What is it that defines a ‘civilized’ society? What distinguishes between the barbaric and the cultured? Perhaps how a society looks after the most vulnerable amongst us is a good barometer of how civilized a society is.
There is no doubt that we in Australia are very fortunate. We live in an affluent society that provides opportunities for many of its citizens. Our social democratic values ensure reliable public health and education systems. We live in an age of prosperity and peace that many countries around the world envy. Starvation, severe poverty and high child mortality are the realm of other countries, not ours. Guns, bullets and bombs are abominations we only read about in newspapers. We are indeed fortunate.
But how civilized are we?
Let’s look at how we deal with some of the most vulnerable, marginalised people on the planet, the so-called boat people. For many years now there has been a concerted campaign to demonise these most destitute of people. The rhetoric of fear and zenophobia lies at the core of such campaigns. Rather than recognising the plight of these people who are escaping from countries that we Australians invaded (Iraq and Afghanistan), many Australians have come to believe that these people will destroy ‘our way of life’. Our politicians do little to set the record straight: that the numbers of asylum seekers is minute and that – under international obligations that most first-world countries are signatures to – we are obliged to help these people, to access their claims quickly and integrate those found to be genuine refugees into our society. Most are found to be so.
What do we do about it?
We establish prison-like holding facilities that have locked up adults and children alike behind barbed wire for long periods of time – often is isolated, desolate locations. Innocent children wasting their young lives behind barbed wire. Civilized? I’d say not. The Howard Government came up with the ‘Pacific Solution’ whereby asylum seekers were held in countries such as Nauru in shameful detention centres. Civilized? You’d have to say, no!
Tony Abbott, if he becomes the Prime Minister at the August 2010 election, promises to ‘turn the boats back’. This involves our Navy towing asylum seekers out to sea away from Australian waters. Not civilized, barbaric really and maybe even unlawful. Certainly inhumane.
In all of this, I’m amazed that so many people think these most marginalised of people pose such a risk to the Australian way of life. History shows that most people seeking asylum are genuine and are therefore granted refugee status. These same people have contributed enormously to our economy and become a real part of our diverse culture. As conservative American commentator, P.J. O’Rourke says, what better people to contribute to our economy and prospertity than those people who have risked everything, including their lives and the lives of their children, to get here. Australia’s history of asylum seekers shows that this is true.
What a shame that many of us allow our xenophobia to be fed by self-serving politicians and misleading sensational media headlines.
Shame in our own country
In this time of election frenzy, let’s not forget that there are some in our own country who miss out on the opportunities that most of us enjoy. We seem to suffer from a collective inertia in finding ways to embrace serious poverty and illness in the Indigenous communities. Our Aboriginal brothers and sisters do it tough and, largely, the rest of Australia has been unable or unwilling to change the status quo. Ditto those with mental health problems, the homeless and those who live on the margins of our lucky country.
Civilized? Not yet but let’s hope some of our politicans will stand up and show real leadership on some of these crucial elements of what it means to be truly civilised.