The refugee opportunity

Last night I had a dream. There had been a global shift in how nation states thought about people displaced by conflict. No longer were they being looked upon as a problem, a burden to be passed on somewhere else like a hot potato, but as an opportunity.

It all started in Australia. Right here. As one solution after another designed to stem the tide of asylum seekers trying to get the country failed, the nation’s leaders had no choice but to listen to advice from people who understood the global situation. There was outcry, of course, from the masses who had bought into the “border security” rhetoric from both sides of politics.

The change had come from a group of thinkers on all sides of politics who had got together behind the scenes and negotiated a different pathway, a bold strategy and ideas of how to market it to the leaders and the public alike.

The key was the realisation that parts of Australia had a need for new people. Small rural towns throughout the country were languishing and dying through a lack of new blood. Young people had been leaving for city opportunities and businesses and jobs were left to die. Over the past few years some towns had been so desperate as to offer land and houses for free to anyone who was willing to move there. Remote areas, especially in the north, were expensive to live in because goods and services had to be brought in from elsewhere.

There was a realisation that we had stopped developing the country too soon. A century ago people were offered land grants to settle new areas and develop new communities. New towns sprang up and agriculture got going and we began our journey as a prosperous nation.

But then we stopped. Unlike the US where there are towns and cities to be found from the east coast to the west, we developed a few centres on the coasts, and then stopped. We didn’t even fill up all the pleasant coastal areas. You can drive for hundreds of miles along the coast of Queensland and pass only a handful of small towns. Sure much of the centre of Australia is desert, water is scarce and soils are poor, but it is a vast country with many areas still not utilised as they could be. Technologies we didn’t have 100 years ago could now enable sustainable agriculture, power and communications.

The strategy involved providing funds and assistance for small towns to develop their communities in ways of their choosing, by resettling refugees. Refugees with required skills, and their families, were provided with land and accommodation, funded by the savings from closing down the detention centres. Skill gaps were filled by Australians given the same kind of grant. Some towns put their first new settlers to work building and refurbishing housing for the next wave. Some focussed on agriculture or particular industries and brought in specialists from the cities to train the new settlers in innovative and sustainable technologies. Renewable energy research and development became a new boom industry.

After the success of the first few towns, interest in the program spread and more rural areas became revitalised. Some took the opportunity to become more self-sufficient producing food and goods that previously had to be brought in from elsewhere. Community farms were popular.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you will join us, and the world will live as one.


Why are there no votes in compassion?

One of the drawbacks of 24-hour on-line news availability is that there is news everywhere you look, and most of it is bad news. Violence, injustice, war and poverty every time you switch on your favourite electronic device. People doing bad things everywhere you look. It’s frightening. And it is challenging for those of us fortunate enough to live where we are safe and warm and well-fed.

On our news today there is the ongoing war in Afghanistan, continuing turmoil in Egypt, violence in the Congo and the war in Syria being described as causing the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide two decades ago. If those refugees try to come to Australia they will find themselves sailing into a political storm that could end in indefinite detention at best or death at sea at worst.

Australians are fiercely divided about how we should respond to people fleeing violence in other countries. As the numbers of people crossing the ocean in leaky boats grows, many dying in the attempt, the issue once again looks set to be a major issue in the upcoming election. Stop the boats. Tow them back. Indefinite detention for those who attempt to come as a deterrent to others. As another boat sinks and more people die, the would-be Prime Minister calls the situation a national emergency. How terrible for us that desperate people come to our doorstep to die. Why don’t they die somewhere else? How dare they remind us of how horrible life can be – elsewhere.

I’m not suggesting we can or should open our borders to anyone who wants to come here. What I would like, however, is for our politicians to stop playing politics with the lives of desperate people. This is not a national emergency for Australia. It is a humanitarian crisis for the world. A crisis that Australia by virtue of geography actually sees only a small part of. Let’s stop the trite slogans, the fear-mongering, the buck-passing, the blaming the other side, the re-traumatising of already traumatised people. Instead let’s have bipartisan policy that acknowledges that we are part of a global community and we have a responsibility to respond to fellow human beings in need. There have always been refugees from somewhere or other and most probably always will be. When the need increases so should our compassion.

There are no easy solutions to the problems that cause people to flee their homelands and there are no easy solutions to the flood of refugees that are a consequence of wars and persecution. If Australian politicians want to “stop the boats” coming to our shores they should be investing energy into working with the rest of the world to find ways to stop persecution happening in the first place, and looking for alternative places to resettle displaced people. Continuing to frame the situation as a “border protection” issue panders to xenophobic fear and hatred within the country and risks the deterioration of relationships with other nations. Above all, it takes the focus away from the central question – how are we going to respond to fellow human beings in need?