Here’s the thing about world wars: they’re big. I’m not entirely sure how much of the world needs to be involved for it to be called a ‘world war’, but I’m guessing several countries, at least. Or perhaps we just don’t call them world wars anymore, because the conflicts bleed into each other and we can’t really tell when one ends and another begins. Troops are sent from international peacekeeping forces and countries are involved in a financial and supportive role, choosing a side which seems to make the right (strategic) sense at the time.
I bring up world wars because recently, on World Refugee Day, the UNHRC announced that the number of displaced persons worldwide had reached 51.2 million people. The number in itself is staggering; what’s more astounding is that this number is the highest since World War II.
I think I imagine World War II to be such a massive upset of the status quo, with so many countries—with my country—deeply involved, and that in the aftermath, so many of them really were in shock. Australia took over 170 000 displaced persons between 1947 and 1953. That doesn’t seem like very many, but prompted a shift in not only our immigration policy, but also in our cultural identity.
Those who came here after World War II often left behind everything, from possessions to friends to families—some of them had been forcibly removed from their homes, which places were then destroyed during the fighting. Despite the fact that we have so much access to world events now, on everything from personal computers to televisions to mobile phones, it still seems like dealing with the aftermath of World War II was such a massive undertaking compared to what happens these days. Perhaps that was because we got better at it since then? Perhaps it’s because the wars and conflicts of today have less of a distinct ‘start’ and ‘finish’? Perhaps I’ve become so used to there being a war somewhere, I don’t even register the repercussions of them anymore.
And yet, now, we have as many displaced persons as we did, seventy years ago. Of course, we do have many millions more people everywhere, than we did back then, but I would still have hoped that we could improve on how we negotiate disputes in those several decades.
Further adding to my disappointment is just how people are treated when they seek asylum. Now that we’ve had so much practice in dealing with refugees, one would think we would have streamlined processing by now. One would imagine that we would have had plenty of time to sort out how we cope with sudden influxes of needy people, that we would be able to anticipate the ebb and flow of displaced persons based on what has happened in the past.
Could it be possible, that we have really worked all this out? That what’s preventing us from using it to the advantage of all is a combination of xenophobia and a more recent concern about terrorism? Or is it due to financial worries—that we’ve managed to work ourselves into a state about how badly off we are, that we can’t afford to share what we have?
None of these reasons are very good ones. Of course, it’s necessary for us to take care of the people of our nation first; if we didn’t, then we wouldn’t be in a good position to help others. And it’s true that terrorism is an issue which needs to be taken seriously. And certainly, the global financial crisis did have repercussions on the GDPs and budgets of all countries around the world.
But none of this makes any difference whatsoever to those people who are searching for safe place to live. They have been uprooted from their homes and they just need asylum, and at the moment, those countries who are complaining the most (not mentioning any names, AUSTRALIA), are not really doing their fair share, internationally. In keeping with this, current government policy is to only issue a set number of protection visas per year to refugees. That’s regardless of the fact that the numbers of refugees are increasing. It’s as if by sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘la-la-la’, our government hopes people will stop trying to travel to Australia to seek refuge. I’ve already written before about the conditions in which we hold asylum seekers, and that despite reducing the amount of aid we’re sending to countries overseas, the government is still determined to ‘stop the boats’ coming to our shores.
So it’s with a certain amount of vindictive pleasure that I read that the high court last week struck down the cap on protection visas. In fact, my tweet of that news story may or may not have read, ‘HA.’
It’s not enough to take care of our own and hope that someone else will pick up the slack in providing assistance and practical help for those in need. Surely, it must become apparent that goodwill and positive thinking are not helping reduce the numbers of refugees. We need to be pragmatic, to realise that if we are serious about wanting a more stable political world environment, then we have to be a part of it. Not only do we need to accept that people are always going to be seeking asylum—at least for the foreseeable future—but also that we need to prevent the displacement in the first place. And that means stepping in, getting our hands dirty, and accepting this global responsibility as the global citizens we claim to be.