Saturday, December 10, 2011

Human Rights Day: No more turning away

Today is World Human Rights Day. This is a day to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (63 years ago now) and to reflect on how far we have - or haven't - come in recognising and realising these principles in daily life.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be able to hear about the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and its staff and volunteers in helping asylum seekers in Australia. The ASRC is non-federal-government funded, fuelled by donations, volunteers and a small amount of state government support (95% of the funding is derived from philanthropic and community sources). Initiated 10 years ago as a student project, ASRC was originally primarily a food bank for asylum seeking refugees but is now much broader in its activities, offering asylum seekers English language services, counselling, legal aid, employment assistance, health programs, support at hearings and more. The activities of the Centre are built on 4 pillars: Aid, Justice, Empowerment and Community.

The philosophy of the Centre is this:
The ASRC recognises the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. It is the vision of the ASRC to enact the change we want to see in the world and to build a community which defends the ideals of dignity and justice for all.

It seems to me on Human Rights Day that turning my mind towards the work of ASRC and the situation of many asylum seekers in Australia is peculiarly apt. Refugees are a group of people whose human rights are regularly, even routinely, disregarded in Australia. Asylum seekers are confined, treated as criminals, when in fact it is not illegal under international or Australian law to be a refugee. Some portions of the media and some voices in the community - often the loud ones, unfortunately - engage in awful, inhumane, selfish rhetoric in which refugees are the kicking post for larger fears and deeper prejudices.

Hearing about the work of ASRC last night reminded me sharply of the work my grandparents did in the 1970s and 1980s, helping Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees come to Australia (and be allowed to remain). I can remember, as a child, playing with the children of these families, children who had literally nothing except what they were given by aid agencies, often possessing no more than one change of clothes. I can remember, as a teenager, being numb with shock at the stories that some of them had to tell about what they had gone through to come here, and the circumstances that had driven them from their countries of birth.

Horrific circumstances. Terrors and traumas that no-one should have to live through, not a child, not a woman, not a man.

I believed then, as I believe now, that people do not choose to become refugees. It is a last-ditch decision that's made in the face of adversity so severe that most of us here are blessed to be unable to really imagine it.

I believed then, as I believe now, that our shared humanity should prompt compassion, not turning away, from suffering like this; that refugees' dignity should be respected and their hurts tended, that to do otherwise is cruelty, and is a failure to recognise the humanity in others.

I think that the work the ASRC is doing is incredibly valuable, important, life-valuing and humanity-affirming work. And on this Human Rights Day, I salute them and all their volunteers (more than 600 people in all different fields) for what they are doing. They are not turning away. None of us should.

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