bid – with France and Spain for one of two positions. We are agitating for a position on a council that includes China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines – states that, respectively, imprison artists, stone adulterers and sanction mass murder. But this seems a good reason to join, rather than reject, the council.

At the end of Refugee Week, a week marked by official platitudes and empty sentiment, we might face the consequences of our own policies. Our policy of offshore processing includes a history of torturous and negligent detention. A history of handballing responsibility to the client states hosting the policies we conceived and fund. A history of blaming and defaming those employed in the camps, who now seek medication to sleep at night after bandaging the slashed wrists of children and cutting men from nooses.

As we lobby for the council, we might regard the little reported judgement the UN made on our treatment of Abdalrahman Hussein. A Syrian asylum seeker, he arrived by boat in November 2012. Released to the community, he was arrested a year later after becoming agitated when he received a call from his brother informing him that their mother was killed by a suicide bomber. It is alleged police mistook his broken English in a later call to them to mean he was himself a suicide bomber. After a spell in hospital, he was returned to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, where he remains. The government has said that his detention results from visa issues. But in April the UN declared there was an “arbitrary deprivation of liberty”.

It is a fine country that can openly contest its values. We are such a country. But at the end of Refugee Week, we might contest them more honestly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2017 as "Time to look within".

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