I can’t stop thinking about the poor refugees streaming out of the Middle East and Africa, determined to save their lives and the lives of their families. I see photo after photo of crying children, frightened mothers and desperate fathers. I see the incredible risks they take to reach safety. And, I see so many people respond to their plight with cruelty, racism, anger that is driven by fear and an extraordinary degree of callousness. The over-riding sentiment seems to be: They should die in their own country.

What has happened to our world? If there weren’t countries like Germany stepping up to the mark, I would completely despair. My own country, which has always been known as the land of the “fair go”, which has always been known for its friendliness and compassion for the underdog, is treating refugees like terrorists, shutting them up in tent cities on tiny, poor islands. My government turns a blind eye to the abuse of women and children in these places and has legislated that anyone working in these camps must also turn a blind eye. I cannot believe we have come to this. We punish the victims, not the perpetrators.

When there was a mass exodus from Vietnam after the end of that war, Australia welcomed Vietnamese refugees with compassion and generosity. They are now valued members of our society. So, what has changed since then?

I believe the turning point was 9/11. When the radicals attacked the world trade centre and the pentagon that day, they set off a ripple effect. Fear, mistrust, suspicion of non-white, Muslim, foreign, different people rippled out from the epicentre of the fallen towers, and swept out over the rest of the world.

Suddenly the language changed. Refugees became “illegal migrants” or “queue jumpers” and a matter of “border security”. Instead of our navy saving lives at sea their job, now, is to turn boats back to Indonesia rather than to help.

In a sense, the world has cancer, caused by fear. Just like the rogue cells in my body, the world is turning on itself.

We can only counteract this paranoid, callous attitude with changed hearts and minds that remind us we are all pilgrims on this earth. We are all human beings. We all (or most of us) want to live peacefully, happily with our families. We’ve got to stop believing the hyperbole of politicians and the more excitable members of the media, who are on the look-out for the next sensational story, and put our brains into gear once more. We need to help the refugees reach safety, instead of shoving them back towards the terror they’ve been fleeing. We need to find a way to bring peace to their homelands.

At the moment, the real terrorists are rubbing their hands with glee. We can’t let the bullies win.