The Refugee Olympic Team was a wonderful initiative of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and I congratulate them on enabling ten athletes who are refugees to take part in the Rio 2016 Olympics. How can we not be moved by their individual and collective stories?
Of course, everyone is familiar now with the young woman who became the face of the team, 18-year-old Yusra Mardini from Syria who, for three hours, pushed a sinking dinghy full of people with her sister, Sarah, through the Mediterranean to get them all to safety. This isn’t a Hollywood tale; it’s real life.
And that’s the point.
There are 65 million displaced persons in the world. We welcome it when ten of them make it to the Olympics - it makes us all feel better - but how many of us do so on a day-to-day basis?
My own country, Australia, once welcomed hundreds of thousands of displaced persons post-Second World War. They helped build the country, from a huge hydro-electric scheme through to the houses and schools and hospitals of suburbs in the cities, through to building businesses small and large, and employing people.
But we have a shocking and shameful recent record. We lock them up. It’s a war of attrition. If they agree to go to a third country or, worse, "back home" their expenses are paid. If they don’t agree, they sit it out on a remote island or in a detention centre. Some go crazy, literally. Some have helped Australian soldiers in Afghanistan as interpreters. None of that seems to matter.
By no means, however, is Australia alone in its treatment of refugees.
If displaced persons do not die at sea, they die in the back of a truck being smuggled through Europe or Africa. Countries build fences to keep them out. They sit in centres with barely more than basic facilities. They die anonymously. Who knows whether they are even mourned? Their loved ones may be dead also.
As a husband and dad to four young people, I can’t imagine what it is like for circumstances to be so desperate, so hopeless, that the best option is to put your family on a boat and face a treacherous journey to a highly uncertain future. I am an expat living in Europe. I can choose to be here; I can also choose to return home any time. There is no choice for refugees. My heart aches even at the thought of that lack of choice, let alone the potential consequences of the decision to flee.
Thankfully, Angela Merkel feels the same. Almost alone amongst western leaders, she has shown the courage and leadership that the magnitude of this crisis needs. She has welcomed refugees to Germany, and copped a lot of criticism and backlash. I admire her greatly for this.
The IOC has done a good thing in highlighting the plight of refugees through #TeamRefugees. It is a symbol of how we can help give people hope and build a better life.
But until we deal with the contradiction between glorifying the ten people in #TeamRefugees and vilifying the 65 million refugees in the world, it is just a symbol.
It illustrates perfectly how the world is being pulled.
On the one hand, there are the forces of globalisation, borderless nations and the mobility and inclusivity of people; on the other hand, there is an equally strong counter force that espouses nationalism, tribalism and exclusion of some people who do not fit in with the prevailing culture and ethnicity of our respective countries.
The Refugee Olympic Team marched under an Olympic flag. What they, and all refugees, want is a flag to call home. It’s up to all of us to help them have one.