Every person who arrives by boat seeking asylum has a story. Over 90% of asylum seekers who have arrived by boat over the last 15 years or so have been granted protection, so you can be sure that these stories include tales of hardship, violence and persecution.
You can be sure they include heart-rending decisions, acts of courage, paralysing fear, and family crises. You can be sure they are the stories of resilient but traumatised people who have survived shocking circumstances, to arrive here, on the shores on this nation, seeking safety and a future for themselves and their family.
But you wouldn’t know it.
And that’s because what successive governments want you to know is that ‘these people’, are ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and not ‘genuine’ refugees.
Both major political parties have done their very best to dehumanise and victimise asylum seekers who arrive by boat. It has been an extraordinary demonstration of what is possible with long-term bipartisan commitment to an ideal, backed by a media hungry for a group of people to demonise.
There has a been a recent move in some sections of Australian media to shed light on the individuals and their stories, but mostly they remain hidden, disconnected from our sense of common humanity and disconnected from us physically.
I believe that John Howard’s Tampa line—“we will decide who comes to this country…”—is the most powerful and influential one-liner ever delivered in Australian politics. It’s now so deeply entrenched in our national consciousness that I don’t feel even the slightest need to finish the sentence because I’m sure you did it for yourself.
It was the perfect play on our vulnerability as a nation to suggestions that our border is under threat and that those who breach our borders without an invitation do not deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Reinforced by the politics of fear, so artfully played over so many years, we now find ourselves largely unmoved by the human rights abuses being perpetrated by our Government – indefinite mandatory detention without charge and with no right to challenge that detention, the arbitrary detention of children, the possible refoulement of refugees to countries from which they have fled persecution, to name a few.
We fear the ‘flood’ of asylum seekers who would come with the slightest demonstration of generosity and we fear witnessing the deaths that inevitably ensue when desperate people pay to get on leaky boats to reach our island.
These feelings of threat and fear, played to by sharp politicians, easily translate into communal assent to such propositions as ‘we should not be held captive to people smugglers’, ‘queue jumpers don’t deserve to be cared for because there are those more deserving’ and ‘boat people who deliberately destroy their documents are just trying to rort the system’.
This right and proper concern about the tragic deaths at sea has been played for political advantage, and to supreme effect, with the ‘stop the boats’ slogan. It makes what is a fact of life around the world appear like ‘a problem’ for Australia with an easy solution if you just had a Government with enough ‘guts’.
The Uniting Church has been providing care and support to asylum seekers and refugees in the community and in detention and advocating for their just and humane treatment since our foundation in 1977. Through the eyes of our chaplains who have served in some of the harshest and most remote immigration centres, places like Woomera, Port Hedland, Curtin, Baxter and Christmas Island, and through the eyes of so many of our members who have been visiting the centres for years or providing support and care to asylum seekers in the community, we have seen the dehumanising treatment of vulnerable and traumatised people. We have watched as children in Port Hedland were called out by number to receive a Christmas present, we have sat in cold and isolating rooms in detention centres and listened to the devastating stories of struggle an family separation, we have held cake stalls and concerts to raise money for destitute asylum seekers in the community, we have become lay experts in immigration law and the workings of the Refugee Review Tribunal.
We have come face-to-face with the truth of people’s lives. We have cried with people and celebrated with them; and as a church we grieve when the truth of their lives is denied by the imposition of policies intended to ‘group’ punish so that others may be deterred.
Christians and the Christian church itself have, all too often, been responsible for colluding with and perpetrating violence and oppression. We have, too often, failed in our mission of love. But we are called to be better and so the Uniting Church in its Statement to the Nation at its inauguration in 1977 the Church promised that it would “oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms”. In March 2008, the Uniting Church National Assembly formally committed itself to support the development of a human rights act for Australia. It is the only Australian church to do so.
This support for human rights is based on how we understand the Christian faith.
Christians believe that human beings are created in the image of God and that as bearers of God’s image, every person is inherently worthwhile and deserving of dignity and respect. Christians also believe that God exists in a community. That’s what that weird doctrine of the Trinity is about. The very nature of God is social and communal. Humans, being made in this image, are inherently relational, finding life and sustenance in relationship and community. Being called into community with the whole of humankind as we are, when one person is diminished, we are all diminished.
The idea of human rights is an expression of shared hope and shared values, a language which enables people to talk across the usual divides of culture and religion and ideology about what it means to be human, about the values inherent to our very humanity and how we might be accountable to each other for upholding our humanity and the common good. The discourse and the systems of human rights are not perfect and they are far from sufficient but they do matter and they can make a difference.
That both major parties would be so willing to undermine the spirit of one of the most important international human rights instruments for political gain, is of grave concern to us in the Uniting Church. A culture of fear and division has held the soul of this country for long enough. We will keep naming it for what it is and working in our communities in the public sphere to offer another vision. It is possible and it has to be done for the sake of those who come seeking our protection and for the sake of future. We must recover our capacity to count everyone’s life as valuable and worthy.