WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
By Dr Paul Hine, Principal, Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.
Refugee Week was the focus of a recent College assembly, providing an opportunity to educate our young men about the plight of some of the most disadvantaged, destitute and forsaken men, women and children on earth.
Refugees do not leave their places of residence of their own volition: they do so to escape war, persecution, human rights violations or natural disasters. There are currently in excess of 117 million forcibly displaced people in the world – a staggering figure that goes beyond the capacity of the imagination to comprehend. Of that number, 61.5 million are internally displaced, while 35.5 million are currently seeking shelter in foreign countries.
A further 10 million are actively seeking asylum and/or in need of international protection as a result of the risk of staying inside their country of birth. Sadly, 40% of all forcibly displaced persons (43.3 million) are children. This is a shocking indictment on humanity. There is an old cliche? that holds true in this most distressing of situations: the impact on millions can be reduced to a statistic, but the daily reality when viewed from the lens of an individual person is a human tragedy.
What is most disturbing about the global profile of refugees is the relentless increase in numbers – year by year, over the last decade. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of refugees has grown from approximately 43 million in 2012 to 100 million in early 2022, with rapid escalations over the last 18 months due to the war in Ukraine. It is predicted that over the next 18 months alone, no less than five million more will join the endless queues of displaced persons across the globe, if there are no new international crises. There is thus a floating human population who have nowhere to call home – that which provides the security, safety and comfort of daily life in countries like Australia.
The College was fortunate to hear from Shuja Jamal, a refugee from Afghanistan and Head of Policy, Advocacy and Communications at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). He addressed the boys about his own traumatic experience as a casualty of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. For over 40 million people in Afghanistan, six million of whom are refugees, there are generations who do not know what it is to live without the dislocations and privations of war, insecurity, extremism and violence.
Shuja’s story was compelling, for it named the human impact associated with the hardship, fear, terror and lasting psychological distress that is the corollary of life for those affected by such circumstances. This is a deep-seated and pervasive impact that doesn’t diminish once home is left behind; it acts as a shadow and a constant echo in the psyche of those who are affected by it. As much as Shuja’s life has been so severely compromised, in countries such as Afghanistan women and children experience exponential difficulty by virtue of prevailing religious and cultural norms that subordinate them to the ideology of patriarchy.
Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees: an instrument that codifies the international treatment of refugees in accord with human rights. Our record in this area has been less than meritorious, given the history of Manus Island and Nauru as “processing centres” for those seeking asylum. As the third richest nation on earth, Australia has an obligation to respond to the needs of refugees from every hemisphere in the world on a compassionate and humane level to provide homes, employment, security and support.
Compared to other countries such as Türkiye, Iran, Colombia, Germany and Pakistan, who currently house over 13 million refugees, Australia needs to do more. In 2022-23, Australia will accept approximately 20,000 refugees, which given the enormity of the global problem, is less than adequate.
Thankfully, agencies such as Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) assist forcibly displaced people in obtaining protection, opportunity and hope. Each year JRS programmes such as food deliveries, opal card concessions, counselling and employment services support thousands who enter Australia. These are practical and meaningful support services that enable those who have lost so much to resettle and rebuild their lives. JRS also assists 3,000 children annually in various ways through the school’s engagement program, which supports the next generation with the education that is essential to success in the Australian context.
We live in a fractured and broken world. While we take comfort in our own citizenship through the rule of law and democratic freedoms, others are stateless and on the front line of vulnerability. They have no means of protection in their own country and no identity outside of it. Our rhythms and routines of daily life are comfortable, but in tent cities all over the world there is powerlessness and a lack of hope.
I cannot imagine what it must be like as a parent to know that your children are living in fear, denied an education and subjected to trauma. These are the disparate realities that divide us and we need to feel a sense of disquiet, knowing that while we sleep, more people will be forced to move to places that they do not know to escape persecution, violence, war or hunger. While we are citizens of Australia, we are equally citizens of humanity – one that is suffering incalculable hardship each and every day. Beyond the importance of Refugee Week, we need to take stock of our own reality and consider what else we are able to do for that large slice of humanity that is destitute and hurting.
This article was originally published in a recent issue of ‘Viewpoint’, issued by Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.
Feature photo by Ahmed akacha on Pexels.