Address at a forum on asylum seeker policy,
Lake Joondalup Baptist Church, Perth, 21 September 2014
The Bible and refugees
In debates about asylum seekers, Christians are often caught up in the groundswell of public opinion, and face the danger of allowing popular fears or political allegiances, rather than biblical principles, to shape their perspective.
So what does the Bible teach? Ancient Israel possessed laws designed to ensure the just treatment of “strangers” and “aliens.” And, despite Israel’s commitment to racial and religious purity, these foreigners were able to share in Israel’s cultural and religious life.
There were also designated places of sanctuary – not places of detention – where refugees could live in peace and safety while their claims were processed. They were called “cities of refuge.” As the prophet Micah taught, what God desired was a life of justice, mercy and humility.
The New Testament portrays Jesus as the ultimate immigrant, coming from heaven to point the way back to God. And Jesus and the early church exemplified the values of grace, compassion and fairness that lie at the heart of biblical social teaching.
In many places, especially the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Bible shows how Christians should treat asylum seekers and all who are treated unjustly. The question is: why don’t we?
For many people, our world is a cruel and unjust place. According to UNHCR Global Trends 2013, by the end of last year:
- 2 million people were living in forcibly displaced situations as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.
- Some 17 million of these were refugees, and close to 1.2 million were asylum seekers.
- Some 25,300 asylum applications were lodged on behalf of unaccompanied children in 77 countries in 2013.
- Developing countries hosted 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, compared to 70 per cent ten years ago.
- It is estimated that at least ten million displaced persons are stateless.
- Children below 18 years constituted 50 per cent of the refugee population.
The 2013 figures represent the highest level of displaced persons on record since comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement have been collected (in 1989).
As at 30 June 2014, according to immi.gov.au/ABS there were:
- 2,358 persons in Australian immigration detention, including 1,189 on Manus Island and 1,169 on Nauru.
- 24,500 living in the community on bridging visas
- 3,007 living in the community and approved for residence determination
- seven on-shore immigration detention centres operating (Christmas Island, Curtin, Yongah Hill, Perth, Wickham Point (Darwin), Inverbrackie (Adelaide), MITA (Melbourne), Maribayong (Melbourne), and Villawood (Sydney).
I am indebted to my friend and fellow refugee advocate Graeme Swincer who, in an article in July 2013, set forth the important challenges and opportunities we face as Australians:
Most Australian citizens [he said] are only remotely aware of what is happening, although it would be hard to miss the idea that the various “solutions” imply some sort of cruelty which is supposed to produce a deterrent effect.
But awareness of the reality does not seem to produce widespread abhorrence and anger; Australian animals must not suffer, but non-Australian people can be allowed to suffer – even be made to suffer – for a “good” cause.
Part of the problem is a history of misinformation, perpetrated by politicians and a substantial section of the media, which has built up a false picture in the minds of most Australians.
To overturn this state of affairs and question policies and procedures that condone cruelty towards innocent people will be a long and difficult task. But we must start somewhere.
Underlying Australia’s response to asylum seekers over the past decade and a half has been application of harsh measures aimed at “deterrence.” Most of these focus on “boat people” (“Irregular Maritime Arrivals” or IMAs).
The strategies include:
- excision of certain offshore territories (and now the whole of Australia) from Australia’s migration zone
- isolation of refugee status assessment processes from Australia’s legal system
- reintroduction of “the Pacific solution,” whereby IMAs are sent to remote Pacific islands for processing of their claims, and suffer punishment by way of harsh living conditions
- application of “the no advantage principle” whereby waiting times for processing of claims are set by an estimate of waiting times for UNHCR processing in such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia (about five years)
- mandatory detention of asylum seekers, in centres surrounded by razor wire, run by private prison operators for profit, and often isolated from major cities or located thousands of kilometres offshore – at a cost of about $130,000 per person per year
- Incarceration of large numbers of people, including hundreds of children, for prolonged periods, often more than two years; sometimes even three or four years [and up to seven]
- attempted justification of deterrence policies in terms of saving lives (from possible drowning in leaky boats) and “smashing the people smuggler model”
- rejection of warnings and expert advice relating to the tragic mental health consequences of mandatory detention and prolonged uncertainty
- release of increasing numbers of people into the community under impossible conditions: without support, without permission to work and without short-term prospects of their asylum claims being processed (a relatively new phenomenon, numbers now around 10,000, putting great pressure on charities such as the Salvation Army, and creating incentives for crime)
- failing to adequately address Australia’s international treaty obligations in relation to asylum seekers and refugees
- applying flawed processes for assessing and reviewing the claims of asylum seekers, demonstrably deficient in terms of professionalism, transparency, consistency and accountability
- allowing political considerations to play a dominating role in the formulation and implementation of laws and policies
- accepting inadequate standards of government communication about refugee issues, in terms of both quality and accuracy.
But that is not all. Dr Swincer then outlined six forms of official dishonesty practiced by our politicians and government officials:
- Downplaying the reasons people become refugees. Targeted persecution and violence, and real or feared imprisonment or torture, or worse, result in such desperation that people are forced to leave their own countries or suffer the consequences of staying. But this reality is general overlooked (either deliberately or in inadvertent ignorance). Instead, the notion that asylum seekers who come by boat are generally undesirable and undeserving fortune hunters is widely promulgated, without any substantiation.
- Unwarranted denigration, even vilification, of “boat people” began in 2000 with the “children overboard” scandal. Since then they have been consistently referred to as illegals, irregulars, undesirables, queue jumpers, economic refugees, potential terrorists, opportunists, welfare shoppers, and threats to our way of life.
- A third form of dishonesty is the system of refugee status determination. This is a combination of (a) an official notion that a large proportion of asylum seekers are not genuine, and (b) the unprofessional process by which this is reinforced. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship seems to set out to fail as many asylum seekers as possible, using every possible means to find a reason to do so.
- A fourth matter of dishonesty is the shallow analysis of the “success” of the Howard Pacific Solution in deterring would-be boat people. Careful research has shown that the slowing flow of boat people between 2004 and 2007 was largely due to a dramatic reduction in “push factors.”
- The justification of deterrence policies in terms of saving lives (from possible drowning in leaky boats) and “smashing the people smuggler model.” To market cruelty as “saving lives” is surely the worst kind of Orwellian doublespeak.
- A sixth form of dishonesty used frequently by the Australian government is never to admit a mistake.
In addition to institutionalized dishonesty, a second key strategy of current Australian asylum seeker policy is the resort to punishment for those fleeing persecution. It has been widely and repeatedly condemned – by advocates, academics, lawyers, politicians, a former Prime Minister, church and community leaders, inquiries, UNHCR and many more.
Yet it is evident to me that Australia repeatedly returns with dogged determination to the rhetoric that we need to be “cruel to be kind.”
In response to the recommendations of the Expert Panel, Uniting Church Justice national director Rev Eleni Poulos said, “What they’re recommending is a short-term, quick-fix policy response that actually punishes one group of vulnerable people in order to send a message to other people.”
In his paper Dr Swincer concluded that as Australians and world citizens we must expect better than we have been given in recent years:
- In a world of spin we must seek the truth, dispel the myths and insist on honesty and disciplined research.
- Honesty is essential at all levels, including all dealings and deliberations; dishonesty deserves to be exposed and addressed wherever it occurs.
- Deliberate cruelty can never be condoned – for any reason; punishment of the innocent is intolerable.
- Positive and proactive guidelines are required: act with understanding, compassion, generosity and justice.
- We must campaign relentlessly for specific and effective attention to mental health issues; we dare not ignore and quietly condone a system that literally destroys innocent people.
People sometimes ask me what is wrong with offshore processing of asylum seekers. Here are 20 reasons:
- It is unnecessary. There are no valid reasons to send people who come to Australia seeking asylum to other countries to have their claims for refugee status assessed.
- It is a cruel and inhumane way to treat persons seeking asylum for their own very good reasons.
- It places men, women and children in clear and present danger of preventable disease, psychological trauma and injury, and at risk of abuse (including sexual abuse) at the hands of immigration detention staff and others who have access to detainees.
- It diminishes Australia’s reputation as a good citizen in the international community.
- It treats asylum seekers as a different and subordinate class of persons, deprived of human rights and regarded with fear and loathing by sections of the Australian community.
- It removes asylum seekers from Australian human rights protection.
- It removes asylum seekers from the protection provided by proper independent scrutiny.
- It isolates asylum seekers from legal representation, legal advice pastoral support, visitation by community groups such as the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group, and access to education, employment, language classes and other cultural activities.
- It ignores the fact that host nations are not equipped to adequately care for the general needs of those in their care.
- It contributes to a culture that encourages women detainees to abort their babies rather than carry a child to full term who will be born stateless and live in extremely poor conditions.
- It does not effectively “stop the boats” or stem the tide of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia and other countries on their way to Australia.
- It falsely implies (not least to family members in countries of origin) that asylum seekers are bad people who have committed illegal acts.
- It implies that asylum seekers are potential terrorists.
- It achieves nothing in the legitimate fight against terrorism.
- It risks turning asylum seekers against the Australian government and people
- It is extremely expensive per capita in comparison to onshore detention or community placement.
- It can result in long-term detention of large numbers of people, with decisions to wind back such detention being politically dangerous.
- It is not a permanent solution to the problems it seeks to address; it is only ever a stop-gap or delay mechanism in the management of asylum seekers and political pressure.
- It polarises community debate and fuels xenophobia.
- It is the complete opposite of the Christian imperative to offer hospitality and care to those who are suffering, fleeing persecution, vulnerable and marginalised.
In my role as a consultant ethicist for Australian Baptist Ministries, I drafted a policy on immigration and asylum seekers, which was unanimously approved by our National Council in November 2011.
The policy includes a call to the Australian government to process claims for refugee status expeditiously, abolish the practice of mandatory detention, and to cease the practice of sending unaccompanied minors to third countries.
The ABM policy also encourages Australian Baptist churches, groups, families and individuals to consider how they may further:
- promote quality teaching and learning on immigration and refugees;
- act as advocates for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants;
- oppose offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees;
- oppose mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees;
- develop ministries of welcoming, reconciliation and social integration;
- extend hospitality through intentional friendships and relationships;
- freely share resources with those in need.
If Australia possessed a Statue of Liberty, she would be set not in Sydney or Melbourne but somewhere on the coastline between Perth and Darwin, on land once erroneously called Terra Nullius,
gazing out over the Indian Ocean from shores that have felt the imprint of millions of immigrants, with her face set toward Christmas Island.
If Jesus were here this afternoon, he might say:
- Tell me about the people who live in your street.
- Where did your family come from?
- What do the Scriptures say about border crossings?
The biblical witness is crystal clear when it comes to how Christians should feel and act toward immigrants.
There is a coherent vision of community wellbeing, and a consistent emphasis on justice, grace and neighbour-love toward all who are in need, summed up most profoundly in the biblical concept of shalom, “a picture of community, of life in relationships, in which things are as they are supposed to be [and where people] live in harmony and delight with God, each other, and the world.”
Individual Christians and local churches must reach out to such people with compassion and costly love, possessing no ulterior motive or political agenda, and showing no favouritism toward particular groups.
The church is collectively described as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). We’re supposed to know what it’s like to be outsiders. What better group of people to welcome immigrants, to assist them, and help them integrate with other Australians!
What is Jesus saying to us today?
 Andrew Sloane, At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), p. 28.