The UN General Assembly agreed in 2000 that June 20, today, would be celebrated as World Refugee Day. It is designed to be a day on which the world takes time to recognise the resilience of forcibly displaced people throughout the world.
It is good to celebrate. We can often think of people who have had to flee their home country due to war or persecution primarily in terms of their suffering. But so many refugees show themselves to be not only resilient, but incredibly gracious and compassionate, going on to make incredible contributions to the lives of people in their new home countries and around the world.
Did you know authors Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad were refugees? As were actors Andy Garcia, Rachel Weisz, Marlene Dietrich and Jackie Chan, scientist Albert Einstein, artist Peter Carl Faberge, businessman Aristotle Onassis, philosophers Sigmund Freud and Freidrich Nietzsche, and musicians Bob Marley and Freddie Mercury.
High achieving Australians who came here as refugees include comedian Ahn Do, businessman Frank Lowy, academic Dr Anita Donaldson, scientists Sir Gustav Nossal and Dr Karl Kruszlnicki, politician Nick Greiner and AFL footballer Alex Jesaulenko.
We can be so grateful for what these people have contributed to our society, despite the challenges they faced earlier in their lives.
But I admit I find it difficult to celebrate today given the global refugee situation, and more particularly, given the heartbreaking attitude towards refugees in Australian society today, and from both sides of politics.
The UNHCR reported from Geneva today that the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide has exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II.
This is a huge problem; one that we cannot simply turn a blind eye to. Each of these 50 million people is of incredible value, simply because of our shared humanity. They also each have the potential to contribute so much value to the rest of us, if only we can help them find a place to live out their resilience and compassion.
And yet in Australia we have suspended processing the applications of refugees who have arrived here by boat. We have instead locked these people up in what are basically concentration camps. We have taken away their hope. We have imprisoned over 1000 children. It seems to me that far from dealing with the global problem of refugees, we are adding to it.
And so on World Refugee Day I find myself ashamed of my country. I weep rather than celebrate. We have got this so wrong, and I can only imagine that at some point in the future we will look back on this day with incredulity and deep regret.
The one glimmer of hope in the darkness I see, the only reason I am not despairing today, is the response I see in compassionate and passionate people who are standing up saying “Not Good Enough” and “Not In My Name.” Who are advocating for a better political response to this crisis, and who are willing to pay a high price to make sure their voices are heard.