What would be a Christian response to the political dilemma of the question of what we are to do with people who are genuine asylum seekers, and who keep arriving on our shores? We do not wish to be exploited and neither do we desire to be known for our callous disregard. So, what is the right thing to do?
We accept without question our right to elect the people who will lead and represent us in this country. If we are people of faith then we also expect that our leaders will make decisions that reflect their faith. It would be the same in any democratic country regardless of which faith undergirds it. We would realistically expect that our leaders, the majority of whom claim Christian foundation, might have hearts large enough to support the poor and marginalized. Sadly very few of us are surprised to discover that our leaders appear to be driven by a desire for earthly benefit, not by faith values.
As an example, one of the hysterical distractions looming in the coming election is that of Border Protection. The usual line from one end of the country is that we ought return to the White Australia Policy. At the more liberal end of the country we are encouraged to throw our borders open to all comers. Reality must of necessity lay somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
It is frustrating that the leaders of the two primary parties are competing with each other to see who can be the most dastardly and brutal in relation to the thousands of people who come to Australia seeking asylum. It is an appalling competition to determine who can create the most horrific circumstances for innocent people. It is like a very embarrassing game of cards. The first call is that “We will process them offshore”. The response is, “I will see you on offshore processing and raise you non assessment.” The embarrassment increases with each bid. “We will see you on offshore processing and non assessment and raise you permanent settlement on Papua New Guinea.” This is of course seen as being too moderate for vote catching so, “I will see you on all that, but we have a better policy of punishment than you, so we can punish them better.”
The problem began with the lies over the Tampa in John Howard’s time, and has become ever more appalling and deceitful as each day passes. It must be stated that it is not illegal to seek asylum. There is no such thing as an illegal person; a fat or skinny person maybe, but not illegal.
Julia Gillard raised the stakes when she declared that Australia would be removed from the immigration zone, and there would be no advantage given to people who arrived by boat. But this did not stop Bob Carr, our Foreign Minister, pompously declaring that the majority of people who arrive by boat are not asylum seekers at all, but are simply “economic opportunists”. How he can know this beggars belief, for no asylum seekers arriving by boat have been assessed since Julia Gillard decided, twelve months ago, that they would simply stay in prison for an indeterminate time. Therefore no one has been assessed since August last year.
Prior to that dreadful decision it was acknowledged that 90 percent of asylum seekers arriving by boat were in fact genuine refugees.
Now we have the farcical, terrifying, and apparently illegal, decision to send all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea. This is not a temporary arrangement, but a permanent “solution”. No one who arrives in Australia by boat will be permitted to settle in Australia. They can however live happily ever after in Papua New Guinea.
This must raise the question of whether the arrangement is of fiscal benefit for individuals in PNG, or a crude convenience for our politicians. According to a report recently circulated the crime rate in PNG is much greater than in Australia and many foreign women in PNG are gang raped. It begs the question of whether it is morally correct to place these women at such known risk. We might also ask whether it is morally correct to intentionally avoid our own responsibilities and pass our problem to a country that has great difficulty supporting its own population.
There is a rising resentment from the local people in PNG who see the asylum seekers being offered better deals than the government is offering them. Social conflict is only as far away as the first payment to whoever pockets the money from Australia. It is unlikely that the people of PNG will see any of it.
It can also be noted that there are people in Australia who consider themselves to be more disadvantaged then the refugees who come by boat. I am uncertain how indeterminate prison for no crime can be identified as an advantage. However there is a point at which we must recognize that the millions of dollars being spent in imprisoning these people might be better used as a new start payment as they search for work. The playing field would at least then be recognized as level, and eventually the refugees would pay taxes and create work opportunities.
We may not wish to accept this, but we have a responsibility to care for most of these people as they arrive. Many of the recent arrivals are from Iraq and Afghanistan. Embarrassing though it is to admit it, we joined with other nations and sent Armed Forces to these countries and, with the best of intentions, destabilized them. The George W Bush cry for democracy in the Middle East has been singularly disastrous. People are now regularly killed on the streets of Baghdad as they struggle for not only power, but survival. We did the same thing in Viet Nam and at that time had the decency to accept 250,000 asylum seekers from that country. They moved into society, began work, and like the rest of us, paid taxes.
It may have escaped our notice, but we also fought wars in Europe. Following that war we accepted thousands of displaced people from many European countries. We now grieve and condemn the countries who closed their borders to the Jews. With that decision many countries share responsibility for the horror of the Holocaust.
What is so different this time? Why are we so opposed to accepting refugees from the latest countries of our attempted conquests? Is it because they do not share our religion? Is it because they do not speak our language? Is it because they are a bit dark in colour? Or is it because our politicians have decided that it is an opportunity to catch a few votes for the next Federal Election? The latter position worked for John Howard!
Both of our potential leaders claim to be Christian. Both are adept at calling on their religion to justify various stands on social and moral debate. Both have forgotten the gospel message that we are to love God with all of our being and our neighbours as ourselves. Both have forgotten the command to avoid greed. Both have overlooked the command for truth and justice. Both are diminished as their Christian faith is increasingly compromised by a desire for material gain in this life.
Today more than in any other age we have politicians who live that old observation that one knows that a politician is lying because their lips are moving.
I will begin to respect and trust politicians again when they can return to their faith base, whatever that may be, and live that faith with integrity. The asylum seeker/border protection argument simply portrays Australia as cruel, bigoted, selfish, and greedy. One thing is certain, we can never confront these people with a greater horror than the one from which they flee: Although the PNG “solution” might come close. And because of this reality people will continue to arrive by boat, and we will continue to abuse them, and turn them away. We will imprison them along with their children while pretending that their reason for running in terror has nothing to do with us. At what point did we dismiss the Biblical command to care for the poor, the persecuted, the hungry, the orphan and the widow? Shame be upon us.
Fr Adrian Stephens