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Different worlds: refugees and security in Australia and South Sudan

Posted by on December 21, 2013 at 7:25 AM

I’ve just arrived back in Australia after two years away. I have the good fortune to have been born here, and the luxury (finances permitting) of coming whenever I like.

Australia oozes a sense of comfort. As always, a beautiful country it is still a land of opportunity. A coffee is extortionately priced, but given that this is my only complaint about day to day living since I’ve been home, things can’t be too rough.

Comfort for some, I should say. A country built on immigration, a country once internationally regarded for its good global citizenship and human rights record, is becoming increasingly miserly in our treatment of those seeking refuge here from persecution, insecurity and violence.

I noticed on Facebook yesterday a Christmas cartoon that pointedly portrays the way we use walls to try and strengthen our security. Australia may not have built a physical wall, but it does have a treacherous expanse of sea that it exploits. And then we describe those who have put their own lives and the lives of their family at risk to escape persecution as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. The recent New York Times exposé lifts the lid on the myth of boat arrival as any sort of easy option.

A week ago I was in South Sudan, a trip that included five days with the first annual retreat of the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation. The Committee, chaired by the Episcopal Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, is made up of an extraordinary collection of people committed to the task of reconciliation in theirs, the newest country in the world. I hope to write something more specifically on that in due course.

A week later the capital of South Sudan was a scene of brutal violence, with reports of up to 500 dead, including civilians, and leading to some 20,000 civilians seeking refuge at the UN compound. As I watched the news, hoping for an update on the situation, the latest scenes from Syria came in. Hundreds more dead there.

Sometimes within 24 hours of such crises unfolding, Western embassies order their staff out and advise all other nationals to leave immediately. And where do they go? – Many would have a number of options to ensure their physical security. This is the standard we have for our own nationals, and rightly so.

It wouldn’t be realistic to have an equivalent approach to all the people of a country in crisis. However, when people facing this sort of insecurity on a constant basis make the decision to leave everything they know to make an uncertain trip, sometimes across multiple continents, before embarking on an immeasurably more uncertain boat trip towards Australia, we greet them with the label ‘illegal’, and we detain them, including the children.Then we take an eternity to process their applications, while holding them in what the UNHCR describes as ‘inhumane’ conditions, and we assume that they are more likely to be criminals than legitimate refugees and treat them as such.

And we do all this in the name of ‘our’ security. The issues are complex, and perhaps it will be hard to agree on a satisfactory solution, but some of the most fertile minds in the country have now agreed at least that the current approach is definitely not the answer. See here and here.

In South Sudan, people are grappling with an uncertain future. The Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation, along with many others, on the back of the decades’ long civil war that led to independence, is contemplating the road ahead after fresh bloodshed. This is their reality. While here in Australia we still fear boat people seeking asylum; when such people have a history of enriching our country immeasurably.

Maybe the innkeeper in Bethlehem, if he could reflect today on his indifference in turning away Mary and Joseph, would say it made a great story. I wonder what history will say of our indifference in turning away people who thought that Australia held out hope for them. We are trying tooth and nail to erode that hope; the sense that Australia is a place of refuge and a new start. If ever we should succeed, shame on us, because in sacrificing the dignity of others at the altar of so-called ‘national security’, we sacrifice our dignity as a nation.

During the Committee retreat in South Sudan, one morning session was devoted to a reflection on the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Australia as a country has similarly lost its way – will we have the humility to return home?

This blog originally appeared under Global Voices for the Initiatives of Change International website -

Rob Lancaster from Australia was one of the team responsible for training nearly 200 peace and reconciliation mobilizers in South Sudan earlier this year.

Categories: Australia, South Sudan

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