Standing in someone else’s shoes requires imagination: the ability to think beyond one’s own world-view and imagine that of another. Psychologists call it mentalising; others empathy.
In Australia we like to think of ourselves as open, friendly, welcoming, egalitarian and forthright. We dream of home ownership and jobs and the education that will enable that; we dream of open spaces, wide blue skies and the outback; we dream of lives shared with families and friends.
So strong is our national narrative that others want to share it and participate in a society that is democratic and egalitarian. So how is it that we have become closed, anxious and unwelcoming? Why are we letting politicians and some interest groups highjack our narrative, stifle our imagination and our ability to empathise with others less fortunate? How is it that we lock people in punitive detention centres and leave them without hope just because our narrative tickled their imagination and hopes when faced with their own hostile governments, civil wars, fear of prosecution because of religious or political belief or being used as human shields?
We all have hopes and dreams. Asylum seekers usually leave their homes and the countries containing their dreams and hopes reluctantly. They take what chances are available to them depending on their circumstances. Sometimes they have left vital documents because to find or take those documents is to advertise their intention of fleeing. This could result in imprisonment, torture or death. Sometimes those documents are simply not available because there is no associated bureaucracy. It is hard for us to imagine that people may not have access to documents we take for granted: birth certificates, passports and any other papers required to verify ourselves; or, indeed, believe those documents are dangerous.
The refugee or asylum seeker becomes the other, different from us; someone who does not have the same desires, experiences and hopes. They become commodities to be exploited by people smugglers, units to be detained, numbers for bureaucratic purposes.
Episode Six of Janet King presented the dilemma of an Iranian family whose son had been called up by the Iranian army. He knows he will be posted to the frontier to fight ISIS and expects to be killed, putting an end to his studies and dreams. To avoid conscription he must pay $30,000. His mother, back in Iran after her visitor’s visa expired, is likely to be punished should her son not pay or return. How does a family with limited income obtain $30,000? A criminal syndicate exploits their predicament. They know it is wrong to take the chance offered. What would you do? When the father tries to break the agreement, thereby forfeiting the $30,000, his family is threatened. Again, what would you do?
The French film director, Jacques Audiard, in a recent interview in the Guardian about his film Dheepan, a film about Tamil refugees in Paris, said of his decision to insert a repeated dream sequence: “I don’t know what Tamils dream of. But what interested me was this – we see migrants as people who have no faces and no names, no identity, no unconscious, no dreams.” (Guardian Weekly, 22.04.16).
Do you remember your last dream and its imagery? Now, spare a moment and imagine the dreams of those people on Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island and the many detention centres on the mainland.