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Whatever happened to fair play?

Compassion appears to have been forgotten in the debate on refugees and asylum seekers

  • John Murray, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • May 12, 2011
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What is it about the word “compassion” that we don’t get?

The Australian news this week showed Prime Minister Julia Gillard performing during Question Time in Parliament.  The issue was asylum seekers and a new Australian Government deal with Malaysia to push the problem offshore.  Gillard's line was that she was not going to be schooled by the Opposition on compassion.

For me that is a key word in any approach to this ongoing political "hot potato."  It is much more than an "issue" as here we are dealing with real people.  They are extremely vulnerable and desperate and just seem to be totally misunderstood or unwanted by the world.   They have become an issue for politicians to handle and not a people in need deserving our attention.

I speak as a Catholic priest and religious who has the privilege and honour to work with such people here in Bangkok.  I find a great energy working with and for them as I see people who are desperate and who just need a hand in life.  They suffer so much and I often just stand in awe as I see how they deal with their burden.

Under the deal with Malaysia, Australia will send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing.  In exchange, Australia will resettle 4,000 refugees currently residing in Malaysia over the next four years

This deal has attracted criticism from several quarters.  One is the Bar Council of Malaysia, hardly a left-wing, radical establishment.  It issued its own press release, tellingly titled – “Asylum seekers and refugees are not commodities to be traded”.  Their basic line is that Australia is "passing the buck."

Australia is seen as abdicating its responsibilities as a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on refugees to Malaysia which is not a signatory.  It is passing its responsibilities on to a nation which has no suitable legislative or administrative system in place for dealing with these people and their plight.  This is the judgement of Malaysia’s own Bar Council.

I question that this is any way to deal with people who have fled their country because of war or persecution. They are just plain scared and see no other option than to get out and look for a place where they can be secure and find a life and a future for their family. Their lot is tough and not something they looked for in life.  As a result, they meet with all sorts of opposition and unnecessary maltreatment.

As someone who lives and works outside his home, I often reflect how protected Australia is from the harsh realities of life found not so far away.  We maybe then don’t appreciate the suffering and desperation faced by so many people in the world.

I then think of the Australia I grew up in.  It was the land of a fair go for all and a place where you stood by your mate.  Okay, this was always a myth but it was a myth that energized my Australia. It spoke of good, decent human values of solidarity and compassion, and of opportunity for all.  I now wonder what happened to that Australia.  As I hear the word "compassion" being used in Parliament, I wonder what it is about that word that we just don’t get.

Augustinian Father John Murray works for Caritas Thailand

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