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Middle ground lost in refugee debate

Stock image courtesy of New Times
WITH THE refugee ‘issue’ in Australia, it seems like you can only be ‘bleeding heart’ pro or a ‘get lost, we’re full’ against – or so most media outlets, bumper stickers and political powers would have us believe.

Three Australians keen to invest in a more constructive dialogue are Darren Hassan, Brad Chilcott and Benson Saulo.

They have found their paths crossing over the issue of what it means to be Australian, and what a ‘fair go’ looks like.

Darren Hassan, after participating in SBS’s four part documentary, Go Back to Where You Came From¸ came away from the experience affected spiritually, but labelled as a racist by the greater part of Australia’s online community.

Brad Chilcott, an Assemblies of God pastor and founder of Welcome to Australia, grew tired of the brewing unwelcome and ‘policy-over-people’ based discussions around asylum seekers.

Benson Saulo, the first Indigenous Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations, has spent the past few months on his tour of engagement, with the focus solely on a unified Australia – for all who arrive on our shores, no matter how or when they arrived.

The three find themselves on the compassionate side of moderation and frustrated at the inability to dialogue with any sense of dignity – for their own points of view, and dignity for the people their opinions involve.

For 42-year-old Darren Hassan, Go Back to Where You Came From changed his understanding of, “how massive and complex the issue really is; I think it’s given me more information on how sad it is,” he told New Times, the magazine of the Uniting Church in South Australia.

The series saw six ordinary Australians agree to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers.

They embarked on a confronting 25-day journey tracing, in reverse, the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia.

An ex-Army officer, Mr Hassan was shocked to emerge from the documentary series to find himself an easily recognised,
and largely disliked, personality because of his outspoken, unemotional on-screen persona.

“I’m not anti-refugee, but I think there should be order and control.

“I vehemently oppose people getting on a boat, but it doesn’t mean I hate them.

I had plenty of people, hiding from a safe place online, calling me a racist.

I don’t understand that or find it intelligent.

“I try and look at things practically and politically.

“With all the millions of refugees we agree to assist with the UN Charter – although I think we should be taking more through the humanitarian program – we need to be practical, we need a place to put them and we need a plan to integrate them.”

“We need to be able to have a balanced discussion.

“I’m not an expert on this, I’m just a guy who was thrown into a scenario on TV and asked to share my views and experience.”

Thirty-two-year-old Brad Chilcott founded Welcome to Australia in 2010 in a bid to stem the simmering culture of unwelcome against refugees in general, but against so-called ‘boat people’ in particular.

“I think the volume of the whole debate is disproportionate – these people are being used as a political football.”

Mr Chilcott, considered a ‘bleeding heart’, is clear that the 42 million refugees in the world can’t all be settled in Australia.

“I don’t think anyone on the left or compassionate end of the issue thinks that we can, or should, put them all up here,” he said.

“When they come into our area of international responsibilities, they should be treated as human beings.

“They should stay, or go, feeling like they were valued as human beings, that their human rights were upheld and that their
humanity was valued.

“I think the issue with the media and political debate is that it operates in a register where everyday Australians wouldn’t
naturally talk about politics.

“The whole debate is about numbers and boats and refugee conventions.

Australia, largely, doesn’t engage in that.

“When the media shows that all sides of political parties can’t agree, Australians have a tendency to think that there is no solution.

“The general population, and the church, are reluctant to say there is a solution because the major players haven’t come
together on one.”

For Benson Saulo, it’s the idea of a fair go that is a large part of how he believes we can move towards a unified Australia.

He’s not out to reinvent the wheel, he just wants to see organisations already at work, working more eff ectively for a holistic approach that works.

A 23-year-old professional, Mr Saulo has been the poster boy for Indigenous employment, but that’s not the role he’s taking on as a representative to the UN.

His engagement base is broader than Indigenous issues, though they are a key part of his focus work.

A firm believer that education is a critical part to sound and holistic human rights, Mr Saulo said that to push forward together as Australians is to embrace diversity.

“I’m looking at what’s happening in policy and practice,” he said.

“With Indigenous aff airs and with asylum seekers, this is the stuff where political leaders need to be bipartisan.

“People have wanted to become a reconciled nation, bridging all sorts of inequalities.

“We want leaders who are mature enough to form joint partnerships to create solutions – not just use reconciliation as a
political power play.”

Largely, the problem in discussing the issue is that the rhetoric being used is recycled, and often quite offensive.

Imagine a refugee who, after escaping a war-ravaged country to try to make a new life here, reads the ‘get lost, we’re full’ bumper stickers and feels that hostility endorsed by stares, rhetoric and racist attitudes.

Part of engaging a broader cross-section of opinions is allowing for the language usage to change and the name-calling and political show-boating to stop.

It might even mean caring more about why asylum seekers came here than how.

It’s not as simple as being ‘for’ or ‘against’ refugees – there’s a very large spectrum in between the two which must be explored with intellect, compassion and generous spirits.

Then we might manage to uphold, with integrity, Australia’s belief in a ‘fair go’.

This article first appeared in New Times

Photo : Stock image courtesy of New Times