In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is often identified as the God who cares for the exiled and the stranger. God brings justice to the oppressed and calls on the people of faith to extend the rights of citizens to refugees (‘aliens’) in their midst.
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 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: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Refugees are identified in the Bible with widows and orphans as the most marginalised people, the most at risk, and the test of faithful obedience to God was how a community and individuals cared for these most vulnerable people. Hospitality to the stranger therefore became one of the strongest moral forces in ancient Israel.
The Christian story continued to uphold God’s call to solidarity with the homeless. Mary and Joseph were forced to take Jesus and hide in Egypt as Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. As an adult Jesus travelled through strange lands, choosing to spend time and share meals with the most marginalised and oppressed people of his society. Jesus called on people to love their enemies, give all they had to the poor, and offer hospitality to strangers. He taught that faithful obedience to God was marked by such deeds and that it would be how well people responded to strangers and to the poor that would identify them as people of faith.
It is in this tradition that churches in Australia have consistently spoken out against what Immigration Minister Chris Bowen this week admitted was the harshest detention regime in the developed world.
Ever since the shameful ‘Tampa’ episode in 2001, the response from some sections of the public and media, and from far too many politicians, to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat has been one of fear, suspicion, callousness and often hysteria. The level of attention and the shrillness of the debate have been out of all proportion to the numbers of arrivals which are, relative to other countries in the world, almost miniscule. The Liberal Party’s federal election campaign slogan, ‘Stop the Boats’, was one of the worst examples of the politicisation of vulnerable people we have ever seen in this country.
Australian governments have spent billions of dollars to ensure that asylum seekers who arrive by boat (onshore claimants) do not reach the Australian migration zone. There have been various policies applied to these asylum seekers and refugees that have aimed to punish them and deter others: offshore mandatory detention including the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ which saw people detained on Manus Island and Nauru, temporary protection visas, bridging visas with no rights to work or access healthcare or other support services, and being billed for their time in detention.
Such punitive policies are based on the assumption that some refugees are more worthy than others, that is, refugees who have applied for resettlement offshore are understood to be the ‘legitimate’ refugees while ‘onshore’ refugees are not. Under the Refugee Convention, however, refugees do not have a right to be resettled but everyone has the right to apply for protection and signatories to the Convention, such as Australia, have an obligation to assess all onshore claims for protection. As was made clear in a recent Parliamentary Library briefing note, “Resettlement therefore complements and is not a substitute for the provision of protection to people who apply for asylum under the Convention”. (Janet Phillips, 10 May 2010, Asylum Seekers and Refugees: what are the facts? Parliamentary Background Note, p. 5, http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bn/sp/AsylumFacts.pdf)
Governments have also claimed that such harsh policies serve to stem the flow of boats but their impact in this regard is questionable. People flee situations of persecution and violence. The numbers of asylum seekers seeking protection in Australia will fluctuate as conflicts escalate or ease. It is a relief to finally hear political leaders making this point as Julia Gillard did when she announced the Government’s intention to release children and families from detention.
While recent changes have seen an end to such harsh and punitive policies as temporary protection visas, the ‘Pacific Solution’, the 45-day rule which left asylum seekers in the community destitute, and the billing of refugees for their time in detention, mandatory detention is the last frontier. This week’s announcement by the Government that it would work with churches and community service organisations to move families with children and unaccompanied minors out of detention, is a long-overdue first step. It came with an acknowledgement, at last, that there is no evidence that the detention of asylum seekers achieves anything other than to heap more trauma and abuse on already traumatised people. Julia Gillard and her new immigration minister are working hard to make this point and move away from the despicable rhetoric that has demonised vulnerable people and diminished Australia’s reputation as a civilised nation. We can only hope it continues.
This opinion piece was first published on the Religion and Ethics site of ABC Online, 18 October 2010 http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/10/18/3041539.htm?topic1=home&topic2=