2010-2012 – We are all refugees

The Holy Family flees to Egypt as refugees

Political veteran Malcolm Fraser described the public conversation among senior politicians garnering votes in the 2010 election as a “race to the bottom.” Fraser was referring to the major parties’ lamentable attitudes to those among the most vulnerable in our society – refugees…

Flowing through the writings of the Old Testament prophets is the message that God judges a culture by how its weakest members are treated – specifically widows, orphans and refugees. James 1.27 repeats this as a measure of true religion. At least forty times in the Old Testament God commands the Hebrews to treat refugees aquitably “because you too were once refugees.” For two years Jesus himself was a refugee, living with his family in Egypt in mortal fear of the political regime in what today is Israel. Thank God for the liberal regime in Egypt that granted them residency!

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The Flight to Egypt by Giotto

The New Covenant itself is God’s acceptance of gentile refugees to be grafted into his own people, kingdom and nation. Standing in that prophetic tradition it ought to be a no-brainer for Australian Christians to stand in solidarity with widows, orphans and refugees.

Since ancient times civilised countries have applied the principle of asylum – a principle enshrined in Old Testament law – by accepting churches and places of worship as places of sanctuary or “cities of refuge”. From these people can apply for asylum while protected from arrest and imprisonment. However in 1992 Australia introduced a new policiy, which removed entitlement to certain basic human rights from refugees and asylum-seekers: freedom of movement and association, access to legal representation, and most fundamentally habeas corpus – a right enshrined in Anglo Saxon law since 1215 A.D. Since 1992 all asylum seekers are automatically imprisoned indefinitely. Applications take, on average, three years to process. Some have been known to take seven years. This policiy has brought Australia into sharp conflict with international law and United Nations human rights treaties. Eight years ago the UN requested the Australian government to admit a team of UN Inspectors to confirm conditions in Australia’s detention camps where detainees were committing suicide. The Howard government refused them entry. Other countries have been bombed and invaded for disallowing UN inspections!

John Howard told the media that he would not be “bullied” by the detainees suicide attempts. Philip Ruddock went on television and accused detained refugees of faking their distress.  I find it incredible that in 2010 a labour-government spokesman should repeat that line of refusing to be “intimidated” by suiciding refugees! Where is the logic -let alone the human compassion?

In 2012 we have seen the dialogue shifted so that the imperative is to “stop the boats”. Off-shore processing is one way to take away the temptation to attempt hazardous ocean-crossings. I understand that but, like many, I am very concerned that refugees may be even less likely to receive the just and humane treatment to which international law entitles them. However making “stopping the boats” the centre of conversation ignores fundamental questions.


Jewish refugee boat scuppered in Rhodes in 1939

Think of the Jews trying to flee the holocaust of Nazi Germany. If politicians at the time had stood up and proclaimed success to be “stopping the boats” out of Germany – well it would beggar belief that a person could say such a thing. Indeed, who could say such a thing knowing what those refugees were facing at home. Some might object to my comparing the Nazi regime with, say the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan, however if my family were suffering under that regime I would do anything I could to get my family out and appeal to the mercy of of a more just and accountable country. Is it not a basic Gospel axiom that we should treat others the way we would hope to be treated if we fell into the same situation.

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In 2010 Malcolm Fraser accuses politicians of
contending in a “race to the bottom”.

Even today, in their hope of appealing to xenopobic voters or racist votes (for this is what Fraser means when he speaks of “the bottom” or “the redneck vote”) senior politicians continue to deliberately confuse the Australian public by their use of the language of “illegals” and “queue-jumpers”. This is profoundly dishonest. In 1951 the International Refugee Commission laid out legal definitions and distinctions between how different categories of migrants should be treated. By these definitions:

  • A Migrant is a person moving to a foreign country – whether for reasons of political freedom, career-opportunity, or economic benefit. residency may be granted for reasons of skills, wealth, family-ties or for humanitarian reasons.
  • An Illegal Immigrant is a person seeking to stay in a foreign country on false pretences, or using counterfeit documentation/authority, or by avoiding making themselves known to the proper authorities.
  • A Refugee is a person fleeing their country of residence for reasons of physical safety or personal security; to escape impingment of liberty or lack of basic human rights.
  • An Asylum Seeker is a person who, having fled their country of residence, seeks the protection of a new country, applying for sanctuary to authorities upon landing (if they are permitted to land!) in order that their claim for asylum can be processed.

By the 1951 convention illegal immigrants can be returned immediately at the carrier’s expense to the port of embarkation.The problem lies with Australia’s handling not of illegal immigrants but of refugees and asylum seekers. Politicians routinely blur these distinctions and deliberatley confuse the issues in order to appeal to those wanting a more exclusive Australia. The spin is that these hard-liners are “protecting” Australia’s borders.

The truth is that genuinely illegal immigrants face automatic deportation. Those in the detention camps are not “illegals” but refugees whose claims for asylum are being processed. The truth is that far from “protecting” us from them the authorities are recognising – for example – on average 97% of Iraqis and 90% of Afghanis in detention as having legitimate claims for asylum, and granting them residency. They are being granted residency on the basis of Australia’s own immigration law.

Despite knowing that these detainees have overwhelmingly valid claims senior politicians continue to fake this kind of  hard line and vilify people who have thrown themselves on our mercy as a country. All Australians are migrants or the descendents of migrants. Surely it is part of our heritage to be a community that loves the underdog and the alien and gives them a second chance. It is surely immoral for our leaders to treat as criminals people who have given up everything and risked their lives to throw themselves on the mercy of other migrants – us! If you agree with me can I encourage you: whenever our spokespeople they speak in this dishonest and fear-mongering way can I encourage you to send them a brief email them and say, “Not in my name!”  Let them know that that they do not speak for you.

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