A phrase Phil repeated several times – “Afghanistan is a country…not a war” – directs us to people like us, not to a foreign problem to be solved. “Their love for their sons is the same as my love for my sons. The aspirations in their hearts for their kids are the same as I have for mine.”
Phil has mingled with Afghani’s in their country. He has sat down with them and talked and got to know them. “We don’t know the smell and taste of war as they do.” He reflected on Zara, one of whose sons was shot by the Taliban. It wasn’t a handout she was after when Phil was moved to give financial assistance. “Just because you live in oppression doesn’t mean you live without dignity.”
And it doesn’t mean the oppressed live without laughter either. Phil related his experiences of “spending a lot of time laughing” in the company of people whose oppression and deprivation we could not begin to imagine, let alone cope with. Being with them and hearing them leads to knowing them because the humanity they share with us is allowed to shine through.
Phil had much to say about how language and the framing of issues has distorted our way of looking at the realities surrounding asylum seekers, as well as many other aspects of our lives. Phil railed against the de-humanising brought about by re-naming in Australian society: ‘passengers’ now called ‘customers’; residents in nursing homes now called ‘clients’; ‘services’ once offered by banks now pushed as ‘products’. Many relationships are now framed in terms of economic transactions, and people are reduced to consumers to the detriment of the deeper aspects of their humanity.
“Asylum seekers” are re-tagged as “illegals” and treated as such. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. “We have to re-claim the language.”
“There’s something about us and boats!” mused Phil. We have turned them back in boats, but have allowed in by plane seventeen thousand asylum seekers. People-smugglers are on to this anomaly. From us there is no ‘Stop the planes’ movement. It is the desperate ones who traverse the hazardous seas whom we demonize. Our “cruel beliefs” concerning “boat people” add to their desperate plights.
In contrast to the bi-partisan welcoming of Vietnamese refugees following that conflict, Australia now has bi-partisan rejection in place. Phil sought from Malcolm Fraser an opinion as to why Australia went from welcoming to rejecting. Fraser suggested that change began with the economic downturn and the Pauline Hanson effect. Now it is common for many Australians to treat asylum seekers like Taliban, to back policies of deterrence and not protection, which opposes our international obligations let alone our human decency.
Australia spends billions to keep boat people out. (Eight to ten billion dollars is an estimate provided.) Phil said “Australia is not stopping the boats, it is deflecting them.” Some are deflected from the journey to Australia to hazard the Mediterranean. 198,000 refuge seekers are marooned in Malaysia.
In contrast to Australia’s mean spirited exclusion, Phil gave the example of Lebanon which spends eight percent of GDP on refugees. They comprise one quarter of Lebanon’s population. The country has introduced two shifts of teachers to ensure an education for all the children.
Contrast Australia’s approach to children on Nauru. Phil deliberately did not spare the sensibilities of dinner guests when he left us asking why a four year old in detention would draw a guard with an erect penis. “The Royal Commission is rightly looking into child sexual abuse in the eighties. What about today?”
In response to a question concerning the ‘Cambodian solution’ Phil was clear that our law says that we should be settling refugees in our own rich land, not palming them off to one of the poorest on the planet. How can a government neglect its own law? It can do so, and even change its laws to suit its purpose, “only if people let them get away with it.”
“What can we do?” was first up in question time. Be like Pope Francis who constantly emphasises respect and assistance for the most marginalised. Contact your Member of Parliament (in person is best) to advocate for these desperate men, women, and children. Church groups especially should do this. Thirdly, “pray – and do something else as well.”
Phil’s inspiration behind all he had to say was best expressed in his statement “Jesus didn’t put boundaries around his compassion.”
Phil Glendenning has been the Director of the Edmund Rice Centre since its inception in 1996 and is currently the President of the Refugee Council of Australia. He has a background in education, law, political science, and overseas aid and development. Today he is primarily involved in human right advocacy and education, peace and reconciliation work, raising awareness of the impact of climate change on marginalised peoples. For an insightful portrait of Phil read Tracey Edstein’s article in Aurora, May 2014.