By David Keegan, CEO

I recently participated in a multicultural conference in New Zealand where a significant Maori leader, Dr Kara Puketapu, was invited to speak about multiculturalism. He spoke about offering compassion and friendship for visitors to his lands as an obligation and extended a commitment to working with the government and multicultural communities to make New Zealand a place where all visitors are welcome.

I was impressed by his simple approach to building relationships and encouraging cultural understanding as the foundations of welcoming multicultural communities. The Maori word for this is manaakitanga, which is the process for showing respect, generosity and care for others. This experience made me reflect on how first nation communities generally have well embedded concepts of welcome and that we can learn from them. It also reminds me of two of the foundational principles of HOST International: one; that sustainable integration of refugees does not happen without the support and active participation of host communities; and, two; that human relationships, hope and respect are needed to make community work.

Ealier this month it was NAIDOC week in Australia, where we celebrated the contributions of Aboriginal women in reconciliation and advancement of Aboriginal rights. As someone who has played a significant role in refugee settlement work in Australia over the past seven years, I found myself asking: ‘where has the voice of Aboriginal people been in the debates on refugee and asylum seeker issues in Australia’. I had the privilege of working with Aboriginal communities in Western Sydney early on in my career and I experienced similar concepts of welcome that were built around genuine respect and relationship. I wonder where the Aboriginal voice is in Australian refugee policy.

Tammy Solonec, a Nigena woman from Derby in the Kimberly, says in relation to refugee matters: “It’s all being done without our participation and this is our land, you know, we need to be involved in those discussions”. Ms Solonec believes most Indigenous Australians would be empathetic towards refugees.

I have also seen and heard Indigenous Australians perform their Welcome to Country in which they make a point to welcome refugees and migrants to their traditional lands. But their voices are largely missing from the refugee policy discussion. Without presuming to know exactly the reasons for this, perhaps it’s because traditional owners are not asked for their views by government or media commentators. Or perhaps because Indigenous Australians still have other battlefronts to fight for recognition and equality.

My understanding of reconciliation is that it starts with recognition, understanding and respect. Perhaps, then, what is needed is for policy makers and service providers to invite first nation people to the table for a discussion on refugee issues.

Australia unfortunately does not have a treaty that brings its first nation people into the conversation like New Zealand has. I’m aware that it’s not perfect in New Zealand either and that arguments about not accepting refugees, and ‘looking after people in your own backyard first‘ instead, persist. But I do believe the nation’s Maori people are more genuinely a part of policy and cultural discussions in all areas of their society, including refugee matters.

Australia certainly needs a more mature conversation about refugees and asylum seekers that is not about border protection or anti radicalisation, but more about the kind of nation we want to be and with indigenous ideology as the foundation. As part of our focus on host community participation in refugee integration, I am committed to ensuring that HOST International will build relationships with first nation people wherever we work and, where possible, incorporate indigenous ways into our practice framework.

By definition, refugees find themselves living in lands where they are visitors. Some will find a home in these places and some will remain a temporary visitor. Refugees tell me that they want to be able to feel like they belong and to give back to the communities that host them. They want to be able to make a new life without fear, torture or persecution. First nations people understand this because they have experienced the trauma of displacement from their lands. Belonging comes through being invited into a community as an equal. With this comes rights and with rights comes responsibility.

The principles of welcome obviously also extend to government and mainstream community.

I wonder what would be possible in addressing issues such as racism, radicalisation, border protection and settlement if we were to seek wisdom from first nation elders. What if a collaborative Welcome to Country by Australia’s traditional owners underpinned our refugee policies – something akin to the manaakitanga. Perhaps we could recognise the potential of refugees and migrants and welcome them, rather than viewing their arrival through the ideological securitisation of people movements.