In the wake of the attacks on Paris the Australian Government is under pressure to close our borders to Muslim asylum-seekers and refugees.
While public conversation over refugees has devolved over the years, a visiting academic from the University of Michigan Professor James Hathaway argues that the tone of the conversation can be changed.
Professor Hathaway, who outlined an alternative model for international refugee law at a recent Griffith Law School public lecture, noted the solidarity marches and initiatives from ordinary citizens proves that there is a groundswell of compassion and concern for the plight of refugees.
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“If you were forced to flee tomorrow, you would expect that some other person would show a little human empathy and see in you, what they see in themselves,” he said.
This capacity for empathy and understanding drives many people to reach out and make refugees feel welcome. Professor Hathaway uses the example of 11,000 Icelanders who have offered up their homes to refugees as ‘emblematic of something positive’.
For Australians looking to change the conversation on refugees, the examples being set in Europe should encourage them to make their voices heard.
“We’ve lived in Australia for a long time with a lot of negativity, but we can take a page from what’s happened in Germany and other leading European states where the person in the street has been very vocal,” he says.
Professor Hathaway says that these examples show that public opinion is not fixed and is ‘extraordinarily changeable’.
“Who could have imagined the sight of English and German football fans waving pro-refugee banners at a match? If you bought into the right-wing rhetoric, that would have been an impossibility.”
“I think sometimes people have been led to believe things that in their hearts they understand truly aren’t correct,” he says.
But in order for Governments to feel confident in embracing that shift in public sentiment, the global regime for dealing with refugees needs to be reinvigorated to be more workable for the long haul says Professor Hathaway.