Today I post a poem by WH Auden. It was written in 1939.

Refugee Blues


Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
‘If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead’;
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.


Back in 2010 when I was asking for sins to carry, one of my sinners gave me this:

As you know I’m passionate about racism and human rights and still carry anger (a sin?) towards John Howard & Philip Ruddock for the damage they did to refugees and to our country’s soul. I would like to know that I am funding part of your pilgrimage as an attempt to walk off some of this damage….repair our country’s soul.

I thought of my sinner this morning, as I heard one of our politicians, Judi Moylan, calling for her party members – and their leader – to engage in bi-partisan conversations about the issue of “boat people”. It made me pause to wonder…

What if we spoke of “desperate people” rather than “boat people”? What if our politicians actually talked to each other in the coming days instead of continuing their usual bickering and point-scoring? What if in their conversations they could find a way to compassionately and quickly process the applications of people seeking refuge on our shores?

What if a poem like this never had to be written again?


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8 thoughts on “Refugee Blues

  1. Dear Ailsa,
    Thank you for doing the work that sadly is no longer done by this nation’s media.
    Unlike your sinner friend I find it hard to have forgiveness for the cynical manipulation of Howard & Ruddock then, and Bernardi, Mirabella and Abbott etc now in their shameful portrayal of refugees as illegal, and as a threat to a sense of entitlement in this country.
    The political processes, and the media which promote their own ruthless ends are debasing us as a nation and as individuals when it comes to our compassion for others.
    We cannot think of ourselves as living in the land of a “fair go” when we lack the political will to do better for those less fortunate whatever their circumstances.

    1. I’m not sure how close to forgiveness my sinner is, but I do think that no “side” of politics has a monopoly on good or bad behaviour in this sorry chapter of our history. I need to believe that all the pollies are reading the populace wrongly, and that most of us want consensus, and for that consensus to be decent and to recognise our great good fortune here in Oz. I am in rabid agreement with your final sentence. Rabid!

  2. dear ailsa, thanks for posting this poem – it’s outrageous that grown adults in Oz can bicker over people’s lives like this – tony abbott is a curse to the nation as is anyone who cannot imagine what fear and persecution these travellers have overcome to even contemplate getting on a leaky boat and risking life and limb. the “desperate people” are only the tiniest of our migrant intakes – the statistics show them to be very few indeed in actuality. as a nation, it’s just a bargaining point based on fear-mongering amongst the racists in our population. what if you or i or tony abbott were so persecuted (jewish in hitler’s germany?) that we saw a long, dangerous boat out of the country as the only alternative? and what if the country we were hoping would take us in refused admission??? in world war 2 there was such a ship, a liner with thousands on board and all the big allied nations refused to berth it because they didn’t want a boatload of jews! that included america and england. shameful period then, shameful period now. shame on australia!

    1. Dear Nancy,
      My dismay is not solely at politicians, or even at one politician in particular. I don’t like what any “side” is putting forward currently, and I simply can’t comprehend how this is not a bi-partisan issue. How can anyone be “partisan” about human rights? I have no issue with screening migrant intakes, but with all the resources we have financially and intellectually, I simply can’t understand why we have not made progress with detention centres and processing. The current system makes many feel ashamed and disconsolate – and helpless. It is time for real conversation, because “stopping the boats” from sailing into destruction, despair and death is essential. I just want the politicians to talk to the advocates and the bureaucrats and the stakeholders, and to put human interest and safety first. Why should it be so difficult.

  3. Fascinating that this poem rings so true to us still, in this time of prosperity and what we thought was a shackled free life. However, for some, it is not. I admire your passion on this Ailsa. I wonder when the “political hollywood” will end and the real conversations begin.

    1. Hi Jess,
      “Political Hollywood” – that’s a great phrase! If only the scripts they were spouting had some veracity. I am in danger of a kind of cynicism about politics that I don’t like. I’ve always believed that people who enter politics mostly do so for honourable reasons – to effect what they believe to be just changes, and to serve their constituents. Maybe that is naive. But when we know how hard-won democracy is in some parts of the world, I want to believe in it and what it can achieve. So I ask for more from the pollies we have. And from myself! Back to writing letters, I guess! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Hi Ailsa,
    Thanks for posting this. Like a lot of Australians I am disgusted with our Government’s response and the collective political lack of open-heartedness in relation to asylum seekers. To the extent that I am responsible as part of the ‘collective’ and thus share in this SIN, I feel moved to take whatever action I can to shift the collective consciousness on this issue. Thanks to your initiative and my affinity with your evoluntionay adventures, I feel moved enough to propose something …. Why don’t we create an Australian Camino? The first one can be for those willing to walk together as a group as we carry our collective sin of not doing enough to welcome asylum seekers and instead let them drown at sea. If, as a country, we don’t expunge our collective culpability for this SIN then we will probably get the government we deserve led by the likes of Tony Abbott. I would love to work with you to organise something like this. Maybe it can co-incide with your talk at the Daylesford Winter Words event in August. If you would like to combine forces, feel free to call me. I will send my number by email. Hasta luego.

    1. Hi Michael,
      I’m currently engaging in a camino of words on this issue! I’m writing wherever and whatever I can that is likely to contribute. I think we need all our politicians to feel the urgency of this right now, while it is in the public mind, because in a week it will be gone and people will be anxious about the consumer sentiment figures again. So for now, I’m writing letters to politicians and making a few phone calls, because I’m hoping that will have an effect. In my experience, taking to the streets has not budged governments much in recent years, but perhaps personal interactions might. And finally, this is a human issue. That’s why I want to grapple with it one on one.
      But an Aussie Camino? It sounds grand to me. But caminos are usually undertaken solo, and not for political reasons. I don’t know – I’ve never claimed to be an expert on camino – but might it be counter to the idea of it to walk in a group? Just wondering…
      There is a Camino trail in New Norcia, in WA, I’m told. One day…

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