On Refugee Sunday

This year Refugee Sunday comes at an opportune time. As a nation, we are making decisions about asylum seekers and refugees that are the biggest we have made in the past decade.

Earlier this month, an expert panel commissioned by the government delivered a report with 22 recommendations about changes to legislature and policy. Already the government has proceeded to implement some of these policies. I will concentrate on those relating to sending people arriving by boat to places out of Australia to have their applications processed. Specifically, these are to Nauru and Manus Island (PNG). I want to talk about these in the light of our Christian tradition. And I want to reflect on what I see as the lost opportunity this past month when as a nation we could have shown a compassionate and caring face towards asylum seekers who are asking no more than a place to stop and breathe freely and safely.

Jesus taught his followers to welcome strangers in need. And even more he identified himself with those people. "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35-36). This is a summary of human cries for help and humane responses. I have looked at pictures of asylum seekers being rescued by navy ships from sinking boats and asked them: Is this what it was like? And they say Yes and we were sick and thirsty and scared and desperate to be saved. And I remind myself of the message of Jesus: It’s me, and I need your help.

Currently, I believe we in Australia are in very fraught moral waters around the current legislative and policy issues surrounding asylum issues. We have had the recommendations of an expert panel and our government is hastily implementing some of those recommendations – in particular going back to sending asylum seekers who arrive here by boat to Nauru or PNG to have their applications processed. And we add, if positively judged to be refugees, they must stay on those islands until they would have been resettled – presumably in Australia – if they had not attempted to come by boat. It is difficult to know how long that could be – or even how anyone is going to work out how long it could be – but it is meant to be a deterrent to others and stop them coming to seek protection by boat.

What does our Catholic tradition say to us about this response? How much are the political leaders taking us down this path swayed by moral considerations? Tony Abbott says that boat-people are “un-Christian” for coming to Australia the way they do. Specifically, he said:
"I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door. … I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way. … If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it."
We might add to be even handed, that Ms Gillard also has talked about the right way to come.

As the human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside reminds us: A significant proportion of boat-people in the past 15 years have been Afghan Hazaras fleeing the Taliban. If an Afghan were to embrace Mr Abbott’s ideas of getting a visa and looking for a queue, the obvious place would be the Australian Embassy in Kabul. The Department of Foreign Affairs website informs us:
“The Australian Embassy in Kabul operates from a number of locations that are not publicly disclosed due to security reasons. The Australian Embassy in Kabul has no visa function.”
So where is the queue?

The idea that desperate people will conduct themselves as if waiting for a train to take them to the city is not only ludicrous, it reveals a complete lack of empathy, or even understanding, of why refugees flee for safety in the first place.

To say that this is an un-Christian response is mind boggling. Our long tradition is about welcoming the stranger and looking after the vulnerable. The story of the Good Samaritan is a bit dulled by our distance from the reality of Jesus’ time. Samaritans were unclean, to be avoided and not good people. But who looked after the stranger? Not one of their own but this outsider. A shocking idea!

But surely it is Christian to save people from drowning? This is a seductive question because there is only one answer. But the question I think should be: Are we saving peoples lives? And then the answer is: Not if we deny them an opportunity to get a safe place to be.

I would like to tell you a bit about Ali’s story: his brother was killed by Taliban because he was an MP’s driver (this is an association with the government that the Taliban does not accept). As well, he was threatened by the Taliban because he was forced to sell his van to a Taliban member who then refused to pay him – when he objected he received a death threat. As well, he was stopped on the road to the only hospital by the Taliban when his baby son was ill. In spite of pleading he had to turn back and the child died. Then his best friend was killed in front of him.

Ali’s family convinced him to flee. He eventually made the journey to Australia by boat by then mentally ill and in despair. Where would he be if he had not left Afghanistan. Probably dead. If he had stayed in Malaysia illegally? Probably deported back to Afghanistan – or put in jail, maybe caned. Or if he had stayed in Indonesia – even if judged to be a refugee by UNHCR – probably still there waiting for between 10 and 20 years. There is no right way Ali could have taken – no queue he refused to join.

Why is trying to deter people from seeking protection wrong? If we acknowledge that individuals fleeing like Ali have a right to seek protection (enshrined in our domestic law and part of being a signatory to the Refugee Convention) then we must give people a chance to put their case for protection, and a chance to be resettled with their families. The logic of deterrence has proceeded: we will make life so impossible you will not ask for protection in the first place. We have tried imprisonment, remote imprisonment, increasingly harsh penalties for not being compliant while detained, now we are saying: you will be sent out of Australia indefinitely. And there is another clause that we will make it more difficult for you to reunite with your family should you eventually get here as a refugee. We spare a thought for those currently on Christmas Island waiting to be sent to Nauru. Among these are a young man who was tortured in his own country and already has three brothers settled in Australia.

But nothing else can be done? The report itself offers some ways. We could adopt a Humanitarian program of 27000 that the report suggested as a figure for five years time. As it is 13750 now that is a substantial increase. Even this number is indefinitely smaller than numbers accepted by France, Germany and many countries – not to mention the millions who are in the poorest countries of the world. The Government announced last week that we would take 400 of those recognized by UNHCR as refugees in Indonesia – we could have made that 4000 and virtually all those waiting in Indonesia would have been accepted. People are not going to get on boats if there is any alternative.

Every human life is precious. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” implies I see you – as a person in all your humanity and vulnerability. We only really see a human being when we look into their eyes and see a mirror of our own humanity. Asylum seekers have been dehumanised. They wear the mask of illegality as illegal immigrants, the mask of inequity when described as queue jumpers, of opportunism when accused of coming by boat to secure -economic advantage. Their appearance is highlighted to make vague associations with terrorism or with racial and religious prejudices. This is the manipulation of language, for refugees are not illegal, there is in reality no queue and it is a cruel joke to identify with terrorism those who flee from it.

This teaching of Jesus was itself built on the long Hebrew tradition of extending hospitality to foreigners and other strangers. "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34). It was a matter of remembering their own story and also of taking to heart what it taught them about God, who "loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Compulsorily detaining them for indefinite times on Nauru, Papua New Guinea or Malaysia, or sending them back to Indonesia is hardly ‘loving’ the stranger seeking safety.

 Our God is a God whose saving mission begins not with strong, important or even worthy people, but with the stranger, the disadvantaged and the unwanted people and their specific needs. God’s dream is of hope extended to those whose life story has little or no hope. It is about creating a new reign of God, a new world order where all are part of a just and harmonious world. So for Christians, welcoming the stranger isn’t just about obeying a commandment but is a concrete way of being part of this bigger story of the mission of God. And conversely, avoiding, ignoring or mistreating the stranger is a concrete way of opposing God – for "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

Conclusion: For many asylum seekers it is hard to hope. For us who try to walk with them it is hard to hope. We can learn a lot from Nelson Mandela who said: “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death.”

Brigid Arthur, CSB
Refugee Sunday 2012

Image: UN Photo/Luke Powell

View: The Veil

Despite being a few years old now the message of this clip is still relevant today.