Book of Life Stories

Our Cities of Refuge

Ron Hoenig

Published in Beit Shalom Magazine August 2002, the newsletter of the Adelaide Progressive Jewish Congregation

My parents were refugees. They escaped Hungary soon after their wedding in May 1945. The family story is that my father was involved in the Hungarian Worker’s Party through his brother who was, what my mother described a bit sneeringly as a big Communist. My father was a smaller Communist, active in the illegal unions before and, for a short time, after he was sent to forced labour camp as every young Jewish man was in Hungary.

By the time the war ended, my uncle Lajos, who had survived his time in forced labour, I think, in Romania, led a kind of workers’ house with other comrades. My mother was not a comrade. She had survived the war by passing as a Catholic girl and entrusted her life to young Catholic man. She had never been political and distrusted politics. My father was welcome in the workers’ house. My mother was not – but she could cook for them.

Anyhow, the story goes that my mother’s brother Bandi – also not a Communist, or not any longer – came to see his sister in Budapest and told her that he was leaving Hungary for Germany and thereafter the US and he wanted her to come with him.

I don’t think he had very high regard for my father at the time. And my mother, who was not made welcome in the workers’ house, decided neither the past nor the future joys of life in the Workers’ Paradise of Hungary was enough to keep her there. She said she was going, and my father reluctantly joined her.

They lived as displaced persons in a camp in Degendorf in Germany. And in 1948, with impeccable timing, left for Israel. I don’t know whether or not they were blockaded in, but somehow or other they ended up in Israel, where they stayed until late 1951 – when finally sponsorship papers arrived from my father’s older brother Laci who had lived in Melbourne.

For me the word refugee was never tainted. My parents were refugees, my other Uncle Bamdi – this time on my father’s side – and his family were 1956 refugees. In fact, everybody I knew was a refugee.

When I first sought refuge from terrible experience as a teacher in the beautiful Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh, I taught Turkish refugees in a clothing factory in Collingwood and a variety of Latin American refugees in the Nissan motors factory in Springvale.

When I came to South Australia in 1978 to make a living as an actor, I taught English to Vietnamese refugees at the former Port Adelaide Primary School and at Croydon High School.

For me, the word refugee has a certain dignity and battered pride.

It acknowledges that there are times when the reality of “home” is so horrible that, even though all the ties that make a place our own still remain, there is no alternative to flight. And as Plaut points out in his commentary on the Cities of Refuge, refuge – even if it is “safe” – is a kind of social death. Even more difficult if one loses all the normal clothing of status, respect, profession, and language that makes one “a person”.

In contrast to the Torah’s Cities of Refuge, we now – or at least what appears to be the overwhelming majority of the Australian population – are satisfied to have built our own cities of refuge in the desert – at Port Hedland at Woomera and at Villawood and we’re planning one at Baxter.

While there is some pretence that these are merely detention camps, what we hear of practices there make them sound much more like prisons.

In fact, people who participate in helping detainees to leave their detention are liable to a 10-year jail sentence – just as if they had busted some criminal out of Yatala.

The people who do “abscond” thereby become criminals. Not before..

The number of refugees from the ecological, economic and political disasters of the late 20th century has increased exponentially. Now Australia has become a rapidly shrinking fortress in the hope of making it impossible for some thousands of refugees to find a home here.

But European countries face the prospect of millions of refugees – and, as yet, while the forces of the Right mount their attack on these people, European countries have behaved with more compassion than we have.

Refugees are fine when you need a large pool of cheap labour. Then all the fine dressing of sentiment and humanitarianism can cloak the greed, but in a post industrial world where capital prefers highly educated and technologically adept workforce, the last thing it needs – in the short term – is a massive influx of people.

But of course, the Torah goes one better. The refugees who gain asylum in the cites of refuge have killed people and they seek asylum from blood avengers. Once safe in their city of refuge the murderer is taken under guard to his own city for trial. If it can be proved that he killed with premeditation, he is put to death there, but if it can be proved that he killed unintentionally, then he is returned to the city of refuge “until the death of the high priest”.

Plaut says there are three purposes of the institution of exile: to allow the blood of the avenger to cool, to provide a kind of social death to take place as the killer leaves behind all the connections to home and finally to contain the pollution of the land because blood has been spilt – even if unintentionally – and this pollution can only be redeemed with the death of the high priest.

In his commentary, Menahem Ben Yashar from the Bar Ian University speaks of a kind of spiritual ecology which is referred to in the very first murder – the killing of Cain. In Genesis 4: 10-12 after Abel kills Cain, God says: “Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground – If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth”.

But in our case, the refugees currently in detention at Woomera are not murderers. The majority have only committed the sin of impatience, or they have lied about where they come from, or they have come here not because of a well-founded fear of persecution in their own homes, but because life in their own country has become unlivable.

Our cities of refuge in the desert are instead a monument to our own loss of compassion. Even when acknowledged to be refugees as increasing numbers are, our refugees face not liberation into the community but temporary protection visas which have created a second class of refugee – not accorded the previous benefits that have helped this country to absorb refugees from a variety of different and conflicting homelands, but another kind of social death.

I quote from a Russell Skelton’s article in The Age of July 3, 2002 “The bread and butter of life in limbo”.
Temporary protection visa (TPV) holders have formally and completely met the criteria to be declared bona fide refugees; that is, they have been persecuted in their homeland and face a real danger of either further persecution or death if they are returned home.

But rather than being on an Australian passport, TPV holders live in limbo, never knowing from one year to the next whether they will become full Australian citizens (those granted TPVs after the 2001 changes to the Immigration Act cannot), or permanent members of a new immigrant underclass created by the Howard Government to send a message to people smugglers who brought them to Australia.

Former human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti has condemned the policy of issuing TPVs to refugees who have by definition experienced persecution. “Research has found that the policy has created uncertainty, insecurity, isolation, confusion and powerlessness and health problems amongst the holders of these visas”.

Sidoti claims that the issuing of TPVs by the Howard Government is probably a violation of the International Refugee Convention and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to found a family because the visa bars holders from family reunion. “This adverse treatment is at least discrimination based on status, and perhaps discrimination based on race or ethnic origin”.

An estimated 8350 TPV holders have been, according to refugee support agencies, literally “dumped” in capital cities across Australia by the Department of Immigration – often without the slightest idea of where they are going and with minimum financial support.

TPV holders are released into the community from detention centres like Woomera and Curtin, with very little information and restricted access to most Federal Government settlement services. Unlike permanent protection visa holders, they are denied settlement support by the Department of Immigration, qualify for only the most basic employment assistance programs, and are denied family reunion rights and access to Commonwealth-funded English language training. They must also wait up to six months for access to Medicare.

And because they are TPV holders they face discrimination from all quarters, even their own ethnic communities, where they are sometimes viewed as queue jumpers and shunned for depriving permanent residents of family reunion places.

In their flight from persecution, TPV holders made one fundamental error of judgment, as far as Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock is concerned: “They used people smugglers to bring them to Australia illegally”.

For that they are denied access to the full range of settlement services offered to refugees who arrive by aircraft on a tourist or education visa and then apply for asylum and refugee status. Under new regulations introduced last year, TPV holders can never be given permanent resident status.

This is all part of the government’s determination to deter unauthorized arrivals permanently – even those who may be legitimate refugees.

The first TPVs – granted in October 1999, after the first waves of unauthorized asylum-seekers arrived from the Middle East – are due to expire in November and most can apply for permanent residency. But those who received TPVs after changes to the Immigration Act last year can only apply for a renewal of the TPV and are not eligible for permanent residency.

Is it too much for us to think that the behaviors of our government this time is upsetting the spiritual ecology and we may yet have to pay the price for our own redemption.

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