Refugees and racism: now is not the time to be silent

By Phil Glendenning

When Edmund Rice opened the North Richmond Street School in Dublin, Irish independence leader Daniel O'Connell laid the foundation stone watched by some hundred thousand people. It was an amazing crowd given that Dublin's entire population in 1828 was only a few hundred thousand. Clearly, Edmund was engaged in the world. His was not a cloistered faith. He saw the unjust Penal Laws of Ireland and their impact on the poor.

Ireland of the twenty-first century is a long way from that of the Penal Laws era, yet poverty and systemic injustice remain stubborn features of life on planet Earth. The struggle for human rights continues, Indigenous rights remain to be fully achieved, climate change is an existential threat, discrimination on the grounds of race remain unresolved in many parts of the world, and the world still reels in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It would be understandable to close down, to focus inwards on protecting what is ours and those closest to us. At this point in history, Edmund Rice people cannot limit ourselves to that. Our mission takes us in another direction - outwards.

A divided, fearful and unwelcoming world
In recent times, too many nations are turning inwards. Walls are going up internationally where there should be bridges. The same isolationism seen with Brexit in the UK and the policies of Donald Trump in the US has yet to play out, as racism, anti- intellectualism, misogyny and distortions of truth are drawn upon by politicians the world over. Across Europe in recent years, a wave of hyper-nationalist politicians has weakened the rule of law by populist appeal to fear - Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary. In Brazil, we saw the Amazon-burning and pandemic-denying policies of Jair Bolsonaro, and in the Philippines we witnessed the war on truth, women and simple good taste waged by Rodrigo Duterte. The statistics are staggering. As of November 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that there are 84 million forcibly displaced people in the world - people fleeing persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.i Of these, 26.6 million are refugees living in foreign lands and 48 million are internally displaced peoples. These figures do not account for the ongoing refugee crisis stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has seen a further 5.6 million refugees displaced to foreign countries and more than 7 million displaced within Ukraine.ii On average, thirty-seven thousand new people are forced to flee their homes every day. Tragically, almost half the refugees in the world are children under eighteen years of age. Most of these refugees are not taken in by the rich industrialised nations of Europe, North America and Australia. Eighty-five per cent of refugees are taken in
by developing countries. The UNHCR is inadequately funded to support the people who need protection and too often the people the UNHCR is mandated to protect are rejected by other countries.

Participation or silence?
The vision of Edmund Rice calls us to something different - to walk together in companionship with people who seek protection and to afford critical attention to the larger movements in society and the world, over which refugees have no control but which nevertheless shape their lives. The lives of refugees depend on what Australian Jesuit Andrew Hamilton calls:

“the resolution of that larger choice between dystopia and hospitality. They call for the small kindnesses of support and advocacy, along with visits and consultations for the legal and other agencies that have stuck by them and given them hope. They also call for critical attention to the world which we by participation or by silence will shape.” iii

So Edmund Rice people have a choice to make - to participate or be silent. Pope Francis has denounced this 'globalization of indifference' and said 'a painful truth' is that 'our world is daily more and more elitist, more cruel towards the excluded'. He reminded people of goodwill worldwide that 'as Christians, we cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty; to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those who do not belong to "our" group,' and added, 'we cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people. We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond.'iv Pope Francis makes it clear that what refugees are looking for is, put simply, peace. They seek a peace that is free of racism, discrimination, dispossession, incarceration and fear. In my country of Australia, it is the same aspiration Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples seek, to find an end to the injustices of colonialism and find a place of peace in their own land.

First Nations peoples and the aspiration for peace
The aspiration from Australia's First Nations peoples, for peace in their homeland and for an end to all forms of injustice, racism and discrimination, was beautifully presented to the nation at Uluru in May 2017, in the 'Statement from the Heart'.v It was a cry for peace. It was an echo of the cries for freedom from refugees incarcerated for nearly seven years in detention centres in Manus, Nauru and Port Moresby. It can be heard in refugee camps in northern Kenya, in Jordan, Syria, Turkey and in the forty-two displaced peoples' camps that ring Kabul in Afghanistan. It is the same heart-rending cry - human beings pleading for peace, for themselves, their families, and their country. Australian Aboriginal people have been involved in an ongoing fight for freedom and peace since the first boatload of unauthorised arrivals landed in Sydney in 1788. Australian Aboriginal Senator Patrick Dodson said:

“I was born before the 1967 referendum, when we as Aboriginal people were not even counted in the census of this country, when this government did not have any power to make laws for Aboriginal people because it was excluded by the crafters of our Constitution in 1901. The whole battle for recognition - for freedom to enjoy the basics of being a citizen - in this nation had to be fought for.” vi

The 'basics of being a citizen' remain under threat. If you listen closely to the language common to public debate in many countries, you could be forgiven for thinking that we all live together in an economy rather than a society. This is important because members of a society are citizens, and they have rights and they have responsibilities. However, members of an economy are customers or consumers, with choices - dependent on how much wealth they have access to. Money comes before people.

The legacy of Reaganomics and Thatcherism
This paradigm shift from a society to an economy - begun in Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's USA in the 1980's - has been accompanied by shifts in language. For example, travelers on planes are increasingly not referred to as passengers; they are referred to as customers. Banks no longer provide services; they sell products. And those who reside in the care of psychiatric institutions are no longer patients or residents; everyone is a client (what are they purchasing?). Moreover, those who live in a society are valued inherently for who they are, as human beings with inalienable rights; in an economy we value people for what they can do, for their utility or production value. And once we base our relationships and interactions on economics primarily rather than on humanity, it becomes easier to treat people in inhuman ways. It becomes easier to turn away from the refugee, to blame those who have been made poor for their poverty and to deny climate change. The paradigm needs to shift back.
Essential to that shift, therefore, is a need to reclaim the language and fundamentally put humanity and the planet back in the picture. The language we use matters, because when we strip back the language we reveal the assumptions underpinning decisions, and when we strip back the assumptions underpinning decisions we reveal the values decisions are based on. The values broadly at work are not the values Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si', and they are not the values of Edmund Rice. If we are not attentive to the words we use and the assumptions and values they represent, as Senator Dodson has said in the Australian Parliament, this enables and emboldens 'an ideological creep back to bigotry and to racism'.vii And, as we have learned from the twentieth century, racism was too often the pre-cursor to conflict, to war, and even to genocide.

The long shadow of racism
In 2020 across the world people took to the streets to defend the sanctity of human life and to reject racism. Racism is based in a fundamental inability to see the world from the perspective of 'the other'. Sometimes this racism does not need to be aggressive, abusive or angry. It can be quietly, complacently apathetic or just indifferent. Racism is not natural to human beings, but rather is something that is created, nurtured, taught and encouraged. As Northern Ireland politician David Ervine put it at an Australian Treaty Conference: 'I can smell racism. It doesn't grow wild in a field. It is tended in a window box'.viii
The point here is simple: in a world where peace remains elusive, where so many people are displaced, where racism is real, the words we use count. Language matters. And our actions must follow suit. As Patrick Dodson said: 'If [we] cannot stand up for the weakest, the poorest and those who are most vulnerable because of their race, their ethnicity or their beliefs, then we have become a very sad replication of what democracy is about'.ix Similarly, we will have failed to live up to the outward-looking vision and mission of Edmund Rice.

In the eighteenth century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that human beings are never a means to an end; they are an end in themselves.x His words loudly and boldly echo down the centuries in stark contrast to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island - detention centres that have imprisoned refugees for up to eight years for seeking Australia's protection. The human cost of this policy and practice has been simply shocking. At the Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney we know a young man who read one morning that the government was preparing to ban all boat arrivals from ever entering Australia under any circumstances. An asylum seeker who had come to Australia by boat, he went straight to his bathroom and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He survived, but the hope that sustained him for so long during his escape from the Taliban to the dangerous journey to Australia has been extinguished. He is one of the thirty thousand asylum seekers in the community without rights or resolution to his case. The devastating impact of these policies of incarceration and punishment on innocent people simply has to stop.

Inhuman treatment
Simply put, today we treat asylum seekers and refugees who have arrived by boat as if we were at war with them. Amnesty International reports that Australia's system discriminates against, punishes and in some cases 'tortures' people who come seeking safety and protection, and who instead can remain in detention for up to eight years.xi This was certainly the case for Mahomood (name changed), and her eleven-year- old daughter (who has now spent more than half her life on Nauru). Although recognised as a refugee, Mahomood lives on a recurrent three-year visa - a Nauruan passport lists her identity as 'refugee'. Mahomood and her daughter lived in a remote camp. She was too scared to go out for food following an attack by two men on motorbikes as she walked to town to collect groceries. Her life in recent years has been spent in a two-by-four-metre, plywood-walled, tin-roofed shack. She says she has spent years crying, because all her hope is gone. The tragic irony of this is that Mahomood came on the same boat as her brother. Today he lives in Sydney's south, married to an Australian woman and they are expecting their first baby.

The current policy of punishment and deterrence has moved Australia further away from engaging in the real global challenge of assisting the almost 100 million people who are displaced. Last year there were 26.6 million people recognised as refugees among displaced people internationally. Less than one per cent of those found to be refugees were re-settled. A fixation with securing borders results in an inability to engage meaningfully in working with the international community to tackle the root causes of displacement and to ensure the people that do flee their country can live with dignity in the places they flee to. It is vital that parents can work legally, that children can access schools and that healthcare is freely available. Also, all research indicates that when refugees receive permanent protection they make a sustained positive contribution to the life of their new nation. These 26 million refugees - the population of Australia - are not just numbers. They are human beings. They are brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers and friends. More than half are children. They include Mahomood and her daughter.

This is not the time for silence
The starting point for putting all of this to rights is in listening to the voices that for too long have been suppressed or hidden. To this end, I recently came across a poem penned anonymously by a young Iranian asylum seeker who spent a number of years in mandatory detention after arriving in Australia by boat:
I do not know
what will happen after I die. I do not want to know.
But I would like the Potter to make a whistle from the clay of my throat.
May this whistle fall into the hands of a cheeky and naughty child
and the child to blowhard on the whistle continuously with all the suppressed and silent air of his lungs and disrupt the sleep
of those who seem dead to my cries.xii

We, as Edmund Rice people, must proclaim to that asylum seeker, and all others who seek protection only to be met by cruelty, that we are not dead to their cries. Our commitment as Edmund Rice people to presence and compassion means that we must listen to those with lived experience as a first and fundamental step towards their liberation. We must get to know them and assist them to find their voice. This will go a long way towards the liberation of all of us from the bonds of systemic discrimination and institutional racism. In doing this, we must be careful not to repeat the sins of colonialism and allow our good intentions to get in the way of justice and solidarity. In the words of a wise Aboriginal woman from northern Australia, Lila Watson, on encountering a group of mission workers, 'if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together'.xiii

Now is not the time to be silent. Martin Luther King Jr once famously said that silence is betrayal.xiv Today the marginalised and displaced peoples of the world, and the very planet we share, must not have their cries met with the deadening silence of indifference. The sleep of those who are dead to these cries needs to be disturbed on a nightly basis. The words of British journalist Laurie Penny, writing for the New Statesman about Europe, seem ever more apt today, and not just for the European continent:

“Migration does change society, although far less so than, for example, technology, economic austerity, escalating inequality, globalisation or climate change. But the greatest threat to our 'way of life', if there has ever been such a thing on this vast and varied continent, is not that someday you or I might be sitting on a bus and hear someone speaking Pashto or Tigrinya [or Dari or Arabic]. The threat is that we will swallow the public narrative that immigrants, people from non-European countries are less human than the rest of us, that they think and feel less, that they matter less. Many people in western countries are quite capable of sitting calmly in the bubbling water of cultural bigotry until it boils away every shred of compassion we have left. That's the real threat to our 'way of life'.”xv

The gift we have received from Edmund Rice is a counter- cultural belief that compassion for others is not a form of weakness. In fact, compassion is our greatest civilising strength. The time has come for us to play to that strength, to demonstrate it, and to mobilise it. This is essential if the example of Edmund Rice is to remain relevant and lived out in our times.

The good news is that history tells us that these changes we seek are not simply idealistically naive. No one would have believed it in the nineteenth century if told that one day women would get the vote. No one would have believed at times in the twentieth century if told that the Soviet Union would end peacefully, that the Berlin Wall would come down, that apartheid in South Africa would end, and that Nelson Mandela would be freed from jail and become president of the country. No one would have believed if told that a black man would one day be president in the White House or that many governments around the world would establish departments of the environment. Positive change is real when people get organised into movements, into peoples' movements - like the environment movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the women's rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement and the peace movement. And in recent times we have seen the climate change movement across the world led by a sixteen- year-old schoolgirl. All of these movements are characterised by people gathering together in loose and shifting coalitions to take collective action around shared values. Now is the time for the Edmund Rice movement. The time is now and we are here. As Martin Luther King Jr said, 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice'.xvi What he didn't say, however, was that the arc needs people to do the bending. That is our task, and it is our challenge. It was put best by Robert R Kennedy in an address at the University of Cape town, South Africa:

“Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ends at the river's shore, his common humanity is enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town or his views and the colour of his skin.”xvii

Surely today it is the task of the Edmund Rice movement across the world to, as Br Philip Pinto once put it, 'work together to strip the last remnants of that cruel and ancient belief from the fabric of humankind'. So we seek a world where the needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich; where the freedom of the weak takes priority over the liberty of the powerful; and where the access of the excluded in society takes priority over the preservation of an order that does not include them. When we act on these preferential options, we will attract criticism - at times, persecution and calumny. It happened to Edmund and if we are to engage effectively with the world at this time of history, it will happen to us. Good. Because when you are over the target, you have to expect flak. It's part of the deal. So let's reclaim the language, spread the truth around, bend the arc of history in favour of justice - and blow loudly on those clay whistles.

Reflection Questions:
• Half the refugees in the world are under eighteen years of age and 84 per cent of refugees are taken in by developing countries. How do you react to statistics like this?
• In your own country, which comes first, the people or the economy? What did the pandemic reveal? What does the language used by politicians and the media reveal? Of the 26 million people recognised in one year as refugees, 1% were resettled. What does this reveal?
• Do you think that British journalist Laurie Penny is in any way overstating it when she says that the biggest threat to our 'way of life' is the narrative that immigrants are less human and think, feel and matter less than the rest of us?
i See the UNHCR's Refugee Population Statistics Database, 10 November 2021. Available at; accessed 25 May 2022.
ii See UNHCR, 'Ukraine Emergency', updated 5 July 2022. Available at; accessed 9 July 2022.
iii Andrew Hamilton, 'Reflecting on this Refugee Week', Eureka Street, 11 June 2020. Available at this-refugee-week; accessed 25 May 2022.
iv Pope Francis, Homily at Holy Mass on the Occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 29 September 2019. Available at; accessed 25 May 2022.
v Commonwealth of Australia, 'Uluru Statement from the Heart', Final Report of the Referendum Council, 30 June 2017, Canberra, ACT: Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Available at; accessed 25 May 2022.
vi Patrick Dodson, quoted in Katharine Murphy, 'Racial Discrimination Act debate a "creep back to bigotry'', says Pat Dodson', The Guardian, 24 November 2016. Available at; accessed 25 May 2022.
vii Ibid.
viii David Ervine, Address at the National Treaty Conference, Canberra, 27-9 August 2002, organised by Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR).
ix Patrick Dodson, op. cit.
x Cf. Immanuel Kant, Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. J.W. Ellington, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, p. 36, n. 429.
xi Amnesty International, 'Australia: Appalling abuse, neglect of refugees on Nauru', press release, 2 August 2016. Available at https://www.amnesty. org/en/latest/news/2016/08/australia-abuse-neglect-of-refugees-on-nauru/; accessed 25 May 2022.
xii Anonymous, 'Make a whistle from my throat', as quoted in Emma Cox 'The Citation of Injury: Regarding the Exceptional Body', Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4, December 2009, pp. 459-72.
xiii Quoted in Karen House, Reflections for Spring Break Mission Trips,, spring 2001. Available at documents/ReflectionManual.pdf; accessed 30 May 2022.
xiv Martin Luther King Jr, 'Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence', speech delivered 4 April 1967, quoted in 'When Silence is Betrayal', Available at collections/when-silence-is-betrayal; accessed 30 May 2022.
xv Laurie Penny, , 'Europe shouldn't worry about migrants. It should worry about creeping fascism', New Statesman, 14 August 2015. Available at migrants-it-should-worry-about-creeping-fascism; accessed 30 May 2022.
xvi Martin Luther King Jr, 'Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution', speech given at the National Cathedral, 31 March 1968.
xvii Robert R Kennedy, 'Day of Affirmation' address, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, 6 June 1996. Available at; accessed 30 May 2022.

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