Nope, Nope, Nope

In recent days PM Tony Abbott has strongly reiterated his government’s dis-compassionate stance on asylum seekers and refugees. At least those coming via boat. The ‘nope, nope, nope’ comment came in response to questions about Australia accepting the Rohingya refugees who have been captive to the high seas, with up until recently no country willing to accept them. Last Wednesday saw Malaysia and Indonesia change their stance, saying they are willing to take refugees as long as they are settled or repatriated within a year. Our government, that looks after a country with more ability and space to care for refugees remained steadfast.

I have no evidence to back this up, however I feel over recent years our successive governments have ruled with an increasing hardness of heart. Both sides of politics have sought to keep some of the worlds most vulnerable off our shores a potential safe harbour, refuge and source of new life. Whilst the vulnerable living amongst us continue to be shunned and exiled, often effectively prisoners on their own land as was seen in the Northern Territory intervention. Of course the most recent example being the government cutting funds to essential services for people experiencing homelessness.

Trying to work out the government’s motivation, I heard on a recent episode of Hack someone lament that refugees and asylum seekers use to be a bipartisan concern, above party politics, but that unfortunately the debate has slid and parties now respond to political pressure, rather than a humanitarian conscience. Questions are raised for me about individuals versus party politics. I find it saddening and hard to believe that our leaders are so distant as to give such a flippant response to the suffering of two thousand fellow human beings. I’m sure there are all kinds of rationalities that can be offered about choice and so forth, but I guess I’m left wondering does Tony Abbott go home to a quiet place and cry for the lives of these people on the boats and then feel powerless to move from the position held by his party? Do those in government care, can they see the pain of others or are they simply blinded by power, wealth and the concerns of this wealthy nation that is all around them. I guess compassion fatigue hits us all at some point or another however this government seems to have gone beyond that to a meanness of spirit, that leaves one wondering how we are perceived on a world stage. And as for motivation is it simply political expediency, following the loudest, most convincing voice or is PM Tony Abbott, genuinely scared that these people from across the sea are a threat to our way of life?

Up until writing this blog I’ll admit I was ignorant about the plight of the Rohingya. The ethnic group calls Rakhine state in the west of Myanmar (Burma), home, with the area bordering Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. They number about 1.1 million and are considered by Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Burma does not allow them citizenship, education, to register marriage or to work, the government even encourages communal violence against them. The United Nations (UN) considers them one of the world’s most persecuted people. Two waves of violence in 2012 aimed at the Rohingya and instigated by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine sparked religious unrest throughout the whole country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Senior Researcher, Sunai Phasuk states ‘The atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state is a crime against humanity and bordering on ethnic cleansing.’ Essentially the Burmese government want them out of Burma, and will use any measure to achieve their end. They have become a scapegoat for all the country’s poverty and lack of social services.

The survivors of the waves of violence have not been able to return to their homes, forced to live in ghetto-like facilities. And so the motivation to leave for a better life becomes clearer. However the journey they sign up for, hoping to get to the mainly Muslim Malaysia is a dangerous one, and expensive. The people smugglers charge US$5000 and then they have to pay twice more, at risk of death or rape for non-payment to enter either Thailand or Malaysia.

Even if they survive all this, the Thai government is officially seeing the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and they are under threat of being put in indefinite detention, with no access to Un refugee channels. On a brighter note the US has pledged to help the region ‘bear the burden’ of the refugees. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says, “The US stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today. We have a common obligation to answer the call of these migrants who have risked their lives at sea.”

The small nation state of Gambia is also willing to help the refugees by offering them a place to land. They believe it is there ‘sacred duty’ to alleviate the suffering of fellow Muslims. They are appealing to the international community to send tents, bedding, household materials and medicines to set up “habitable camps with decent sanitary conditions.”

I can’t help but feel our Government’s response in comparison is juvenile at best and like a petulant child at worst. An article in the Drum by Dr Matthew Davies of the Australian National University, argues our ‘Stop the boats’ policy has helped unravel global norms around refugees, which in part has been the cause of the Rohingya being catapulted around the South East Asian Oceans

The same article points to the wisdom shown by Bill Clinton during a speech at Yale University in 2003. He suggested that American foreign policy should be conscience of the Nation’s eventual decline as a superpower. America sat on a crossroads in 2003, it could enjoy its power and break the international rules it helped to create or it could “create a world with rules, partnerships and habits of behaviour that we (the US) would like to live in when we’re no longer the military, political and economic superpower in the world.”

Davies points out that Australia too has a choice like this to make. Currently we can throw our weight around, and begin to fracture the web of the international regime around asylum seekers, but not without consequences, which some of the Rohingya are paying with their lives. We are again at a point where our professed beliefs around human rights and our actions don’t match up. This contradiction must stop! Australia and Australians have the ability to be a nation that displays generosity, hospitality and offers hope to the most vulnerable around us. There is a sense throughout the Bible that those who are blessed have an obligation to be a blessing. This can be interpreted at a national level but also interpersonally as we think about our interactions with those around us, especially those who aren’t like us.

Perhaps as we do this we can change the heart of the government to see that the humanitarian cost of going down its current path is too high and that there is another way. They cry ‘but we stopped the boats.’ The events of the past week clearly show they have not stopped the boats, merely, like playing classical music at a train station to stop drunk teens gathering, they have just pushed the problem further up the line. After all out of sight is out of mind.


Cities a Place of Human Flourishing

Can cities be places where people flourish? Before we can answer this question we need to define what we understand by human flourishing. The UN predict that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population (around 6.4 billion people with the world’s population at approximately 9.6 billion) will be living in cities. The majority of the growth will take place in Asia and Africa. Currently there are 28 mega cities with over 10 million people, by 2050 there will be 41 with Tokyo having the largest population.

But what will the quality of life be for those 6.4 billion? Of which, if I’m still alive I’ll most likely be one. By 2050 I’ll be 76. So I wonder what will Melbourne be like? What will all the services be offering? Will there be any cars in the CBD? Will there be a CBD? What will shopping, healthcare, education, the media be like? What will technology have given us? Where will the gathering places be? How will community be formed?

What are the guiding principles that will not only ensure sustainability, but lead the way for human flourishing?

Cities are often seen as negative places, devoid of natural environment, without a soul and so forth. I don’t buy it! I see incredible potential for cities to be places of light, hope, of new beginnings and endless possibilities. However we need to ensure they are places where EVERYBODY can experience those things. This will involve some major re-thinking about how our cities develop and what we see as important as we experience growth. Perhaps even the economic agenda needs to be displaced from its position of privilege and replaced with the relational or community agenda as the central guiding principle. If this is achieved, the door is open for a sustainable economic future that we can all participate in.

In a step towards this, last year the City of Melbourne put on a conference called Beyond the Safe City. Internationally Melbourne has been recognized as a safe city, but they wanted to go further to look at places and spaces for human flourishing. The input from professionals in their field was outstanding. We were able to explore the benefits of social entrepreneurialism, explore what event theory had to offer CBD hotspots and look at cities, Melbourne in particular from a number of different angles. The desire of the conference was for everyone to feel safe in the heart of Melbourne. One of the standout examples was the hospitality (creating space for the stranger) shown by Urban Seed and the care they take with building relationships with people who frequent their laneway. There was encouragement for people who live in other laneways to offer similar hospitality rather than shunning those who are different in some way.

On Sunday Melbourne had another opportunity to show hospitality and its willingness to make space for everyone to flourish. It was the Palm Sunday March for Refugees. Over 10,000 people turned out in force with banners waiving showing their support for refugees, pleading for children to be let out of offshore detention, showing their dissatisfaction with current government policy and demonstrating that all are welcome in our city. One of the things that struck me was the diversity of people in the crowd. Many arms of the church were present as was the Humanist Society, medical professionals and countless local refugee groups. It seems that this kind of issue around human flourishing transcend the usual sacred / secular divides. Can we celebrate the thousands that turned out to the march that stretched from LaTrobe Street all the way Flinders St Station? More can we celebrate the spirit in which they turned out? The welcome they offered? And I believe the sacrifices that many of them would be willing to make to bring their statements about refugees into actuality. This is the kind of spirit of openness we need to display to each other in order for Melbourne to be a place where everyone can flourish.

Everyone is Welcome
Everyone is Welcome
Children advocating for children
Children advocating for children
A popular cry
A popular cry
A letter to the PM
A letter to the PM

The UN fact sheet on population from August 2014 states that sustainable urbanization requires cities to generate better income and employment opportunities; access to clean water and sanitation through the expansion of the necessary infrastructure; transportation; information and communications; equal access to services; reduction in the number of people living in slums and the preservation of natural assets.

However, is sustainable urbanization enough to ensure human flourishing?

I have a suspicion that human flourishing has to do with belonging and meaning or purpose. If someone feels they belong to a place or a people this opens the door for them to explore more of who they are and to begin to discover and live out their purpose. Sadly with isolation in Melbourne increasing many do not get to experience either. The United Nations’ list of what constitutes a sustainable urban environment is important, yet how these things are developed in concert with a sense of belonging, individual and community empowerment and a lived out purpose becomes crucial to human flourishing.

In the past cities tended to be developed in silos. The silo mentality is still alive and well in many of our institutions. Through working alongside local councils I have discovered that quite often it is difficult to get the planning department to talk to the community department and vice versa. Yet these types of conversations and the relationships behind them are vital if municipalities and cities are to be developed well. These relationships need to be formed not only within the institution of local government but across the different spheres of a city.

For example what would it mean for the development of a city if there were vibrant relationships between the spheres of politics, health, education, sport and recreation, business, community service organisations (not for profit), media, Arts, Justice and Law?[1] What creativity and innovation could be released through this sort of cross profession and multi-disciplinary conversations?

[1] The drivers of society borrowed from Dr David Wilson, developed through his work withSophiaThink Tank