We are a more generous people than the politicians think we are. John Menadue

May 20, 2013

It is easy to be disappointed and depressed with the whole toxic debate about asylum seekers. The government is doing some things well, such as releasing more people from detention, but it is failing to provide political and moral leadership in this sensitive area. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison do their best to demonise asylum seekers and create fear.

But many people don’t want to be part of this.

Last Friday night, with 500 other people, I attended a fund-raising and fancy-dress dinner for the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. My wife and I dressed as best we could – French clowns. Perhaps that would not be hard you might say.

What struck me most of all were the hundreds of young people who attended, many volunteers at the centre and all supporters of the cause to help asylum seekers and refugees. Seeing all the young people gives us ‘oldies’ encouragement.

We had a moving and inspiring story from ‘Antoinette’, an asylum seeker who came from Uganda several years ago, having lost many of her family.  In Sydney she was homeless and friendless. The ASC ‘took me in’ she said. With that support she was slowly and steadily able to find her own feet. So many Australians helped her, some in small ways and others in big ways. She is now in employment, has a boyfriend and has become an Australian citizen. The speech was not a ‘tear jerker’ but a moving story of vulnerability and resilience. We should never underestimate a survivor.

HG Nelson was the MC giving his time and talents freely for the 11th function in a row.

I was at a table arranged by St Mary Magdalene Parish in Rose Bay. This parish has raised almost $100,000 for the Centre over the last few months.

There is good news around despite the public debate.

One issue stands out in my mind in the asylum seeker debate. The government is wisely releasing more asylum seekers from Immigration Detention Centres into the community. But very few of them are allowed to work. How can a Labor Government justify this denial of the dignity of people by insisting that they cannot work! The argument which the Minister for Immigration gives is that if they were allowed to work it would encourage more asylum seekers to come. There is no evidence in research anywhere in the world to support such a claim.

Denying anyone a right to work, particularly for able bodied people in a desperate situation will inevitably result in some breaking the law and finding work. Can you then imagine what Scott Morrison and Eric Abetz will say?

Confronted by a problem the Australian community is more generous and understanding than our politicians give us credit for. If only we had principled leadership we could do even better.

John Menadue

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