Musings of an antipodean contrarian

Archive for the category “asylum seekers”

Rock the boats

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?

Recent trends

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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. It is a cruel and inhumane way to treat persons seeking asylum for their own very good reasons.
  3. 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.
  4. It diminishes Australia’s reputation as a good citizen in the international community.
  5. 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.
  6. It removes asylum seekers from Australian human rights protection.
  7. It removes asylum seekers from the protection provided by proper independent scrutiny.
  8. 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.
  9. It ignores the fact that host nations are not equipped to adequately care for the general needs of those in their care.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. It falsely implies (not least to family members in countries of origin) that asylum seekers are bad people who have committed illegal acts.
  13. It implies that asylum seekers are potential terrorists.
  14. It achieves nothing in the legitimate fight against terrorism.
  15. It risks turning asylum seekers against the Australian government and people
  16. It is extremely expensive per capita in comparison to onshore detention or community placement.
  17. It can result in long-term detention of large numbers of people, with decisions to wind back such detention being politically dangerous.
  18. 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.
  19. It polarises community debate and fuels xenophobia.
  20. 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.”[1]

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?



[1] Andrew Sloane, At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), p. 28.

Prayer for a service for those lost at sea

I was asked to offer a prayer for Australians as part of a Service of Commemoration for those lost at sea to be held at St Barnabas’ Anglican Church, Broadway, Sydney, on Sunday 23 June 2013.  Here it is:

Almighty God, in whose prophets through the ages we have seen and heard your love and justice clearly proclaimed,

And in whose Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, you have definitively declared the worth of human persons,

We pray today for all Australians:

Forgive us when we fail to recognise the right of the other person to be different, and fail to defend the vulnerable and voiceless, and fail to offer hospitality to those fleeing real danger and persecution.

Give us eyes to see the plight of our fellow human beings on the high seas and in detention.

Give us ears to hear their cries and their stories, to learn their names.

Give us lips to encourage them, and speak for them, and change hard hearts.

Give us hands and feet to love them, welcome them, care for them, and restore their honour as Jesus would.

Lord, give us a new imagination for what our nation and our world should be, and instil in all of us the courage and hope and wisdom we need to get from here to there.

We pray this in the strong name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Australian Churches Refugees Taskforce launched


New Australian Churches Refugees Taskforce  ignites rethinking in Parliament House during Budget Week

After years of many small individual, largely ineffective voices, in the refugee ‘debate’, the Australian church is finally working and speaking together as one voice, operating as one body of Christ, and taking Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan seriously.

The newly formed Australian Churches Refugees Taskforce met with Federal politicians in Canberra recently during Budget Week to advocate for a more compassionate response to asylum seekers.

Rev Rod Benson, ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute at Morling College,  and Secretary of the Baptist Social Issues Committee is a member of the Taskforce, which formed in April to bring all faith denominations together to advocate as a single voice of faith.

Taskforce Chair, Rev. Elenie Poulos said Federal politicians had welcomed conversation on the Taskforce’s key areas of concern and encouraged further discussions. The Taskforce representatives spoke about such issues as

  • the use of our overseas aid budget to fund the increasing costs of detaining asylum seekers in Australia;
  • the continued use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seekers arriving by boat who are, in fact, exercising their international right to seek protection;
  • the need to improve care and guardianship arrangements for children and young people in detention, especially those young people known as ‘unaccompanied minors'; and
  • the need to shift our national conversation from such catch phrases as ‘stopping the boats’ to one based on the values of compassion, hospitality and generosity.

Rev. Poulos said churches were concerned that our humanity was slowly being eroded by the continuing harsh public conversation and punitive treatment of asylum seekers. She said that Australian church leaders speaking out against these policies were reflecting the growing concern being expressed by their congregational members.

“The Christian tradition of caring for the stranger in need is strong in Australia,” she said.

We know that most people do not willingly choose to leave their homes and their families to make treacherous journeys to a strange land. It’s only desperation which drives them and our response must recognise this.”

The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce comprises 16 church leaders from ten denominations and ecumenical bodies, and a supporter network of clergy, service agencies and church members. It will act as a collective voice offering faith-based moral leadership in the national debate and also provide resources for church members and groups so that they too can raise their voices against injustice.

Churchgoers and people of faith can sometimes struggle to know how to respond in the face of the continued vilification of asylum seekers and the misinformation being spread about them,” Rev. Poulos said.

“But what we know as churches is that as we, as individuals, meet with and engage with refugee families through our congregations and our communities, our hearts are opened and we respond with love and without prejudice.

“Refugees have come from desperate situations and like all of us, regardless of our religious belief, they are trying to create a better life for themselves and their families.

“As Christians we are called to open our doors to the oppressed, the marginalised, the weary.

“The Taskforce aims to equip people of faith not only with a better grasp of the Government’s policies and their effects but importantly, with resources for prayer and study that are grounded in our Christian faith.

“We will bring together resources from across our denominations to help ensure that our responses to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees continue to be informed by Biblical wisdom, gospel imperatives, prayer and the exercise of faithful discipleship.”

The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce will offer a fresh and united Christian voice to the mainstream media debate and continue to meet with all political parties in the lead up to the Federal election in September 2013.

People interested in being updated on Taskforce prayer points, discussion papers or advocacy campaigns are welcome to register at

Immigration and asylum and Baptists

Address by Rod Benson to a meeting of Encore, Morling College, Sydney

7 September 2012

The world today faces a global refugee crisis with up to 40 million displaced people, the majority of whom are women and children.  Australia currently accepts around 13,750 refugees each year as part of total planned annual immigration of around 182,000 people,[2] although the federal government last month increased the annual refugee quota to 20,000 in line with recommendations of the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.

I have four aims today:

(a)     outline some of the most recent statistics on immigration and asylum seekers;

(b)    identify social and political problems relating to asylum seekers and refugees;

(c)    summarise the biblical teaching on a responsible Christian approach to asylum seekers;

(d)   indicate how Australian Baptists have responded, or might respond, to the current challenges and opportunities presented by the immigration debate and the influx of asylum seekers .

The situation facing Australia today

Immigration policy is one of the two most bitterly contested issues in Australian politics, and has been for more than ten years.  People who seek asylum by boat, and various policy instruments designed to deter both asylum seekers and people smugglers, have been at the heart of an increasingly contentious public and political discussion in Australia for more than a decade.  The debate has polarised large sections of the Australian community and prevented many politicians from engaging in a constructive policy dialogue.

With little to differentiate their product, especially on economic and employment issues, the two major political parties have resorted to defining their voter appeal on the basis of pragmatic and regressive policies with respect to asylum seekers.  It is the poor and vulnerable who stand to lose most from this.  In addition, there is an extraordinary volume of misinformation and political spin, and it becomes increasingly difficult to allow the facts to speak for themselves.  The same is true of debates about climate change policy.

Several common public assumptions arise regarding asylum seekers and refugees, such as:

(a)        Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants;

(b)       Asylum seekers are queue jumpers;

(c)        More people are coming to Australia by boat because the government is “soft” on asylum seekers;

(d)       Offshore detention will stop the boats and break the people-smugglers’ business model;

(e)        Australia is full and we will be swamped with foreigners;

(f)         Asylum seekers take jobs away from Australian citizens;

(g)       Most asylum seekers are Muslims and potential terrorists;

(h)       Children are no longer in immigration detention in Australia.

All of the assumptions listed above are either seriously contested or false, and can be refuted.  To address these perceived problems it is necessary to establish the facts, clarify our biblical and theological convictions about asylum seekers and refugees, and determine what principles should be articulated and what actions taken to effectively deal with the issues.  But that is not my purpose today.

Some recent statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics provides the following snapshot from the 2011 Australian census:[3]

  • 2011 national population 22,485,300 (up 302,600 from 2010, or 1.4 per cent)
  • Natural increase for 2011 was 149,000 people (2.5%)
  • Net overseas migration for 2011 was 184,000 people (9%), up 15,200 on 2010 figures



Country of birth


Proportion of   all overseas-born

Median age

Sex ratio(a)




United Kingdom

1 101.1




New Zealand






























South Africa















Born elsewhere overseas

2 183.8




Total overseas-born

5 294.2




(a) Number of males per 100 females.
(b) Excludes Special Administrative Regions and   Taiwan Province.

2011 Census age and sex distribution: recent arrivals and Australian-born:


Generations in Australia


Proportion of   total population

First   generation

Second   generation

Third-plus   generation

Also stated









7 238.5







7 098.5







2 087.8







1 792.6
















































(a) Table presents collective responses to   ancestry question. As some people stated two ancestries, the total persons   for all ancestries exceed Australia’s total population.





Proportion   born






13 150.6




5 439.2




3 680.0



Uniting Church

1 065.8



Presbyterian and Reformed




Eastern Orthodox
















Other Christian





1 546.3



















Other non-Christian




No Religion

4 796.8




21 507.7



(a) Proportion of people reporting this religion   who were born overseas.
(b) Total includes inadequately described   (supplementary codes) religions and people who did not state a religion.


 The Bible and refugees

Baptists are people of biblical conviction, and take seriously the teaching of the Bible as it relates to contemporary social and political issues.  The Bible refers to asylum seekers and refugees in many different situations, and instructs readers in how to respond to their plight.  It could be said that Adam and Eve were the first refugees, compelled to flee the Garden of Eden because they were unworthy of residency (Genesis 3:22-24).  Later, at various times, Abram was a migrant or a refugee (Genesis 12:1-10; cf Hebrews 11:8), as were Isaac (Genesis 26:16), Jacob (Gen 46:6) and Joseph (Genesis 39; and family reunion, Genesis 41-42) and Moses (Exodus 1).

Following their dramatic flight from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites lived as nomads for forty years before entering Canaan (Exodus 13ff).  The sons of Benjamin fled from a military attack and resettled in another country where they found peace and safety (2 Samuel 4:3).  After the division of the kingdom, many Israelites experienced displacement, loss and trauma when they were exiled to Assyria and Babylon, and even when some of them returned to the land, life was never the same (e.g. 2 Kings 24:14-16; but see also Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Ancient Israel possessed laws designed to ensure the just treatment of “strangers” and “aliens,” persons who were not ethnic members of the nation but who were protected by law (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:17-18).  The law also recognised the non-assimilating “stranger” (Leviticus 19:33-34a), whose different customs were respected and protected.  And, despite Israel’s commitment to racial and religious purity, these foreigners were able to share in Israel’s cultural and religious life.  The story of Rahab (Joshua 6:24f) and Ruth (Ruth 1:1-22; 4:13-17) demonstrate the radical nature of Israel’s commitment to the welfare of the vulnerable and the outsider.

The reason often given for these gracious principles was the memory of the harsh experience of the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt (e.g. Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:17-19).  Further, the welcome and care of foreigners was structured into Israel’s gleaning and tithing laws (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 14:28-29).  Finally, there were designated places of sanctuary (not detention) in ancient Israel, where refugees could live in peace and safety while their claims were being processed (Numbers 35:6-15).

The New Testament portrays Jesus as the ultimate immigrant, coming from heaven to point the way back to God and God’s ways (2 Corinthians 8:9; Philippians 2:5-8).  The infant Jesus and his family experienced life as political refugees for a time, forced to flee the wrath and malice of King Herod, and finding sanctuary in Egypt until the immediate threat had passed (Matthew 2:13-23; see also 8:20). The church is collectively described as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11; cf Hebrews 11:13); and its early leaders found themselves oppressed, attacked, imprisoned and even deported from time to time for their faith and because of the threat they allegedly posed to the centres of religious and political power.

There are many biblical principles of love and justice which apply to refugees and asylum seekers (e.g. Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:34-40).  In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, the king declares that the faithful may enter the kingdom because “I was a stranger and you welcomed me … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35, 40).

See also the following New Testament texts:

  • Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat)
  • Luke 10:25-37 (the parable of the Good Samaritan)
  • Romans 12:13 (“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”)
  • Hebrews 13:1-3 (“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.”)
  • James 2:15-17 (on failure to meet people’s physical needs)

For those who remain unpersuaded by this compelling evidence for the need for an active response to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers today, there is the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The Bible presents a coherent and 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.”[4]

Both individual Christians and local churches are expected to reach out to such people with compassion and sacrificial love, possessing no ulterior motive and showing no favouritism toward particular groups.  Further, the Lordship of Jesus Christ precedes and overrides any and all demands from, or commitments to, the nation state and its laws and policies.

Moreover, Roy Branson observes that:

While Christianity affirms the importance of the individual stranger, it also values community.  The sanctuary movement [i.e. the historic practice of offering sanctuary to those fleeing danger] not only draws attention to the exile but also to the cities of refuge.  As in designated Old Testament towns, and in British and European cathedrals into the 16th century, security from retaliation and injustice must be provided …

The theme of exiles and pilgrims as the chosen of God, who must in turn welcome the stranger, is so strong a theme in biblical faith that it creates a presumption in favor of admitting the immigrant, granting asylum to the refugee, and treating the alien as an equal.[5]

And John Stott notes:

It is important that a church which has a passion for justice should stand up against any culture or system which overlooks injustice, especially when it refers to the weaker members of society.  Yet such injustice goes further: it denies the very roots of the creation story as affirming each person as made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect.[6]

Finally, Brisbane-based Christian lawyer Mark Fowler states:

The phenomenon of the seeking of asylum is as old as man’s capacity for war.  In the time of Isaiah, refugees were recorded fleeing from Moab, which had been invaded by an ancient middle eastern power. Isaiah records God’s concern for these people, saying, “on the roofs and in the public squares they all wail, prostrate with weeping … My heart cries out over Moab; her fugitives flee as far as Zoar” (Isaiah 15: 3-5).  If God cried so earnestly over this suffering almost four thousand years ago, might we not reasonably assume that He continues to cry over similar suffering today? …

There will continue to be a diversity of opinion within the Australian community on the question of how we are to respond to the boat people, and that diversity will be reflected within the Christian community.  However the sharing of the motivations of Christ is the unique contribution His church may make to this debate, and to the lives of the asylum seekers.  The Christ who was a refugee, is the Christ who offers compassion and healing for refugees today.[7]


Australian Baptists and asylum seekers

Historically, Baptists have tended to take a strong stand on issues such as religious liberty and race relations, either in opposition or response to public sentiment, but their response to immigration and asylum issues has been less strong and less consistent.  In the early 1980s, W. David Lockard, a former director of the U.S. Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, observed that:

The continuing plight of refugees in the world today is a serious challenge to the conscience of all nations.  It is a special challenge to all Christians.  We must not let the size of the problem or the recognition of our limitations anaesthetize our conscience or wither our generosity.[8]

Baptists in Australia have generally shared this conviction, especially during the years immediately following World War II, and in the 1970s when asylum seekers from South-East Asia began arriving in Australia in large numbers.  The response by Australian Baptists to more recent trends in immigration and asylum is more complex, as a result of perceptions in the wider community that a majority of asylum seekers are of Arabian (or Persian) ethnicity, and of Muslim faith (and therefore, so the argument goes, probably anti-Christian and potentially terrorists); and due to the self-serving politicization of debates on asylum seekers by Australian political parties.

In August 1950, the Chairman of the Australian Baptist Home Mission Board, Rev W.P. Phillips, addressed the Triennial Assembly of the Baptist Union of Australia in Sydney.  His address, titled “Immigration and the future development of Australia,” was published as a booklet.  Phillips’ main argument was that Australia was a continent richly blessed with natural resources, and could sustain a much higher population; and the postwar situation in Europe, with a prolonged economic crisis coupled with severe food shortages and large-scale refugee movements, offered an unprecedented opportunity for Australian Baptists to welcome refugees and other immigrants who could potentially contribute to church extension.

The emphasis in W.P. Phillips’ address was clearly on British immigration (and preferably British Baptists).  He admired NSW Presbyterian leader Rev John Dunmore Lang’s nineteenth-century vision for Protestant immigration.  He quoted federal Immigration Minister Harold Holt, who had said earlier in 1950, “This is a British community, and we want to keep it a British community, living under British standards … We must keep a proper balance of migrants so that the British element will be predominant and that our British institutions will persist.”[9]  It would be three decades before Malcolm Fraser formally launched Australia’s multicultural policy.  But Phillips concluded his address with these unqualified words:

As Christians we should count it a privilege to show friendship to strangers.  As we read today the Master’s answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” we interpret it to mean, in the light of our new conditions, the lonely stranger who comes to make his home in our country.  We must be foremost in stretching out the hand of welcome.  The Head of the Church takes notice.  There is a day coming when the King shall say to His faithful ones, “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in.”[10]

A similar tendency was evident in the states.  For example, in the first half of the twentieth century, NSW Baptist interest in immigration clearly arose from a desire to boost membership of Baptist churches.  There was a strong preference for Baptist immigrants from Britain and, to a lesser extent, from Northern Europe.

But there were exceptions.  For example, in 1939, NSW Baptists formally supported an Inter-Church Committee for Non-Aryan Refugees, and during and immediately following World War II took an active interest in welcoming European refugees, “especially Jews.”  In 1947 the Executive Committee of the Baptist Union of NSW cautiously expressed the view that “the prospects for the admission of Baptists of other races should improve with the passing of time.”

To sponsor and provide for the physical needs of immigrants (and especially refugees) was a significant challenge.  Usually such sponsorship was directed toward persons fleeing religious persecution such as was faced by Baptists in the Soviet Union before and during the cold war.  It was not until the late 1980s, after fundamental changes had been made to Australia’s population and public policy (e.g. the dismantling of the White Australia policy and the official embrace of multiculturalism) that NSW Baptists formally moved to endorse ethnic and multicultural influences, and again this appears to have been largely on the grounds of church extension and supporting ethnic churches.

A shift occurred after 1990 with the passage of a series of NSW Baptist Assembly resolutions focused on human rights, urging the federal government to take specific action to increase the annual refugee quota and to treat asylum seekers with greater respect, calling on local churches to provide stronger advocacy on behalf of refugees, and lobbying politicians to introduce more liberal immigration policies.  In recent years this emphasis has been extended to include opposition to mandatory detention of asylum seekers and to call for a progressive increase in the refugee component of immigration quotas, and there appears to be widespread tacit support among Baptists (in NSW and in other states, especially Victoria) for progressive action in support of asylum seekers and their interests.[11]

With respect to immigration and asylum, what we have seen among Australian Baptists over the past 70 years is a shift in emphasis from what would best promote Baptist church membership to what would best promote the common good.  There are many reasons for this shift, including better universal education, deeper experience of other cultures and faiths, higher penetration of news and opinion on public issues, and a weakening of denominational tribalism and loyalty.

Above all, the Baptist community today appears to increasingly attract people who express a biblically informed worldview, a theologically mature faith, a confident moral vision, a progressive political vision, a growing understanding of the limitations and potential of realpolitik, and a willingness to work with cobelligerents of various kinds.  Recent Baptist policy statements on immigration and asylum seekers, both in Australia and by the Baptist World Alliance, reflect this trend.

It is vitally important that Baptist leaders obtain grass-roots support for such policies, and empower and inspire Baptists and others to transfer the principles into concrete practices.  The key to achieving this is to discern God’s will in this area of personal and national life, to recognise the opportunities facing us and the limitations we bring to the task, and to exercise leadership by example.

What then should we do?

In the light of the principles and issues outlined above, and because we are talking about federal not state policies, I submitted a proposal to the National Council of Australian Baptist Ministries last year, suggesting a way forward.  To my delight, with only minor changes (and all of them good, in my opinion), our National Council adopted the policy at its November 2011 meeting.

However, while we Baptists are sometimes good at putting our thoughts and beliefs and aspirations on paper, we are often less inclined to do anything about social issues that might involve personal effort, ridicule, hardship or sacrifice.  That may sound strange and perhaps harsh, but I assure you it is the case.  And not for Baptists in NSW and the ACT alone, but throughout Australia, and in many other Baptist communities.  We see this tendency also in the Baptist World Alliance, where what I regard as excellent social policies are proposed by our finest theologians and pastors, and affirmed through rigorous processes, but individual Baptist Unions and Conventions, local churches, and individual Baptists find the policies rather challenging to implement.

There are many reasons for this including preoccupation with existing programs and emphases, lack of good models for effective implementation, and capitulation to the narratives and forces opposed to compassionate and progressive action.

So what should we do?  I recommend that you take the ABM policy on immigration and asylum seekers back to your churches and families, and examine it in the light of what you know of these issues from Scripture.  Then gather whatever information you need, and pray for discernment and inspiration, and do whatever God leads you to do.  And be ready to work with others, discover new insights into yourself and others, and tell the stories of what God is doing through you.

To conclude, let me remind you of the biblical teaching on the Christian’s political responsibility, as beautifully summarized by C.E.B. Cranfield:[12]

(a)    respect those in authority (Rom 13:7);

(b)   obey the state so far as it does not involve disobeying God (Tit 3:1);

(c)    disobey the state whenever obedience would involve disobeying God (Acts 4:19ff; 5:29);

(d)   pay your taxes (Mk 12:13-17; Rom 13:6ff);

(e)    pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1ff);

(f)     witness to Christ in the public sphere (Mk 13:9);

(g)    participate in parliamentary and municipal elections in the fear of Christ and out of love for your neighbor (Mt 22:34-40);

(h)   keep yourself fully informed concerning political and social issues;

(i)     criticize the government, its policies and its agents in the light of the gospel and law of God;

(j)     support just and humane policies, and oppose those policies and decisions that are unjust and inhumane, by helping to build up an enlightened public opinion and in various other lawful means available to you;

(k)    diligently endeavor to be a mature Christian, so transformed by the renewing of your mind that you are able to “test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will”(Rom 12:2).

May God give you the wisdom, courage and resources to go and make a difference for good in your world.  Thank you.

Rev Rod Benson is Ethicist and Public Theologian at the Tinsley Institute, Morling College.  He previously pastored four Baptist churches in Queensland and NSW.


Appendix 1: Baptist World Alliance resolutions on refugees and related issues

BWA Resolution 4 (Accra, 2007) – On Detention and Due Process

The General Council of the Baptist World Alliance Annual Gathering, meeting in Accra, Ghana, July 2-7, 2007:

Urges all governments, enforcement agencies under their jurisdictions, and non-state actors to enforce and abide by the basic tenets of human rights as represented in international laws and conventions in the investigation, arrest, interrogation, detention, due process, trial, sentencing, and incarceration of all persons, regardless of race, religion, gender, national status, or political association.


BWA Resolution 7 (Prague, 2008) – Refugees and Immigration

The General Council of the Baptist World Alliance, meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, July 20-25, 2008;

Recognizes the global growth of refugee migration and international relocation with more than 67 million current refugees and internally displaced people and more than 191 million international migrants;

Understands that this generates political situations of great sensitivity, fear and misunderstanding in host and home countries alike;

Realizes that immigrants often face an array of cultural, linguistic and economic burdens and often retain important responsibilities for family members in home countries;

Believes that we are all fellow sojourners in this world and that our treatment of the immigrants in our midst is central to authentic scriptural faith;

Calls on:

Nations to:

  • Give shelter to all refugees.
  • Develop transparent and equitable systems of migration that treat applicants with dignity.
  • Administer laws and regulations with justice and fairness to citizens and immigrants alike.
  • Renounce xenophobia and the misuse of immigration for political repression and division.

Member bodies to:

  • Instill an ethic of love that supersedes ethnic, gender and political boundaries.
  • Act as advocates for refugees and migrants in solidarity with them.
  • Develop ministries of welcoming reconciliation and integration.

Churches and individuals to:

  • Renew their scriptural study, academic understanding and prophetic proclamation of the scriptural mandate to live in love and justice with refugees and immigrants.
  • Grow in grace and hospitality through intentional friendships and relationships.
  • Freely share resources with those in need.

Encourages the development of additional study material for the Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Sunday and its utilization by churches and member bodies.

BWA Resolution 2 (Ede, 2009) – Baptist-Muslim Relations

The General Council of the Baptist World Alliance, meeting in Ede, the Netherlands, July 27-August 1, 2009:

Welcomes the opportunities opened up by the friendly and constructive spirit in which A Common Word, signed by 138 Muslim scholars and leaders, has been written;

Appreciates the advances in friendship and understanding made through conversations between Baptists and Muslims at Andover Newton Theological School in January 2009 and in Amman, Jordan, in March 2009;

Agrees with A Common Word that the double command to love God and our neighbor is at the heart of the message of Jesus Christ, and that this can form a common ground for conversation and for working together for a co-existence characterized by peace, justice, mutual understanding and respect;

Recognizes that Baptist Christians living in situations of religious conflict wish to create friendly and peaceful relations with their neighbors of other faiths;

Believes that we can humbly but confidently make our witness to the uniqueness of Christ as the way of salvation and to the self-giving of the Triune God in ways that are not demeaning of other people’s beliefs;

Asks Baptist theologians to study the response made by the BWA to A Common Word, together with the original document, and to use both in their teaching;

Encourages Baptist conventions and unions to engage in conversations and joint activities for human welfare with Muslims in ways that are appropriate for their own regions and cultures.


Appendix 2: Further information

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre:

Australian Human Rights Commission, “Immigration detention and human rights” (recent information and links), available at

Australian Human Rights Commission, Face the Facts (education resource for children, 2010), available at

Australian Human Rights Commission, Face the Facts: Questions and Answers about Indigenous Peoples, Migrants and Refugees and Asylum Seekers (2008), available at

Benson, Rod, “What Jesus would say about immigration,” sermon preached at Hornsby Baptist Church, 9 Oct 2011, available at

Crock, Mary & Saul, Ben, Future Seekers: Refugees and the Law in Australia (Leichhardt, NSW: Federation Press, 2002).

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, “Asylum statistics – Australia 2010-11,” available at

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, “Immigration detention statistics summary,” 31 July 2011, available at

Joint Standing Committee on Migration, Immigration Detention in Australia: Community-based Alternatives to Detention (Canberra: Parliament of Australia, May 2009), available at

Marr, David & Wilkinson, Marian, Dark Victory: The Military Campaign to Re-elect the Prime Minister (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2003).

McMaster, Don, Asylum Seekers: Australia’s Response to Refugees (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001).

Menadue, John, Keski-Nummi, Arja & Gauthier, Kate, A New Approach: Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Centre for Policy Development, August 2011), available at

Parker, Lynette M., “The ethics of migration and immigration: Key questions for policy makers,” Briefing Paper, May 2007, available at

Phillips, Janet & Spinks, Harriet, “Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976,” (updated 15 July 2011), available at

Preece, Gordon, “We’re all boat people: A biblical view of refugees,” originally published in BriefCACE 7, Dec 2003, pp. 1-3, available at

Regan, Hilary D. & Hamilton, Andrew (eds), Refugees: Justice or Compassion? (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2002).

Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers (the Houston Report), released 13 August 2012, available at

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health et al, “Significant harm – the effects of administrative detention on the health of children, young people and their families,” briefing paper, 2009, available at

Sampson, R., Mitchell, G. and Bowring, L., There are Alternatives: A handbook for Preventing Unnecessary Immigration Detention (Melbourne: International Detention Coalition, 2011) available at

Soerens, Matthew & Hwang, Jenny, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

Spencer, Nick, Asylum and Immigration: A Christian Perspective on a Polarised Debate (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2004).

Tyler, Heather, Asylum: Voices Behind the Razor Wire (South Melbourne: Lothian Books, 2003).

Ward, Tony, “Long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers,” paper published by the Yarra Institute, Oct 2011, available at

Welcome to Australia:

[4] Andrew Sloane, At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), p. 28.

[5] Roy Branson, “Refugees,” in John Macquarrie & James F. Childress (eds), Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), pp. 530-531.

[6] John R.W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (4th edn; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), pp. 281-282.

[7] Mark Fowler, “Jesus was a refugee,” address to Christian Lawyers Society, April 2011, extract in Eternity, May 2011, p. 2; full transcript available at .

[8] W. David Lockard, “Critical issues: Refugees,” Christian Life Commission, Southern Baptist Convention, 1983.

[9] W.P. Phillips, “Immigration and the future development of Australia,” Triennial Assembly address, Baptist Union of Australia, Dec 1950, p. 11.

[10] Ibid., p. 15.

[11] On NSW Baptists and immigration policy see Rod Benson, “Aspects of social responsibility among Baptists in New South Wales,” unpublished MTh thesis, 2010, pp. 88-91, 189f.  On Australian Baptists more generally see Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo to ‘Eternity’: A History of Australian Baptists (vol. 2; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), pp. 676f.  See also the Baptist World Alliance Harare Declaration (on race and ethnicity), adopted by BWA General Council, 1993; and the Atlanta Covenant, a comprehensive statement on the BWA’s stance against racism and ethnic prejudice, published in International Summit of Baptists Against Racism and Ethnic Conflict, Jan 8-11, 1999, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, pp. 170-177.

[12] C.E.B. Cranfield, “The Christian’s political responsibility according to the New Testament,” in C.E.B. Cranfield, David Kilgour & John Warwick Montgomery, Christians in the Public Sphere: Law, Gospel and Public Policy (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 1996), pp. 329-333 (my summary of his main points).

A way forward on asylum seekers

In the wake of the release of the report on asylum seekers by the Expert Panel appointed by the Gillard Government to chart a way forward for Australia’s immigration policy, there’s been a lot of talk but little genuine progress.

The report recommendations are, on the whole, admirable, setting forth strong principles for justice and compassion in the face of a very difficult and politically charged humanitarian problem, and they seek to deter people from stepping on leaky boats bound for Australia, curbing the unlawful actions of people smugglers and going some way to reducing the tragic loss of life at sea.

I’m especially pleased the report recommends an immediate increase in Australia’s Humanitarian Program from 13,750 to 20,000 places per annum – increased to 27,000 within five years, with at least 12,000 places reserved for refugees.

But I remain unconvinced that the reintroduction of offshore processing is either sustainable or defensible on ethical grounds.

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, 19 August 2012.

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers

%d bloggers like this: