By: Shona Yang
Australia is known around the world as the ‘lucky country’, but not all of us are lucky. With ongoing human rights issues and a questionable track record in Indigenous rights, Australia has been repeatedly called to address its ‘serious shortcomings’ by Human Rights Watch Australia director, Elaine Pearson, and the wider international community. We may have a seat on the Human Rights Council, but our neighbours are becoming increasingly aware of our unconstitutional offshore facilities that house asylum seekers and a lack of protection against children in detention centres.
The bleak picture is familiar around the world with daily reports of civil wars, economic crisis, and terrorism. Engaging with the headlines and stories that matter is difficult when you’re balancing an everyday routine or busy earning a living – It’s not that you don’t care but where does caring end?
The term ‘compassion fatigue’ has been around since the 1970s to help nurses and caregivers make sense of their psychological state of burnout. Medical journals define it as a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion when caring for people in distress or crisis. It’s mostly common in the medical profession – nurses, counsellors, doctors and emergency care workers.
Medical journals define it as a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion when caring for people
There’s a lack of research across other industries but the same kind of response is apparent in lawyers or police officers too. ‘Compassion fatigue’ can help make sense of our response to other issues – like our response to refugees or climate change. When we understand that the compassionate amongst us can become fatigued, the way we view our involvement, or lack thereof, starts to change.
In 2013 Susan Moeller wrote in The Huffington Post about the horrific but real visuals from Damascus in Syria – she said the images were disturbing enough that readers around the world were coddled into an ‘uncomfortable obliviousness’ as a natural response.
Challenging myself to care
I noticed a hint of uncomfortable obliviousness in the way I began to respond to headlines featuring the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. It was alarming and I was convinced that policy change was urgently required but mostly, I was riddled with a sense of guilt as reports of self harm and trauma on Nauru island began to flood my news feed. But, as I scrolled past posts featuring protestors and victims, I noticed the behaviour was not unfamiliar to those around me. Was this an unconscious reaction to shield ourselves from the obvious injustice around the world? Is switching off a way of self preservation in a time of over saturation of images and constant news?
I was riddled with a sense of guilt
In my state of desensitization and passivity, I sought to understand why people don’t seem to care as much as the crisis around us warrants. As I pursued the story, ‘What’s the matter with Nauru?’ I came across individuals that were passionately and actively taking a stance on behalf of asylum seekers. It taught me that expressing care happens in unique ways – day by day, little by little. Through the journey, I learned:
Knowledge is power:
When we clock into complacency, it’s often simply, misinformation or an innocent unknowing. We don’t know how to respond because we might not even know the parameters of our battle.
When I spoke to Refugee Rights Campaigner Ming-Yu Ha from Amnesty International, she criticised the government’s ‘wall of secrecy’ in its mission to disconnect the Australian public from the reality of refugees.
“If people are kept out of sight and out of mind, it seems to be easier to ignore them,” she said.
Ming-Yu is hopeful that change is the only outcome when Australians confront the truth – the sobering experience of asylum seekers like Hamid Kehazaei before his death. Leaked files from Manus Island uncover the delayed treatment and inaction by the government as Hamid’s health severely deteriorated. Had we known the details – Hamid’s outcome may have been different.
“We haven’t been exposed to the truth. Once we know the truth, we can take action,” she said.
We get frustrated and fatigued with our own inaction but, a response is only applicable and natural when birthed from a deep grappling with the facts. The dialogue around asylum seekers and refugees is already clogged with complex narratives of power, race and national identity. With legal labels and policies.
The dialogue around asylum seekers and refugees is already clogged with complex narratives of power, race and national identity.
The next time you read a headline that evokes an emotion – don’t repel it. Instead, use the shock, grief or momentary curiosity to delve into the facts and stay informed. It’s only when we know the giant we’re up against, then we can respond adequately.
Size doesn’t matter:
The size of your response to a cause doesn’t indicate your compassion or knowledge. You don’t have to be frontlining every protest on national immigration to prove to yourself or others that you care.
For some, this may be the very expression of their care – but for others, it might not be. What matters is the will for change and a creativity to express your own care and an outlet to make a real difference, no matter how small it is.
When I met with different people involved in the banner of refugee advocacy, each of them sung a similar tune. I met a man with his guitar, an NGO rep and a grandma dressed in purple. They told me that we all have the tools to make a difference in Australia’s refugee policy.
Resist the natural urge to sink into complacency with a few small steps. Whether you choose to support the House of Welcome, watch a production from the Treehouse Foundation or sign a petition with Amnesty International, these small steps make a generational change for asylum seekers in our country and beyond. Start small today.
Talk the walk:
Busting out of compassion fatigue starts with a conversation. When people do something with the information they already have, change is inevitable. Learn the facts of the fight. There are issues here that affect the daily lives of Australians and you have the means to make a difference. It’s just a matter of channelling it in the right direction.
Learn the facts of the fight
Over the past four years, the Australian government has been criticised by the National Audit Office for spending more than $3 billion in contracts for Nauru and Manus Island. Advised by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Australia continues to oversee systemic abuse in its detention facilities, masked by bureaucratic red tape and silence.
The ignorance we exercise consolidates a system of exclusion and isolation. The beginning of a wave of change is simple. Start the dialogue with someone in your circle of influence – friends, family, colleagues. Ask them what they know about Nauru and Manus.
Start the dialogue
You don’t need all the answers to ask for alternatives. Tell your local government what you think about current policies. Follow and get involved with campaigns, because when people make a stance, the world has no choice but to listen.
Shona is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Sydney. She is passionate about human rights and minority issues in Southeast Asia. See what she’s up to at: https://www.shonasays.com.