On Refugees and how we see them

In France, the question of refugees has become truly pressing only in the last years thanks to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ affecting Europe. Their issues are vastly different to our own decades-long struggle in many ways, including the nature of the refugees, the sudden increase and France’s own cultural and socio-political differences, but the situations are alike in the most vital details: each country is currently dealing with large numbers of genuine asylum seekers who we expect our government to aid according to the human rights convention.

Australia’s island state has prevented us from seeing the same sudden arrival of so many asylum-seekers, as the difficulties of the ocean voyage leads to most refugees being detained and sent to off-shore detention centres for processing before they reach the mainland. In comparison, the most popular tourist destination in the entire world – Paris – is also a makeshift home for up to 3000 refugees. There are the lucky ones, in organised camps, but walking through the city still means walking past whole families tucked onto a doorstep with plastic shopping bags spread over their few belongings to keep off the autumn rain. At Saint-Lazare, one of Paris’ largest stations, the repetitive melody of the metro announcements mingles with the haunting tones of the refugees who wait at the top of the escalators, begging for sympathy from the commuters.

Yet the vast majority of commuters treat these refugees as little different than any of the usual beggars, rarely stopping to toss them a few coins. The most common reason stated for not giving money to beggars on the street is that the would-be giver fears their donation will be wasted on alcohol or illicit substances, as they assume these are the reasons for the beggar’s current state. But with refugees, there’s no evidence to suggest they have any issues apart from being cruelly mistreated by chance and other humans’ selfish actions, and as such, no reason to withhold your spare change. Sadly, though, it is human nature that when confronted with mass suffering, aware we cannot give to everyone in need, we tend to give nothing – justifying it by telling ourselves we can’t save them all.

These are heartbreaking scenes, and unlike what we see in Australia, even though the deplorable conditions of our detention camps and the seemingly endless time periods required for processing prompts many Australians to consider the government’s policies an aberration of human rights. Yet there remains one silver lining in this dark cloud, and that is our maintained interest in the welfare of these displaced peoples. Thanks to our outrage at our government’s policies, there are constant lobbies and protests, and the media continues to report on the conditions. We stay invested in these people kept out of sight on far-away islands in a way that would likely not occur if the same people were lining our city streets with their handwritten cardboard signs.

Gerda Lerner, famous feminist scholar, once noted that it took ‘long periods of organised effort to accomplish any advance in social policy’, and her point is, sadly, very apt. Change of any kind comes gradually, and only when we refuse to give up – and our outrage at human rights violations is exactly what fuels such determination. As much as our government policies may displease us, we can be glad that they have kept us angry, and in doing so, kept us resolved to change the current state of affairs instead of turning away for fear that because we can only make a small difference, it is not worth trying to make a difference at all.

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