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Refugee Week 2019 – if we fail to stand by refugees, who will?

Refugees are not a number nor a problem but are people, each of whom is precious, each of whom has a story, each of whom makes a claim on us as fellow human beings. As political parties that exclude or expel refugees continue to rise around the world, Refugee Week (June 16 – 23) is a timely reminder that supporting and advocating for refugees is more important than ever, reflects ANDY HAMILTON SJ.

If you judge by figures and hopes realised, 2019 has not been a good year for refugees. Around the world, political parties that have campaigned on excluding or expelling them have done well in elections. Governments that feed the wars and the inequality that cause people to leave their homes and their lands have also flourished. To the enormous number of refugees who can neither return to their nation of birth nor find settlement in another, new people are added daily.

For people who have struggled unsuccesfully for many years to make a world more welcoming to refugees, it is sometimes tempting to look for an easier cause. The theme of Refugee Week – #WithRefugees – recognises this, and also tells us why we should hang in. If we measure our efforts by their success, staying the course with refugees is demanding and can be depressing. But that makes it all the more important. Refugees have nowhere else to go, and if we fail to stand by them, who will?

Refugees are not a number nor a problem but are people, each of whom is precious, each of whom has a story, each of whom makes a claim on us as fellow human beings. In Australia, some refugees have been accepted in Australia from refugee camps. Others are not recognised as refugees. Some are found in detention centres, others live in the community, relying on charity for themselves and their families.  Some still live on Manus Island and on Nauru.

We do not often hear their stories. But occasionally one breaks through. One of these was Behrouz Bouchani’s account of his life on Manus Island:  No Friend but the Mountains: Writings from Manus Prison. It is partly the terrifying story told by a sensitive and enquiring man of administrative brutality that destroyed people sent there. But it is also the remarkable story of a person who will be scarred for life by his experience, but refused to surrender his humanity. He was forced to leave his own land, sought freedom by travelling across the world, survived a terrifying sea journey from Indonesia and was despatched from Christmas Island to a hell on Manus Island, and wrote what will surely be recognised as one of the great books of Australian literature.

Neither as Australians nor as Catholics can we simply shrug off the sufferings of refugees and our part in them. We can do better than this.  For this reason, the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum is holding a National Week of Prayer and Action during Refugee Week (June 16 – 23) and asking the Catholic community across Australia to pray and be involved in coordinated direct action. It asks for a fair process for people seeking asylum. It also demands that compassion and respect for the dignity of each person be front and centre in Australian attitudes, policy and processes.

In light of the recent Federal election, we need to hold this week as a symbolic time, and make of it an opportunity to speak with others in our community and come together.  We can promote compassion in a simple private way, through prayer together during the liturgy or an assembly, through a more public action, such as a circle of silence, or perhaps by visiting people in detention centres as the early Christians visited prisoners in jail.