This poem was penned by a young man who spent more than three years in an Australian immigration detention centre. It was written many years ago ‒ a significant and salient reminder that the abuse of human rights towards people seeking asylum has been going on for far too long in Australia.
Last month, we heard the cry of a mother unable to bury her 26-year-old son. He had died by suicide on Nauru and the authorities refused to release his body. As her son lies on a slab in a refrigerator, unable to even find the peace of a grave, she cries out "Are you afraid of our dead bodies? Why do you hate us so much?" This, after more than five years in detention. Nothing more eloquently defines cruelty as this mother's grief-stricken cry for her dead son. Yet this cruelty is funded by Australian taxpayers and it leaves all of us diminished.
The impacts of this policy also radiate beyond our immediate region. Recently, I returned to Afghanistan to monitor the safety of failed asylum seekers who had been returned by Australia as part of the Edmund Rice Centre's Deported To Danger project. Over the past decade and a half, we have discovered that 31 people sent back by Australia have been killed. Despite nearly two decades of war, perhaps because of it, we at the Edmund Rice Centre have never seen the situation as bad as it is today.
This time, we met a man who lived in Australia for seven years. He is an Hazara; a member of the most persecuted minority in Afghanistan who had worked previously as a driver for the military and was threatened by the Taliban. In Australia, he worked as a painter in a capital city. We saw his Australian tax records and photos of his work and life in Australia. And yet he was rounded up by immigration authorities and sent back to Kabul, now the most dangerous part of Afghanistan and recently declared an ongoing conflict zone by the United Nations and the International Organisation for Migration. Since he has been back, he has seen his mosque bombed, his children's school attacked and he is too scared to leave the house. He should never have been sent back.
We have reached a point in our national life when organised cruelty towards some of the most vulnerable people on the planet has become acceptable public policy. It will be remembered for generations. I strongly believe that within the next decade an Australian prime minister will rise in the parliament and offer a national apology for the harm that has been done in our name to people seeking asylum and their families. There will be compensation to be paid and rightly so, because this is happening on our watch and none of us can say we did not know.
What has made this ongoing cruelty possible is the deliberate manipulation of the Australian people to believe that compassion is a form of weakness. The Australian Minister for Home Affairs recently stated that one act of compassion towards an asylum seeker will lead to people smugglers sending more boats. At this point we have really hit a wall. The flawed and confused belief at work here is that asylum seekers create people smugglers. The truth is that smugglers respond to a situation when countries and nation states who wage war are unable to assist the people they have gone to liberate. We continually send people back who are genuine refugees. We know that, because many who have been sent back have been killed. This is not only in breach of the Refugee Convention, it is a breach of Australian domestic law and a fundamental breach of any principles of basic human decency. There are regionally-based alternatives to the current cruel policies, successfully used after the Vietnam War, but they do not suit the current fear-of-the-other domestic political debate.
Currently, we are faced with an ugly ignoble truth that many countries in the Western world are increasingly determining that people fleeing persecution are to be as feared as much as those from whom they are escaping. Asylum seekers and refugees in the US, Australia and parts of Europe are treated as if we are at war with them. Increasingly the response to asylum claims is not to examine their veracity and offer protection to those found to have claims that are valid; instead protection is being replaced with punishment.
There is a deeper question here. Determining that compassion is a form of weakness represents a fundamental undermining of the standards upon which civilisation is based.
I find it ironic that many of those who are crying out loudly for Western civilisation to be lauded and uncritically taught at universities are often the very same people advocating such punishing policies towards refugees ‒ policies that undermine the very best traditions and heritage of Western civilisation: the rule of law, equality before it, respect for human life, human rights and democracy.
So in the face of this reality, these are challenging times for the Catholic Church in Australia. It would be easy, in the wake of the Royal Commission and its findings for the Church to withdraw from the public sphere and quietly go about doing good work in education, health and social welfare. Yet, this is precisely not the time for the Church and Church people to go quiet.
As shocked as we all were by the Royal Commission's findings, if we are serious about the values of our faith, then we need to find voices anew to proclaim those values wherever they are threatened. When compassion for the vulnerable is publicly portrayed as weakness, we have a job to do. We need a strong eloquent Catholic voice defending and promoting the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable, including Indigenous peoples, refugees and people seeking asylum. By standing with those at the edges of our society offering true witness, we will find a way forward, not just for the Church, but for the nation itself. More importantly, it is simply the right thing to do.
The anonymous young asylum seeker who wrote the poem called for the sleep of those who are dead to his cries to be disturbed. In order to do this we need to reclaim compassion in Australia as the fundamental civilising strength societies like ours need to prosper and thrive.
Brother Philip Pinto put this best when he spoke to a Christian Brothers school assembly in New York: "It is futile for earthbound humanity to cling to the dark and poisoning superstition that our world ends at the nearest hill, is bounded by the river shore, and is enclosed in the tight circle of those who share our town, our views and the colour of our skin. It is the task of our educators, our young people – and indeed all people of good will – to work together to strip the last remnants of that ancient cruel belief from the fabric of humankind".
Today, this remains our task.
Martin Luther King used to say that "the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice". Despite tragedy, suffering and cruelty in our world today, that remains true, but it has always taken people of compassion and humanity to do the bending. Time to blow on those clay whistles.