We need to foster hospitable hearts to foster hospitality for refugees.
In the gruesome world of the 19th century industrial revolution, an English poet wrote an ironic version of the Ten Commandments as practiced in Great Britain. The fifth commandment was:
You shouldn’t kill, but you don’t have to try
Officially to be kept alive.
In Arthur Hugh Clough’s usage, “official” did not mean “bossy” as is customary today, but rather as “one of the duties of your office”. The lines implied that governments and employers were not authorized to kill the people who depend on them, but were not responsible for keeping them from starving.
How we mark World Refugee Day on June 20 of this year, Clough’s lines also address our world. All over the world preoccupied with the coronavirus and the difficulties of overcoming it, people are tempted to focus on their own lives, their own families, and their own nations. They see people who are outside their own group or country, sometimes as a threat to their health that should be expelled and marginalized, sometimes as a burden, and always as people to whom they have no responsibility.
We see this in the way wealthy societies hoard vaccines and refuse to make them available to people in poor countries, the way passing boats allow refugees to flee in sinking boats, the way governments open their doors against immigrants and visitors and even their own citizens trapped outside of the nation. This is also evident in the treatment of refugees and foreign students who already live in the country. This is also reflected in the general lack of sympathy for refugees both in developed countries and when looking for them.
This is a global phenomenon that threatens to undermine compassion for all people who are disadvantaged or different. The lack of sympathy for refugees in Australia is reflected in the separation of family members within Australia, the way in which security is called to render detention centers inhuman, the sudden decisions to process people who have been around for seven years or more seeking protection longer, with a deadline that prevents many from seeking legal advice necessary for their cause, and the cruel incarceration of people in hotels that offer the sight and sound of freedom while robbing people of their reality.
In the current climate, it would be wishful thinking that things will change soon. In public debates, governments will win more votes than they lose by brutally treating refugees. If we take care of refugees, then we have to take long-term action and encourage each other to “officially stay alive”, to take the opportunity to meet refugees, to speak on their behalf with our friends and institutions, to continue writing to government ministers and our MPs in helping people in custody and in the community, and asking more of our government.
When the national sentiment changes from distrust of outsiders to more hospitable attitudes, we must be ready to promote it. Hospitality towards refugees must begin in hospitable hearts that will ultimately outlast the walls that raise fear and prejudice against it.
Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant for Jesuit Communications