Bill Hoffman, staff.Photo Lisa Williams153801
Bill Hoffman, staff.Photo Lisa Williams153801

OPINION: Refugee policy shames us all for our silence

OUT at Cherbourg they have the Ration Shed, a museum that chronicles a reality most Australians choose to ignore.

Yet there remain many of us who become at first defensive then aggressive when challenged by the truth of white settlement, the frontier wars and the policy of government that resulted in First Australians being slaughtered or removed from their country and incarcerated.

So controlled were the lives of those who lived on Cherbourg, a settlement that included aborigines dragged from locations all over Queensland, that permission had to be sought to leave its perimeters for any reason.

The history of the treatment of the indigenous population post white settlement cannot be denied despite the strenuous efforts over time to ignore it or to diminish its telling as part of our national story.

We continue to struggle to accept ongoing problems of poverty, health, education and life expectancy among indigenous communities stem from that past, unable or unwilling to apply a perspective not informed solely by our individual experience.

It is part of this country's DNA, perhaps even more so than some of the great myths we celebrate around our involvement in foreign conflicts.

From any perspective other than our own, since the 1960s Australia's engagement in war has been as an invader, a member of coalitions that have wreaked havoc from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

A period of momentary clarity saw our doors open for refugees from Vietnam.

Recent history is less enlightened.

The global humanitarian crisis now playing out as people attempt to escape the carnage created in part by the Coalition of the Willing of which we were part, has exposed ugly truths about our national character.

On Manus Island and on Nauru successive Australian governments have again incarcerated people against their will whose only crime was to ask our help.

How quick were we to accept as reality the myths of children overboard, queue jumpers and illegals and to reach for misinterpretations of the Koran and Biblical passages to justify the unjustifiable, and then to look away?

And how quick were politicians to mine ignorance for votes rather than to acknowledge our actions have had consequences for which we were being asked to accept - compared with Europe - just a minor responsibility?

Fortunately good people have always been willing to stand up and not only call naked emperors for the fools they are but to also reach out a helping hand.

On the Sunshine Coast the refugee support group Buddies, its membership drawn from every section of the community strongly supported by the Anglican and Catholic churches, has stood up.

It has not only challenged the evil of racism and xenophobia, but reached out to refugees opening their home to people others demonise.

During the last school holidays Muslims from six different countries and their families were billeted in Sunshine Coast homes for a week of language and cultural immersion.

They arrived with eyes hooded, nervous of what to expect, cautious to have any expectation beyond the twilight zone to which they have been condemned by Australia's refusal to honour the international agreements to which it is a signatory.

Buddies Refugee spokesman Fergus Fitzgerald - an engineer who has worked across the globe - described the week as like watching plants flower.

By day three people who culturally were reserved to the point of not being able to make eye contact not through deviousness but respect, opened themselves up to not only be hugged but to hug.

Meanwhile on Manus Island and Nauru successive Australian governments have spent billions to provide no hope and the most basic of living conditions, suspending in limbo people foolish enough to think we would care.

Such is the despair that comes from the absence of hope that immolation and suicide have become means of escape.

The decision of the PNG Supreme Court to find the Manus Island facility in breach of its constitution, illegally denying freedom to people who have done no wrong under PNG law, should be the circuit breaker that allows a reset of asylum seeker policy.

That will only happen however when ordinary Australians stand up and demand our politicians deliver policy that represents the best, rather than the worst, of our national character.

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