This Country is Leading the Way on Refugees…and It’s Identity Will Surprise You

This Country is Leading the Way on Refugees…and It’s Identity Will Surprise You

Of all the nations in the world that host refugees,  the country leading the way is none other than the African nation of Uganda. It has a population of 34 million, many of whom live in poverty and in the last few years has taken in more than 1 million refugees.  What sets Uganda apart  is the support and welcome it gives to refugees.  Every refugee household is given access to land that they have the exclusive right to farm. Refugees  are free to move around the country and are eligible for  social services such as health and education.  Astonishingly,  has maintained this openness and generosity even in the last two years as over half a million refugees  entered the country  in 2016 and large numbers are entering in 2017.

A World Bank report suggested that  the reasons for this openness  include the fact that many Ugandans have been refugees at one stage in their life  and that both the traditional practice of Ubuntu  and a pan- Africanism that has emerged in the postcolonial period  means refugees are welcomed as  brothers and sisters.  this was reflected in the statement by the President  in 2015:

“We handle refugees well because we do not believe in colonial borders. These are Africans; and Uganda is therefore their home.”
Statement on the Occasion of the 23rd Summit of the African Peer Review Forum.” Johannesburg, June 13, 2015

A report by the BBC earlier this year  spoke of conditions in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp.  The huge influx of refugees is putting pressure on communities.  Prices for food,  in some places water is scarce, and refugees compete for jobs in a market where there is already high unemployment. Nonetheless, the people of Uganda are, on the whole, maintaining their extraordinary welcome.

In less than a year, a camp in northern Uganda has taken in more refugees than any other in the world, and all of them from war-torn South Sudan.

Here in Bidi Bidi it can take you one hour to drive from one end of the camp to the other. But it is not what you might envisage.

Much of this place is lush, green and fertile. South Sudanese are given a plot of land to build a home and farm. They live next to Ugandans, fetch water together and their children go to the same schools.

Most of the area is government-owned but some Ugandans have chosen to give part of their land to refugees, like 61-year-old Issa Agub.

It is getting late when we arrive at his compound and his family is preparing porridge and beans over a firewood stove to break their Ramadan fast.

“I gave this land because the refugees are already here. I don’t see them as strangers I see them as brothers. When I run out of food, they’ll be the first people I turn to for help.”

Catherine Byaruhanga,  Why a Ugandan Farmer Gave Land to a Refugee, 23 June 2017

A little later in the article another  Ugandan is  asked if there are growing resentments and hostilities towards refugees. His reply?

There is not much competition. People here are very hospitable because at one time we were refugees in South Sudan. They hosted us until there was peace in Uganda.

I can’t help but wonder what the Ugandan people would make of Australia, of the sheer panic that set in  when  refugees  arriving  to our borders soared to a paltry high of 23,000 in 2013.  Where  they provided refugees with land and welcomed them into their communities,  we shut down our borders,  placed them in detention centres designed to break their spirit,  and even now  cannot find it in our hearts to bring a few hundred terrified refugees on Manus to Australia. Surely a Ugandan friends would shake their heads  and tell us we had  that the refugees are our brothers and sisters.

I am inspired by the Ugandan response. Theirs is a story worth the telling.


The truth is now plain to see. There were no hordes of refugees making their way to Australia

As the number of  refugees and asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat rose sharply in 2012 and 2013, the  major political parties engendered a state of moral panic.  The long-standing debate over push versus pull factors  was resolved in favour of pull factors; that is,  it was finally agreed that Australia’s policies of welcoming  refugees and asylum seekers  made Australia an attractive destination that refugees would cross the world to reach. In the face of this we closed our borders to refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat.  The Rudd government announced they would now be detained in offshore centres, refused entry to Australia at any point in the future,  and the Abbott government implemented a policy of  intercepting  boats at sea  and returning them to Indonesia.

Almost all of those who arrived in Australia by boat set out from Indonesia, so one would expect that  after the implementation of these policies the number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving Indonesian would have fallen dramatically. Yet this has not happened. Indeed looking at the statistics for Indonesia, the nation is more popular than ever as a destination for refugees and asylum seekers.

This makes the cruel debacle that unfolded on Manus Island and Nauru  and has now reached the point of farce even more tragic. Not only were there other options available to us that did not involve the degradation of human beings fleeing persecution, but the intentionally cruel option that we took looks like it was completely unnecessary.  There were no hordes  making their way across the globe to Indonesia to set off in boats for Australia. There were just men, women and children whose lives had been turned upside down by incredible violence and just wanted somewhere safe to live.

Source of data in the chart: UNHCR Statistical Reports 2012-2015 & Global Report 2016

An anniversary I’d rather not be celebrating

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the decision by the Rudd-Gillard government to detain unauthorised asylum seekers in offshore detention centres and never permit them entry to our county.

Today the system is on the verge of collapse, with the Manus centre declared illegal by the PNG Supreme Court, the government of Nauru refusing to keep people detained, and the deal with the US to resettle those on Manus and Nauru looking vey shaky.

So what have we learned?

The policy has been horrendously expensive.

At their peak, the Manus and Nauru detention centres, held 2450 detainees (1).The cost of running the centres for the four years  has been just on $5 billion (2).  This means we have spent a staggering $500,000+ per year per detainee in offshore detention! That is 10 times the cost of processing asylum seekers and then settling those found to be refugees. For the same spend we could have welcomed an additional 25,000 refugees per year for the last four years. That is, we could have afforded the cost of settling every refugee who arrived by boat and had a lazy billion or two left over.

The policy has been extremely damaging.

Numerous reports have found that refugees in the Manus and Nauru facilities are subject to increased levels of violence, depression, and psychological trauma. Greg Lake, who was the Director of Offshore Processing from August 2012 until he resigned in April 2013, described the core strategy of the offshore detention approach as robbing refugees of hope (3) To deter people from seeking asylum in Australia it was necessary to make things so bad it was preferable to stay in places of extreme danger rather than come to Australia. And the way this was achieved was by psychologically breaking refugees.

The government had done nothing to create a viable long term solution.  

The offshore detention policy was designed to prevent growing flows of asylum seekers arriving in Australia  without authorisation. The moral imperative behind this was the prevention of deaths at sea. This is, in my view, an honourable goal, even if the method selected to do so was not. No one wants to see people desperately fleeing persecution drowning in their quest for freedom.

Yet while the Gillard-Rudd and Abbot-Turnbull governments implemented the recommendation of the Expert Panel for offshore detention,  no government has taken up the Panel’s other key recommendation that a regional framework be developed that provides clear pathways for asylum seeker in our region to find protection.

Ir seems that we’re content with preventing asylum seekers arriving on our shores, which means they become someone else’s problem.

Australia’s policy has undermined the global protection system. 

The Refugee Convention is built on a simple supposition – that when people flee persecution the signatories to the Convention will welcome them and provide them with protection. Yet if other nations adopted the same approach as Australia there would be nowhere for refugees to flee to.

Contrived debate on asylum seekers arriving by boat has unleashed our “lesser angels”

Politicians and shock jocks have demonised asylum seekers to score cheap political and ratings points. This has been both a sign of and a contributor to a debasing of our public life that has legitimised fear and hatred of refugees and muslims.

We all share in the shame

Australians like to think of ourselves as good and generous people. The truth is that In a variety of ways we are good and generous, but at the same time there are areas of our life in which we are absolute bastards.  Our attitudes toward and treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat is an area in which we are at our worst. We all either know that we are bullying and destroying innocent people or have chosen not to know. With the exception of a small group, it is a price we are willing to pay to assuage baseless fears.

We can be so much better than this.

The no resettlement policy combined with boat turn-backs has succeeded in stemming the flow of unauthorised asylum seekers to Australia. It has done nothing to ensure that asylum seekers in our region find protection, but has made their situation worse by shutting off one protection option.

We can do better than this. Tomorrow the movie Dunkirk is released, which commemorates the way the British community banded together to rescue soldiers surrounded by the German army. It reminds me that when faced with humanitarian crises, human beings can be magnificent in finding solutions.

With the right leadership Australia could reshape its refugee framework and lead the workload towards a better approach. Sadly, I don’t think we’re likely to see it from our current Prime Minister.









( hi1)

(2) senate estimes. Reported in the Guardian 18/7/2017


There’s so much we can do if we work together

There’s so much we can do if we work together

Do you remember that amazing scene in Perth in 2014 when a commuter fell into the gap between a train and the station platform?  The commuter was stuck, and then something incredible happened. Hundreds of people put their shoulders against the train, took up the strain, and pushed. They managed to shift the train just enough for the trapped commuter to  get free.

It was an exhibition of our ability to meet challenges when we work together, each playing our part in delivering a solution. Look at any of the great societal advances of history and you won’t see a person of heroic qualities doing it all while the rest of us watch from the sideline. You’ll see a growing number of people taking up the cause until a tipping point is reached and change  is possible. It seems to me that this is the answer to the global refugee crisis.

2.3 million people became refugees in 2016, swelling the global refugee population above 22 million for the first time in two decades. They fled madmen, power hungry dictators, and religious fundamentalists wielding the instruments of terror. They looked to the international community for protection and we slammed the door in their face, simply refusing to cooperate in finding protection solutions for them.

A refugee only has three options to build a future:

  • return home when its becomes safe to do so;
  • integrate into the life of the country that hosts them;
  • resettle in a third country.

In 2016 only 750,000 or 3.4% of refugees were able to avail themselves of one of these solutions, but this was nowhere near sufficient to keep global refugee number stable let alone reduce them. And every year the international community fails to make solutions available, the number of refugees will likely continue to increase.

The heavy lifting is being done by the developing and newly industrialised states of the middle East and Africa. Australia, along with a number of other industrialised nations, is not  pulling its weight. If we were to apply the image of the trapped commuter we’d see a group of people of Middle Eastern appearance, a group of Africans, and a smattering of Germans with their shoulders against the train heaving with all their might, but unsuccessfully. They turn around and plead for help, but you and I are sitting on the platform  drinking coffee and reading papers and we really don’t want to get involved.  We feel a bit guilty doing nothing, so we send a couple of the kids over to help but quite frankly it’s just not our problem.

In the 2015-16 FY Australia welcomed 17,555 refugees. For those 17,555 Australia has been a lifeline, a promise of a future, a place of hope. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do for them and look forward to what they will contribut to us. But when the world is facing a crisis of the proportion it does, 17,555 is just not enough.  It is equivalent to just 0.76% of the 2.3 million who became refugees in 2016  and just 0.078%  of the world’s total refugee population.

We are ranked second on the UN Human Development Index, have the second highest per capita wealth in the world, and have 2.8% of the world’s wealth.  If we were pulling our weight we’d assume responsibility  to  find solutions for at least 2.8%  of the world’s refugees.  But we don’t. We leave that to the Pakistanis, the Turks, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Jordanians and the Africans.

The only industrialised nation pulling its weight is Germany.

It’s refugee week this week. Perhaps it’s time to stop with the myths we have created to justify our miserly approach and resolve to do our fair share. No more. No less. Just our fair share.  Yes resolving a crisis of this magnitude presents challenges. Yes it will cost us something (but not nearly as much as we think). But you and I both know that crises aren’t solved by superheroes while the rest of the stand back and watch their amazing feats. Crises are resolved when we all get together and each do our bit.



## Statistics cited are from UNHCR Global Trends 2016 and Department of Immigration and Border Protection

A Prayer for Syria and Syrian Refugees

Civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 after the Assad regime resisted the regional movement towards democracy known as “the Arab Spring”. Initially a war between the government and a rebel movement, the rise of ISIS has added a third major party to the conflict. The situation is made more complex by the presence of outside interests, with Russia supporting the Syrian government, the United States supporting the rebellion movement, and the US and Russia coming together, often uneasily, to combat ISIS.

12 million Syrians, which equals 65% of the population, have been forcibly displaced, including 5.5 million who have become refugees. They have found refuge mainly in neighbouring countries. 2.8 million Syrian refugees are now hosted by Turkey, 1 million by Lebanon, 650,000 by Jordan, 230,000 by Iraq and 116,000 by Egypt. These countries are understandably struggling to cope with the large and rapid increase in their population. Imagine having to suddenly find housing, provide schooling medical services for hundreds of thousands of people.

Our God,
We are a swirling sea of emotion
as we contemplate the tragedy that has befallen Syria.
We feel anger at the ways violence is employed
to serve the interests of the powerful, yet does so at great cost to people;
We feel despair at the complex history, political interests, and
entanglements that make an end to the war seem so far off;
We feel compassion for the children, women and men
whose lives been turned upside down,
who have lost people they love,
and wonder what their future will be.

We pray for peace,
We pray for peacemakers to break the cycle of violence and retribution,
We ask that you raise up peacemakers in each of the warring groups and the
international alliances that back them.

We pray for those whose lives have been turned upside down by the war.
Give those who have lost family members the space to grieve and the capacity to grieve well;
Give those who have fled the violence places of safety and protection,
communities in which they can thrive and begin to hope again.

We pray particularly for the 12,000 Syrian refugees being resettled in Australia.
May the communities in which they settle be open to them, gracious and welcoming.

Finally we pray for ourselves, that you may open our hearts and the hearts of all
Australians to their fellow human beings who are suffering around the world.
Grant us an ever-increasing compassion, ever-increasing wisdom, and everincreasing
willingness to be their neighbour.

You can download this prayer as part of  a prayer exercise at

photo credit: Corey Oakley <a href=”″>Light the Dark – vigil for refugees in Melbourne</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a></div..


Three questions for the Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister,

I followed with some interest the speeches on Australia’s approach to the refugee crisis that you gave this week in New York. Given you have commended Australia’s approach to the rest of the world, I have a few questions I would like to ask.

1. If every country adopted Australia’s approach, where would refugees go? Australia’s approach is built on the foundation that we will not accept any refugees who arrive on our borders without a visa. If other nations adopted the same approach where would those who are persecuted and unable to access visas go? Would that mean their only option would be to stay in their home country and get executed, tortured or imprisoned?

2. You proudly declare that your party has stopped the boats. Is this just shorthand for saying we have stopped the boats coming to Australia? Given those who previously arrived were driven by desperation to make the dangerous journey from Indonesia to Australia, am I not right to assume that that same desperation will now drive refugees to seek safety somewhere else? I assume the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has done some research on this and could tell me the destinations that refugees who would have come to Australia are now pursuing?

3. What do you plan to do about the refugees detained on Manus Island and Nauru? Report after report has shown that these refugees, who have committed no crime, are being subject to violence, degraded treatment, and a complete crushing of the spirit. I remain perplexed that a champion of liberalism can tolerate this, and can only assume that you’re doing everything in your power to resolve the situation. So I‘m wondering what your plan is?

Yours sincerely,
Scott Higgins

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