Refugess and the politics of shame

Back in 1956, the Western world watched and did nothing as Hungary rose up against its Communist overlords in a bloody revolution that took place on the streets of Budapest.

I was almost four at the time. I didn’t know:

  • my Dad was one of the people who fought to kick the Soviets out, or that
  • our hard won freedom would only last a couple of weeks, or that
  • the West would sit on its hands as we begged for help to keep the Soviets from coming back.

As an adult I know about the Cold War and the possibility that intervention might have started World War III, but as that child, all I knew was that suddenly we were going on a great adventure, Mum, Dad and me. On the way out of the city, we passed lots and lots and LOTS of mounds in the park. They were covered with flowers and looked very pretty.

I don’t know where the flowers came from. It was starting to be winter already, but I remember them, one of a handful of visual images I retain from that time. I also remember being on a train. The train stopped in the middle of nowhere and Dad made us jump down on the tracks and run away.

Most of the time I travelled on Dad’s shoulders. He’d been a gymnast and was very strong. When the guide took us through the minefield at the border, Dad told me that no matter what happened, I was to stay absolutely quiet. No chatter. No laughing. No crying. Nothing.

I remember desperately needing to pee, and I remember snow but I don’t remember the moment when Dad fell, with me on his shoulders. I do remember that I didn’t cry out though, and I’m still really proud of that almost 60 years later.

We made it across the border into Austria but we had nothing left. Everything of value we gave to the guide to pay for our passage. Luckily the Austrians took us in. We lived in barracks with a lot of other people and I remember making a snowman outside.

As Dad spoke fluent French and German as well as Hungarian, he made some money as an interpreter for the people in the camp, but that money paid for extra food, nice stuff that wasn’t provided by our hosts, things like eggs and tiny bars of chocolate for me.

I remember one of the few times my father smacked me was when we went to a shop to buy some chocolate. In the window were some small toys and I think I was enamoured of a tiny metal frypan or pot. When my parents refused to buy it for me, I chucked a tantie [tantrum]. That’s a memory of shame.

Most of those very early memories are good ones though. I remember flying on a real plane and loving all the fresh fruit the cabin staff gave me. Oranges! Oranges were still a big deal in Europe in those days. And I remember thinking how silly my mother was because she threw up the whole time we were on the plane.

It took us about a week to fly from Austria to Australia and the Australian government paid for everything because…we were Hungarian refugees and the Western world was ashamed of not helping us.

Less that twenty years later, Australia’s involvement in another war – Vietnam – led to us accepting the first lot of boat people to arrive on our shores. These were South Vietnamese people who had been left behind when the West withdrew its forces…and its protection.

I remember that there was some grumbling amongst more conservative Australians about all the ‘boongs’ [derogatory label] arriving on our shores, but those Vietnamese boat people settled in and made us a better place. And they sure as hell added to our cuisine!

Now we are faced with another wave of boat people, and like my people and the Vietnamese people, they too owe their plight, at least in part, to our involvement in the Middle East. Prime Minister Howard decided to join the Alliance of the Brave, or whatever that bullshit name was, and Australian troops were sent into Afghanistan and Iraq.

I don’t want to get sidetracked into an argument about the rights and wrongs of our interventions overseas, but one thing is crystal clear – those interventions did not bring peace to either Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, they could have triggered a domino effect in the Middle East as the whole region destabilized.

And that destabilization had victims. The lucky ones are those that died in a split second of sound and fury. The ones left behind to pick up the pieces did what humans have done since the dawn of time…they ran. Like me and my family, they grabbed their children and ran into abject misery because what they left behind was so much worse.

The big difference between me and mine and the Middle Eastern refugees is that the West has lost its capacity for shame.

For Australia, this descent into cruelty began with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the label ‘queue jumper’. By calling the Middle Eastern boat people queue jumpers, Howard gave the latent racism of Australians a moral high horse to sit on.

I have to admit that when I first saw the footage of teeming refugee camps, I too bristled at the thought of queue jumpers taking the very limited spaces that Australia had to offer. I did not think, ‘Why aren’t we taking more of them?” I thought that fairness required a first-come-first served policy, with the most desperate getting to Australia first.

That was the power of the label ‘queue jumper’. What I didn’t realise at the time was that risking your life and the life of your child, spouse, elderly parent on a leaky boat is the ultimate sign of desperation. I also did not realise that these so called ‘queue jumpers’ were doing exactly what my parents had done – selling everything they had to pay for hope.

The misinformation about the Tampa and the ‘Children Overboard’ affair did not help.

Was that a deliberate decision on the part of John Howard’s government? Or simply an unfortunate mistake?

All I know is that even after the truth came out, the taint did not go away. In many peoples’ eyes, the boat people were no longer just queue jumpers, they were heartless, soulless, cunning bastards capable of sacrificing their own children to get what they wanted. How could any right thinking Australian let such people into our country?

In time though, the footage of cold-hearted queue jumpers drowning off Christmas Island threw a spanner in the works and the government was forced to change the narrative.

Courtesy of The Age

Picture courtesy of The Age. Click the photo to be taken to the original article.

Suddenly, our policy of exclusion was not about the queue jumpers any more, it was about the ‘people smugglers’. They had to be stopped, and if that meant being cruel to the surviving boat people well, so be it. As all parents knew, sometimes you had to be cruel to be kind. After all, we were trying to save their lives and wipe out a terrible, immoral scourge, weren’t we?

And so Australian politicians from both sides decided to enforce off-shore processing. If the boat people realised they would never get to Australia they would stop trying to come, wouldn’t they?

The answer to that naive question is no. The truly desperate don’t function on political logic. They are driven by fear on the one hand, and a naive, rose-tinted hope on the other. The truth is, the boats have not stopped coming, they have merely been diverted or sent back to come again another day.

When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott boasted about ‘stopping the boats’, he was telling only half the story. The other half, the desperate, grimy half was, and is, being hidden from us behind a policy of silence.

By pursuing their off-shore detention policy, the government has ensured that it can keep all of us in the dark. What we don’t know won’t prick our delicate consciences. It won’t make us demand a better way. And it won’t make us realise that the queue jumpers are just like us. That, more than anything else, is the prime objective of the media ban. By keeping the detainees invisible, the government makes them ‘other’ and humans have been scared of the ‘other’ since we lived in caves and had to fight each other for limited resources.

How unsurprising then, that…people… like Pauline Hanson feel free to spew their message of hate and fear? Who is going to call them on it when the truth is hidden?

I don’t know what the answer is, but after reading this article on Medium today, I know that current policy has to change. Not to save the refugees but to save ourselves. We like to think we live in the Lucky Country, and we like to think our culture is based on the ‘fair go’, but how will we see ourselves once history finally opens our eyes?

The truth can hurt but lies kill.



About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

31 responses to “Refugess and the politics of shame

  • anne54

    My family has lived in the safety of Melbourne for a few generations now. I cannot imagine what it must be like to flee, but I know that people would not do it on a whim. I was fascinated to read your story, Meeks, and the juxtaposition of your innocence with the fear and determination of your parents. I too repair that things have not changed for refugees who asked Australia for help and ended up in camps, often for indefinite periods


  • sepultura13

    The racism of Australians was, and still is, at the fore when it comes to the shameful treatment of the indigenous population, from what I understand. I’d never heard the term “black-fellers” until I was in a relationship with an Aussie from the southeastern region of that country.

    In my opinion, Aussies, Canadians, and South Africans rival the U.S. when it comes to deplorable treatment of non-whites. It’s a sad thing that something as simple as colour of skin, or cultural differences, make it so easy for some to dehumanized their fellow human beings.

    I’m off my soapbox, now!


    • acflory

      Sadly, you’re right, there is a lot of racism in Australia and we even had an official ‘White Australia’ policy back in the…60’s? or maybe the 50’s. These days, the policy of multi-culturalism has made Australia much more inclusive but there is still an undercurrent of ‘us’ vs ‘them’, especially amongst the older generations and the less educated.
      That divide is particularly wide when it comes to our indigenous peoples. Most Australians have never met an Aboriginal person and they are still rare, even on TV. Those that continue to live on the land are ‘unseen’ so most of us don’t know how bad their lives are. So it’s often neglect through ignorance rather than malice.
      Change is happening, but at a glacial pace. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Oh…p.s.! Black fella is actually the way many indigenous people refer to themselves. The term is ‘pidgin’ rather than derogatory!

      Liked by 1 person

  • HonieBriggs

    Meeks! You know I love your writing. I love you even more for articulating this powerful message with such clarity and honesty.


  • Yvonne Hertzberger

    This is such a powerful post, Meeks. Your personal story lends a whole new dimension to how we are treating this current crisis. We need to do MUCH more to help refugees from the strife in Syria and the rest of the Middle east. I, too, have friends who went through a similar trial as Baha’is fleeing Iran in 1978. While those who smuggle refugees and take all they have, causing so many drownings, need to be dealt with, we also ned, as governments, to welcome and assist those in need so that this desperation is unnecessary.I am so pleased that we, in Canada, now have a prime minister who is more open and welcoming than the previous dinosaur.


    • acflory

      You’ve put your finger right on it Yvonne. PM Trudeau has changed the whole landscape of politics in Canada while we here are still struggling with a bunch of dinosaurs who put politicking ahead of everything else.
      How to deal with refugees is a discussion the whole world has to have because we’re not dealing with climate change, which means the future holds even greater waves of displaced people to deal with. We can’t ignore them or treat them like inconvenient garbage.
      I don’t know what the answer is but this is not it. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  • Candy Korman

    The current state of the world is a MESS and it’s getting worse.

    But I loved reading your childhood story. A four-year-old’s perspective of the great “adventure” in the midst of tragedy and danger. It’s a story you might want to pursue in a book!


  • Mick Canning

    Powerful, Meeka, and sad. As has been noted, of course, we in Europe are no more welcoming.


  • DawnGillDesigns

    A beautifully, thoughtful and emotional piece. Thank you. Are you happy for me to tweet it?


  • davidprosser

    Oz has always had a better open door policy with immigrants than Europe but it seems you’re now following us instead of the other way round. I hope things get sorted there so you can revert to making the UK feel the shame it should. I can agree with not accepting economic migrants at the moment but not to ignore so many genuine refugees.
    Thanks for sharing your early story too.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx


    • acflory

      -sigh- This has been going on here since…2002? If anything, Europe showed lots more compassion than us, at least in the beginning. I understand the paranoia but this kind of change will happen no matter how much we may wish to keep the status quo. Ah well.


  • Frank Prem

    Disgusting state of affairs and a matter of national shame. My biggest heartbreak was a story of flowers being delivered to a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere, because a little girl hadn’t even seen one since being incarcerated. I posted a poem about it somewhere on my blog, but to what end these things? Damned if I know.

    Yes, it’s got to change, but I’m not hopeful.




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