I made my way from Brisbane to Mudgee for Christmas in a roundabout kind of way. In Bourke I stayed with my friend’s family. They’d never met me before, but they made up a bed, fed me (and dug out some vegetarian food at short notice), even asked me if I wanted to go shooting with them (I thanked them for the offer, but declined).
Hitching from there to Mudgee I got multiple lifts, including a family who had been evacuated from their flood threatened town of Weilmoringle, but could still find room to cram me and my stuff in and take me to Dubbo.
These wonderful examples of the kindness of strangers were punctuated though with news reports of politicians debating issues of “border protection” in the wake of a fishing boat full of hundreds of asylum seekers sinking on Saturday in Indonesian waters.
The shipwreck is a horrible event, and it’s not in any way a reasonable thing to cram so many people on these pretty dodgy boats. But it’s made even worse by politicians using this tragedy for political pointscoring. Labor says it shows the need for their “Malaysia solution”. Liberal says we need to go back to the “Pacific solution” and temporary protection visas. Neither want to mention the fact that no other nation in the world thinks that offshore processing is either a humane or efficient way to handle asylum seekers. Meanwhile, anxious talkback callers wonder what we can do to stop the boats. Everyone is unanimous that this is a serious problem.
I wonder where the voices are offering different perspectives. Have we been so successfully spun that asylum seekers are a threat to our nation? Have they been sufficiently dehumanised that we can’t see them as strangers needing our help? Because there is little evidence of the generosity and friendliness I had experienced over the last couple of days.
It’s funny that this was being played out at the same time as our yearly ritual of Christmas. The roads were full of people travelling home for the holidays to be with family. Christmas has been associated for centuries with generosity and hospitality, and despite whatever complaints you could have about the commercialisation of this season, the tradition of giving gifts and inviting people into your home is quite a break from the usual self-centredness and isolation of our culture.
The original Christmas story has an interesting relevance too. Even if you don’t believe in the pretty remarkable story of God becoming human as an act of love, this story is still a treasured part of our culure. And it’s the story of a young couple, pregnant with an illegitimate child, miles from home, taking refuge in a stable. It’s the story of the Jewish people, an oppressed minority in the Roman Empire, desperately hoping for a saviour. It’s the story of Jesus and his family escaping political persecution by fleeing to Egypt. That’s right, Jesus was an asylum seeker.
So there I was, observing the paradox of these different worlds. On one side is the Christmas story celebrating love and generosity, as well as me experiencing the innate goodness of humanity – helping out a stranger who needs it. On the other side is a group of desperate people risking their lives beyond all reason hoping for a better world, and the response is a lot of talking about border protection and who is better at stopping the boats.
I guess the saddest part of it all is that nobody was drawing the comparison between the two. Despite the increasing global nature of our culture, we don’t see the links between us and asylum seekers. We don’t see our common humanity as a bond strong enough to look after our vulnerable neighbours, not even at Christmas time (and isn’t the name “Christmas Island” ironic).
Despite everything, the urge to help those in need still survives in our culture. It’s why we donate to charities, why we pick up hitchers and why the Christmas story and tradition resonate with us. I can’t help but think that if we changed the way we looked at the asylum seeker issue, our responses would also change.
This is not an issue that only affects us – just of our borders being under threat. If we consider those risking all for safety on our shores, or the millions displaced in refugee camps around the world, and think of them as our brothers and sisters, maybe the emphasis would change from asking how do we stop the boats to asking how can we help more refugees.
One of the most horrible things about the whole offshore processing debate is that we have two sides arguing the same thing, when the truth probably is that it would be a lot cheaper and more efficient for Australia, as well as a lot more humane for asylum seekers, to process them here and get them as quickly as possible into our community and contributing to our country, rather than us paying for them to go insane while we keep them locked up interminably. It might give those politicians one less thing to argue about, but we might also find that trying to help as many refugees as possible rather than as few will be better for everybody.
And surely that’s part of the message of Christmas, that in giving we actually discover more joy than we do just looking after ourselves. It’s the lesson learned by Scrooge and the Grinch in our fables, and it’s the story of a baby born in a stable, who would live to be persecuted and executed by the authorities, but who said that we only find life when we stop living for ourselves.