There is nothing like real life to make you think twice. When I first set foot in a refugee camp, I saw myself as a practical person bringing practical help to people in need. I had no idea how quixotic my outlook was.
I thought that if I took the literal meaning of compassion – from the Latin meaning to suffer with – that I would understand. I thought that I could put myself in another person’s shoes, not just mentally but physically too, by eating the same food, by living in the same conditions. However, we cannot experience what someone else experiences; we cannot shed who we are. My attempt to live the life of a refugee was woefully inadequate.
Trite as it may sound, there are some things you can only really understand if you have experienced them yourself, and what it is like to be a refugee is one of them. However much you improve the physical conditions of refugee life, you cannot alter the essential experience of having lost your home, not only the house and all of your material belongings, but also that sense of being in a place where you are welcome and where you belong. My attempt at solidarity, however well-meaning, was a pretence, because ultimately I could not alter the fact of my birth, and I had not lost everything. Nothing could change the fact that I had an Australian passport, and when I had had enough I could go home.
Life in a refugee camp certainly isn’t luxurious, but the UNHCR does a remarkably good job in ensuring that the necessities of life are met. What saps refugees of their will to live isn’t poor living conditions. Nor is it even the trauma of having lost everything and had their lives shattered into tiny shards that seem impossible to put back together. Most of the refugees I’ve met possess a grim determination to defy those who tried to destroy them, an inspiring tenacity that equips them to live in spite of all that has happened.
It’s the suspense. It’s not knowing what is going to happen next. Time is frozen inside the refugee camp. It’s like being stuck in the airport without your luggage waiting for an aeroplane that has been delayed indefinitely, but the difference is that the aeroplane never comes and you have no idea where it might take you even if it did. The one place you know it won’t be going to is home. Ten years later you are still in the airport, living in borrowed clothes, and there is no end in sight to the days of monotonous waiting for a miracle.
We often speak as if the resettlement of refugees is an alternative to fixing things in their home countries, but it isn’t. Resettlement is for people who can’t envisage a future, people who cannot go home. We don’t offer them a new home because they need material assistance, otherwise we could simply give them money. We offer them a life with prospects, an end to the uncertainty, a life that is released from the insecurity of having no home.
So, it is true that we must stop the boats, because drowning on a rocky shoreline or languishing in a detention centre is no solution for the limbo in which refugees live. We must also stop the boats because they divert sympathy and resources to the unscrupulous instead of those who have waited patiently and hopefully for years on end. However, if we allow breaches of border security to influence our policy on refugees and immigration, we are not only fools but heartless fools. We harden our hearts to tens of millions of innocent people, merely to oblige a few thousand who have broken the rules. We punish the innocent… and quite possibly thereby taint our own souls.
I originally published this article on MercatorNet.com on June 28, 2011, under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit MercatorNet.com for more.