A Pox On Both Their Houses

11 November 2011

I recently met a man in Sydney who was born in Hungary but in the uprising of 1956, his parents scooped him and his two siblings into their arms and ran across the border.  His mother told him her biggest fear was that they’d all be shot in the back.

They went to England – homeless, jobless and penniless.  They were found somewhere to live and a local couple “adopted” them, helping them in every way, from job applications to providing clothing and food when necessary.  About 10 years later, when my friend was in his early teens, he and his family moved to Australia but the kind couple in England remained life-long friends. 

His story struck a strong chord with me because my parents also helped a Hungarian refugee at that time.  He lived with my family and my father gave him a job.  The call had gone out round the ex-servicemen’s associations and very many English people volunteered to help.

Look at us now.  When did we become so heartless, selfish and unsympathetic that serious discussions take place about towing asylum seekers back out to sea?  Were the Hungarians in the 50’s helped because people like my father had just witnessed unspeakable horrors and never wanted to see them again?  Or was it because Hungarians were “people like us” as opposed to the Iraqis, Afghanis and Sri Lankans who now comprise most of those desperate for a new home in Australia?

And maybe because I come from a military family (my father, mother and sister all served in the armed forces) I give a lot of thought to the navy’s role in this.  Why would we even think of asking them (correction: ordering them) to tow a leaky boat (the Opposition’s phrase) full of men, women and children out into dangerous waters.  It goes against everything that the code of the sailor dictates and if (or rather, when) one of these boats sinks, the men and women on our Australian ships will have to live with the consequences of what they were forced to do.

I’m heartily sickened by the arguments between politicians over who can be the most harsh in their treatment of these desperate people. The arguments over where offshore they can be “processed”.  Will it be Malaysia, Nauru or some other far and away place?  What’s wrong with Australia?  And when did human beings start to be “processed” (Answer: in the second world war, in the European concentration camps)?  Meat is processed, not humans.

I don’t think that the Australian people are any less caring than the British were in the 1950’s (my Sydney Hungarian friend now tries to “pass on” the help he and his family received by doing the same for refugees here) but we’re being drip-fed stories to produce fear in us and the language used is deliberately chosen to ensure that we don’t start to humanise people who are to most of us faceless. 

And, as you’ve probably gathered, it makes me sick. 


  1. You know I absolutely agree with you on this, so I won’t tell you that. But your post reminded me of another stupid story that we hear over and over – that people deliberately destroy their papers so that they can claim asylum here.

    One woman I saw on the ABC said “my father was a refugee, and he had his papers, and he spent his time in detention, and it was fine, and now he is a good citizen that contributes to this country”.

    I don’t quite know where to start, but the camps in the 50’s were a far cry from VIllawood!

    And as for papers, I know that if someone came to my door with a machete, the last thing I’d be reaching for is my passport. It just wouldn’t occur to me that a piece of paper would be vital to save my life. I’d grab the kid, and if I had time to get anything else it would be money, or items of value that I could sell for money.

    Right now, I have a friends kid doing some garden wok for me. My friend was born in a tiny village in Afghanistan. As were her parents, and their parents, etc. She is a Sunni muslim, and when the Taliban came to her village, her husband had to flee. The only thing she has from her village is a small stone from the ground that she took as they left. Until that day, she had never left her village, and now she knows she can never, ever return to the land that her heart is connected to.

    For five years, she lived in terror, not knowing if her sons would be safe from the Taliban, or if her husband was dead or alive. Eventually, she too had to flee. She spent years drifting between Iran and Pakistan, still not knowing where her husband was.

    Eventually she was granted refugee status, reunited with her husband, and is building a life in Sydney.

    I don’t know if she had her papers when she left, and I certainly don’t think it is relevant to her story.


  2. Trying again…

    Good post Sally. What I think has made a difference here: the White Australia policy. It’s tentacles are long, and to some extent still influence the way that people think today.

  3. The ‘papers’ business always get to me too, Lara. I presume most of these people didn’t hold passports – as you say, they’ve probably never left their own village – and as they’re often fleeing the authorities in their country, the option of actually applying for one would be denied to them. I’m not sure how the Taliban reacted to passport applications!

  4. In all the years I’ve worked with refugees, I’ ve only ever been abused once – in general, I’ve found refugees to be willing to learn, open to new ideas, grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given and, above all, just like the rest of us – with hopes and dreams, fears and worries! They’ve almost all been through the most unspeakable experiences and survived! I takes me hat off to ’em! (Good English from this ESOL teacher!! LOL)

  5. I agree completely. I find it very frustrating that the media uses such emotive language to turn the average ignoramus into a misled redneck, which is even worse.

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