Text from public forum with Christian leaders on Tuesday 25 February 2014

Refugees: What would Jesus do? What should we do?

Speakers:

Bishop Stephen Pickard, Exec Dir, Aust Centre for Christianity & Culture
Rev Myung Hwa Park, Moderator Elect, Uniting Church Synod of NSW & ACT
Rev Chris Turner, Senior Minister, Canberra Baptist Church
Monsignor John Woods, Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra & Goulburn
Eileen O’Brien, Refugee Action Committee, Canberra

Speaker 1:
Stephen Pickard

Executive Director, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Welcome

On behalf of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture I welcome you to this place tonight. Those who come to this land seeking asylum; those who seek refuge and desire to find a home here; they, like us are guests of this remarkable land of Australia. We are all guests for a time and a season of our lives. The first people of this land travelled from another place thousands of years ago. We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet tonight. I also pay respect to the Elders, both past and present and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who may be present.

Why are we here tonight? Those who have no helpers and defenders need advocates and companions. That is why I am with you tonight and why I care.

1. Asylum seekers are those who seek sanctuary and security; a safe place where they cannot be seized, taken hostage or harmed.

Like many words in our language it comes from the Greek word ‘asylon’. Syle means ‘right of seizure’. Asylon means ‘without right of seizure’. In other words protected and cared for.

We have a fundamental responsibility to protect and care for those seeking asylum for fear of persecution on the basis of:

  • race
  • religion
  • nationality
  • membership of a particular social group or
  • political opinion.

2. Created in the Image of God

The moral obligation to care and protect asylum seekers and refugees has its spiritual and ethical basis in the long held conviction that this world and all of creation does not belong to us. It comes as gift to us from God. In particular that human beings are made in the image of God. Asylum seekers and refugees are made in the image of God. That is their primary status; before they are asylum seekers, before they are refugees; before they are identified in any way that separates and distances them from us there is something more fundamental. We share a common humanity and a common identity as image bearers of the Divine life. This is basic to the Christian tradition no matter what church we belong to. And it goes deep into our heritage. Indeed its origins lie in the people of Israel and the Jewish religion.

3. The stranger and alien in the Jewish religious tradition

An interfaith representative from the Canberra Jewish community, Mr Harry Oppermann wrote to me yesterday to lend his support – he is out of town tonight and sends his apologies. He reminds us that hospitality to the stranger has been a fundamental axiom of the Jewish religion for thousands of years.

Leviticus XIX 34 expressly demands in relation to the stranger: “Thou shalt love the stranger as thyself.” The Talmud (Oral Law) mentions that the precept to love, or not to oppress the stranger, occurs 36 times throughout the Jewish teachings (Torah/Pentateuch).

The Rabbis stated that “nothing should be done to annoy or injure the stranger, or even by word to offend their feelings”.

“The fact that someone is a stranger should in no way justify treatment other than that enjoyed by brethren in race.”

We are all made in the image of God. This is the Jewish tradition.

4. Jesus was a Jew; this was his origin and it is easily forgotten

The Gospels of the Jewish Jesus tell the story of someone who offered hospitality to the stranger, the outcast and the despised. Jesus was always crossing boundaries to search for those in need of healing and sanctuary. You did not hear from his lips phrases like ‘sovereign borders’; his agenda was the goodness of the sovereign God of his life and all life. In the gospels people were always breaking into his life and space, intruders, nameless! Out of desperate need they would come through roof tops, thrust through a crowd, call out along the road side making fools of themselves, suffer public humiliation – in short whatever it takes to seek healing, care and protection. Jesus didn’t regard them as queue jumpers or illegals. He had compassion on the people especially the mistreated and suffering, and especially women and children. The gospels of Jesus are a manifesto for asylum seekers and refugees; they are a manifesto for the way we ought to regard such fellow human beings; the gospels offer a moral framework for our common humanity and at the heart of the gospels is Jesus’ life of hospitality and compassion to the stranger. It got him into trouble.

5. Jesus was an asylum seeker and a refugee

Jesus’ ministry among the strangers and outcast defined his life. Why? Because it was in his blood; he came from refugee stock. As a young child Jesus became a displaced person. His parents fled to Egypt to escape the ruthless violence of one King Herod. He was a child refugee. He was taken to a foreign country without passport, with parents who had little to show they could support themselves in another place. He didn’t travel by plane, he didn’t travel by car or train; he didn’t even go by boat. Probably a camel! Was he an illegal? Did the Egyptian authorities send him to another country to be processed? It sounds so absurd doesn’t it. Outsourcing care and protection quickly becomes abdication of responsibility.

Born in a food trough, he spent his early years as a refugee in a foreign land, clearly cared for and protected. When it was safe he returned to his country of origin. But even then had to settle in a different place from which he had come for safety sake. His identity was shaped from earliest days as a stranger, asylum seeker and refugee. And he died an outcast for the sake of others.

6. Befriending the asylum seeker and refugee

This is our responsibility as human beings. It is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus; letting their voice be heard when they have no voice; attending to their cries; in order that they can find consolation in their trauma and fear. Being advocates for those who have no helpers and defenders.

There is a large sign hung at the front of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne. It states ‘Let’s fully welcome refugees’. What kind of welcome do we as a country give to refugees? Our stocks are very low in the international community at present. I want to end these opening remarks with a somewhat free adaptation of those haunting words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The subject of course is the final judgment (Matt25:31-46).

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations including Australia will be gathered before him, and the Lord will separate people and governments, one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was an asylum seeker and you gave me safe haven in your own home; I didn’t have a visa or passport but you treated me a child of God; I was a stranger who couldn’t speak the language and you welcomed me with the language of love, 36I was frightened and with barely the clothes on my back and you clothed me with kindness and care, I had lost loved ones in conflicts and persecutions and you comforted me, I was in detention and despairing of life itself and you never gave up until I was freed.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you an asylum seeker and welcomed you, or without visa or passport and treated you as a child of God, a stranger of different race and language, sick, afraid and befriended you, in detention and we became an advocate for your plight? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these asylum seekers and refugees, you did it to me.’

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Speaker 2:
Rev Myung Hwa Park
Moderator Elect, Uniting Church Synod of NSW & ACT

Let me begin my talk with a prayer and please join me in prayer.

God bless our eyes so that we will recognise injustices.
God bless our ears so that we will hear the cry of the stranger.
God bless our mouths so that we will speak words of welcome to newcomers.
God bless our shoulders so we will be able to bear the weight of struggling for justice.
God bless our hands so that we can work together with all people to establish peace.
Author unknown

The Uniting Church in Australia was born in 1977 when the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia joined together to form the nation’s only truly indigenous mainstream Christian movement. The Uniting Church shares with Australian people in the search for meaning, purpose and community in life. From its inception, it has been committed to justice and reconciliation between people.

The Church considers that the world is a community in which all members are responsible for each other and the strongest have a special responsibility for the vulnerable. Christianity teaches that all humanity will be judged by its attitude to neighbours, visitors and strangers.

As a Christian church we approach the issue of asylum seekers and refugees in the context of Hebrew history and the words of Jesus.

From its beginnings the Hebrew story was the story of a people in exile, of aliens resident in foreign lands suffering oppression and persecution.  This history of exile and exodus, particularly the escape from slavery in Egypt, revealed to the Israelites the nature of their God and defined their relationship with God and other people. Throughout the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), God is identified as the God who cares for the exiled and the persecuted refugee. Hospitality to the stranger became one of the strongest moral forces in ancient Israel.

Then the Christian story continued to uphold God’s call to solidarity with the homeless. Mary and Joseph were forced to take Jesus and hide in Egypt as Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. Jesus travelled through strange lands, choosing to spend time and share meals with the most marginalised and oppressed people of his society. He called on people to love their enemies, give all they had to the poor, and offer hospitality to strangers. He taught that faithful obedience to God was marked by such deeds. In fact, it would be the way people responded to strangers and to the poor that would identify them as people of faith.

In the line of those faith tradition, there is no question about the Christian response to asylum seekers and refugees. We the church is called to be a place of welcome. As faithful disciples of Christ, we are to provide care and comfort to those who come to this land as strangers, seeking safety as Jesus did and would have done if he were here in our situation.

In the Statement to the Nation made by the Inaugural Assembly in 1977, the Uniting Church promised to ‘seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur’, to ‘work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond’ and to ‘oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms’.

So UCA has been advocating for a just response to the needs of refugees with public statements, support for refugees by submitting letter to the minister for immigration and Border Protection, putting our submission on migration amendment regarding control over Australia’s protection obligation bill 2013, a Joint Appeal to the Prime Minister. Then providing the church with action resources, Fact sheets on refugees and asylum seekers, worship and prayer resources for refugee Sunday .

I believe that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees must be upheld at all times. Australia should fulfil Australia’s obligations under the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. And Australia’s policies and legislation should reflect a commitment to the rights and safety of asylum seekers and refugees and should clearly distinguish these from issues of border protection and security, and from attempts to deal with people smuggling.

Unfortunately our government failed the UN’s protocol and turned the boat and led many asylum seeker facing with the perils of drowning.

As a church we had no other way to express our sense despair than to lament the fact that Australia, a wealthy and stable nation, is turning its back on people fleeing persecution and war.

State and national leaders of the Uniting Church in Australia led a service of lament in Sydney’s CBD to pray for asylum seekers who come to Australia seeking care and protection.

Rev. Elanie Poulus national director for Uniting Justice said “We express our sadness at the lack of compassion, hospitality and generosity. Instead of offering protection and security to those who come seeking our help, we punish them with harsh and unforgiving policies.”

We need to call on Australians to turn away from the destructive, fear driven politics that punishes vulnerable people and embrace a politics of generosity, hope and love. In the face of violence and despair, the only morally acceptable response is love.

Australia is a wealthy country and it should uphold its responsibilities for human rights and safety of all people and especially children.

Uniting Church proactively seek our government to carry out its policies and legislation to the rights and needs of child asylum seekers and refugees.

On 23rd November, congregations from across NSW and ACT 200 people gathered at First Fleet Park to unfurl a giant quilt. The patches came from over 2800 congregations across NSW and ACT and proclaimed the message that the Uniting Church will not stand by while children are kept in immigration detention.

As a multicultural church, Uniting Church in Australia expect that “the Australian response toward asylum seekers and refugees should be culturally sensitive”.

There should be no discrimination in the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and humanitarian entrants. Policies, including access to visas and the formulation of visa subclasses and access to public services, social services, and settlement support, should not discriminate against people on the basis of their movements prior to their application for protection or resettlement being made.

Australia is a wonderful country, yes, I came to Australia as a migrant and became an Australia citizen after 27 years. I know that there are many people like me who made Australia their homes.

I am also aware of that there are many migrants whether they came here by plain, or by boat, whether they came here with visa or without visa , they aspire to have a good life here in Australia and made Australia as their home as I did embraced Australia as my country and made Australia a home for my children.

What would Jesus do for the refugees and Asylum seeker ?

In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

As a minister of Uniting Church and as the Moderator –elect

I am determine to work to voice up that

Australia must welcome refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons, for we were once strangers in foreign country.

So Let me finish my talk with a prayer and I like you to join me again.

God of hospitality and refuge,
come to us here in this place of security and safety.
Remind us that you are the God Almighty;
large enough for all people,
all nations, all tongues.
Help us, with the presence of your Holy Spirit,
to be able to create space
for those who seek asylum and refuge.
In the name of Jesus, your Son.
Amen.

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Speaker 3:
Rev Chris Turner
Senior Minister, Canberra Baptist Church

Current Australian policies on the treatment of asylum seekers who attempt to arrive in Australia by boat are designed to manufacture a corporate cultural fear of the vulnerable stranger who comes to our shores in search of asylum. Fear is an emotion that has the capacity to give us impulsive permission to commit irrational and immoral acts of defensive cruelty.

One way to foster a national fear is to dehumanise, in the eyes of the people, the human beings that are singled out as the objects of fear. Current policies are excelling at dehumanising those who seek asylum by stepping into a boat in the minds of most Australians. Calling such asylum seekers ‘illegal’, conjuring images of foreign invasion by using the language of ‘border protection’ and ‘sovereign borders’, attempting to fight the crime of people smuggling by persecuting the victims of that crime and covering the current offshore detention system in secrecy and silence, all encourage an easy sense of the boat people (now referred to merely as “the boats”) as subhuman and therefore acceptable objects of our defensive cruelty.

What would Jesus say and do in this situation? Jesus was a religious teacher. The gospel of Luke suggests that from a very young age he was demonstrating a deep and broad awareness of his religious tradition, which was rooted in the Hebrew Bible. We know that his parables and his actions presented a prophetic challenge to the conventional religion and society that he was born into. It appears that the themes of justice, mercy and common humanity with the vulnerable and the stranger that appear throughout the Hebrew Bible shaped Jesus’ understanding of his religion and of the social situation in which he lived. One stunning declaration in the Hebrew Bible, of God’s demand for us to recognise our common humanity with the vulnerable other person, is found in the book of Job. Job declares his awareness of God’s demand on him to acknowledge that the slave, a sub class in his household, shares his humanity.

“Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb?… If I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or a poor person without covering… who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep… then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket. For I was in terror of calamity from God, and I could not have faced his majesty.” (Job 31:15-23nrsv)

Job has, with absolute clarity, recognised that he shares his humanity in common with all other people. All human beings are sacred in God’s eyes and we cannot hope to look God in the face if we have failed to recognise our common humanity with every person and if we have failed to offer every person the hospitality of our household.

Traditions like this one found in the book of Job found their way into the parables and stories that Jesus shared with those who listened to him. One key example, with significant importance for tonight’s question, is that found in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew’s gospel; chapter 25. In that parable the nations of the world stand before Jesus in judgement, and I imagine the nation of Australia is among them. They are divided into two groups, the sheep stand to the right and the goats to the left. The key criterion for their judgement is the question of how they responded to the plight of the vulnerable stranger. To the sheep Jesus offers his welcome and says…

…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (vs 35-36 nrsv)

Now this is important. The sheep have no idea when or how this could have happened. They have no memory of doing these things for Jesus. Jesus’ reply to their question is staggering in its implications.

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.(vs 40 niv – brackets inserted by me)

Jesus identified himself with the vulnerable stranger. With every vulnerable stranger! There are no categories of vulnerability here. There is no distinction between legal strangers or illegal strangers, no distinction between those strangers who have arrived by boat or those who arrived by Qantas Flight 529. The sheep in this parable were the nations who showed mercy to the vulnerable strangers at their borders. By identifying himself with every vulnerable stranger Jesus made clear his understanding of God. When you look into the eyes of the vulnerable stranger you are looking into the eyes of God.

There can be no doubt in our minds when we read these parables of Jesus, that Jesus would respond to all asylum seekers as if he were welcoming God. This perspective is diametrically opposite to the strategy of dehumanising the asylum seeker that is being implemented in Australia today. What would Jesus do? Jesus would love the vulnerable stranger in the full conviction that by doing so he was loving God. By showing such an extravagant love Jesus would make the full humanity of the vulnerable stranger clearly apparent to all who witnessed his love for them. When Jesus touched a man with leprosy, that man was revealed in his full humanity, no longer a social outcast.

Jesus’ love for the asylum seeker would work against the attempts of the nation state to dehumanise the asylum seeker. It would be a love of active, non-violent, resistance to the nation state.

Australia’s wonderful humanist philosopher, Raimond Gaita, put it like this…

The readiness of lovers to disregard prudence, to love and to suffer for it despite status, class, race, nationality and moral merit, conditions and awakens in us a sense of the mystery and preciousness of human beings.(A Common Humanity, page 27)

As witnesses to the imprudent love of Jesus for the vulnerable stranger, we must awaken to the sacred, mysterious preciousness of every single human person who approaches us in need. If we allow Jesus’ love to awaken our own love for the vulnerable stranger, then our love will reveal the full humanity of the vulnerable stranger and awaken love in the lives of every Australian person and transform them into imprudent lovers of the vulnerable stranger.

And then love will overcome fear, common humanity will overcome inhumanity, and justice and mercy will characterise our national identity.

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Speaker 4:
Monsignor John Woods
Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra & Goulburn

I do not presume to know but I can speculate what Jesus would do about asylum seekers. I will do so with reference to the Sacred Scriptures, Church teaching and some articles in last week’s acclaimed national Jesuit journal, ‘Eureka Street’.

IN 1951, when the United Nations High Commission for refugees (UNHCR) was established, there were 1.5 million refugees. Sixty years later there was an estimated 42.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world; 26.4 million were “internally displaced persons” and over 15.2 million were refugees. At that time there were 895, 000 asylum seekers (that is, those seeking refugee status) and only 11 per cent of these were registered with the UNHCR.

In 2009 Prime Minster Gillard noted that Australia received only 0.6 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers. The vast majority of asylum seekers arrive in Australia by air, not by boat. And yet relatively far more ‘boat people/; have been granted refugee status subsequently, Nonetheless, a recent UMR national poll would have it that the majority of Australians believe that most ‘boat arrivals’ were not genuine refugees, and that the Government should be even more severe in their treatment! On the other hand, we pay scant notice to the 58, 000 tourists and others who overstay their visas. Perhaps, as Fatima Measham suggested in Eureka Street (“Bleeding hearts alone wn’t save asylum seekers”), it is time to draw on sport and celebratory figures to push a message that it is not cool to be cruel.

Australia is one of 20 nations to participate in the UNHCR’s resettlement program, in 2011 we accepted the third largest number of refugees after the USA and Canada. Commendable as that program is, it resettles less than one per cent of the world’s refugees. In fact. Most refugees stay within their region, fleeing to some of the world’s poorest countries.

Meanwhile, Australia’s focus of late would seem to be policies and processes which avoid the international ‘elephant in the room’, the latest incarnation fo which, ‘Sovereign Borders’, has implicitly turned an international right — to seek asylum — into an implicit national threat.

‘Sovereign borders’ seems to blur the lines between a civilian and military authority with implications well beyond this issue. Ray Cassin, writing in last week’s ‘Eureka Street’ (“Toxic Failures Endure as Morrison goes with the Navy”) pointed out that it is not really the people smugglers but the asylum seekers who are being targeted “as enemy aliens violating Australian sovereignty.

With the facts still emerging about the tragic Manus Island affray and the breakdown of the rule of law on Nauru still unresolved, the Australian Catholic Bishops Delegate for Migrants and Refugees, Bishop Gerard Hanna said that

“How our government treats those in its care speaks to our community and internationally about what is acceptable in the treatment of our fellow human beings. The current asylum policy is undermining Australia’s integrity and reputation in the international arena; Australia is less a country of refuge, but increasingly one of restrictive policies.”

A consequence of these policies is the push to contract out our responsibilities. Only yesterday we heard that the Foreign Minister was making overtures to impoverished Cambodia to take refugees from Australia.

Last Thursday we celebrated the UN’s World Day of Social Justice. Again in last weeks ‘Eureka Street’, David Hamilton SJ noted that social justice is about giving to another their due (“Social Justice with a smile”). However because social justice is seen as a debt, it “is more effective to appeal to our individual generosity than our shared duty, and for religious leaders to be less comfortable speaking about justice than about love.” As an aside, I reference the renowned comment of Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian Archbishop who was assassinated in 1985: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint, When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Hamilton went on to state: “Precisely because it is unfashionable and embarrassing to honour social justice, it is the more necessary to do so,,, The underlying grounds for this claim are that each human being is precious and that the happiness, peace and development of each of us are dependent on others… [and] so adulation of the self-made man is self-serving nonsense.”

Hamilton then affirmed dignity of one and all as foundational to society:

“Different religions and philosophies will account for the unique dignity of each human being and our interconnectedness in different ways, but without that conviction society risks becoming a jungle, bereft even of the tribal instincts that prevent animals of the same species from feasting on one another.”

Hamilton concluded by stating the love is not a substitute for justice but its lubricant; without love we will not be moved to address injustices.

Pope Benedict spoke of love as the “principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and all humanity”. Love of God and love of neighbour is foundational to the words and deeds of Jesus. The scriptural notion of ‘philoxena’ or love of strangers or even enemies is especially apt to this discussion. Of course, it it completed by the notion of ‘agape’ or one’s personal loves and again ‘eros’ or the love of the beautiful. Sadly, the Goods News of the love of God and neighbour was and is rejected as too good to be true. Jesus died rejected outside the city walls, between a so-called good and bad thief, stretched between life and death, between heaven and hell, promising new life. And yet in him the opposites wree reconciled. At least that is what Christians claimed when he rose from the dead. He is the alpha and omega who always offers new life, a new beginning despite the contrary observations of our constructs.

We gather in good will tonight, invoking the Spirit Jesus promised. No doubt the Spirit is also with the frustrated, lonely and sick displaced millions around the world, The scope and the numbers of displaced people appear beyond resolution. Perhaps there is a deep down reconciliation that we are all in need of? As Pope John Paul II pointed out, “If you want justice, work for peace and if you want peace, be ready to forgive.” Forgiveness reveals the lifeblood of love as it did on the cross of Cavalry. We need to move beyond short-term partisan politics to address the fundamental needs of people. In this context, I would suggest that the right of religious freedom to affirm and to support the dignity of all humans as created in the image of God is to the common good, whatever one’s religious aspirations.

Pope Francis the “Time” magazine ‘Man of the Year’ has touched a chord with many by affirming a joy in their dignity. He speaks simple words, does simple acts and engages universally. In a recent letter reflecting on the “Joy of the Gospel”, the joy of being in relationship with Jesus as both companion and shepherd, he spoke of the type of Church he preferred.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church that is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security” (EG 49).

His words should find a resonance with all Christians. Might I even suggest that one could substitute ‘Church’ with ‘Federal Parliament’ or even ‘society’? After all we are talking about the vision that should underpin our foundational relationships? I raise this scenario on the even of our nation’s centenary commemoration of the Anzac landings. We live in vastly different times though human aspirations are constant. How will future generations remember us? Hopefully not as the Aussies who thought it was cool to be cruel.

And so as to affirm that we are in it together, permit me to share the simple yet powerful claim of Bevans and Schroeder, (‘Prophetic Dialogue’, Orbis Books, 2011) that ‘the Mission has a Church’. Note, I did not say that ‘the Church has a Mission’ but that ‘the Mission has a Church’. Jesus came that we might have life and that we might haven it to the full (Jn 10:10). Together, and only together, can we do better.

There are many challenges. The most obvious question is just why are there so many displaced persons and what can be done to reduce this? How do regional solutions see each country do their fair share of ‘heavy lifting’? Perhaps Australia could offer more community based resettlement schemes as were to the fore post the Vietnam War, more resources for the quicker expediting of asylum seeker claims and an increased intake of refugees? Whatever, the economic bottom line is not the sole determinant of our authentic development as the assassinated US Senator Robert Kennedy reminded us when he said:

“The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry of the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debates or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

In conclusion, I suggest that as proud Australians we affirm our ‘sovereign responsibility’ and do better than the demeaning and divisive policy of ‘Sovereign Borders’. We could at least start there on a sea of challenges.

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Speaker 5:
Eileen O’Brien

Refugee Action Committee, Canberra

We hear very often from politicians & commentators in relation to this issue of “the boats” that “it’s a very complex issue”. And that closes down the discussion – as it is intended to. The Australian public has not been encouraged to really understand the issue, the implication being that we couldn’t. It’s too complex.

No, it isn’t. At its core, it’s very simple.

  • It’s about right and wrong, the right way to treat our fellow humans, and the wrong way.

  • It’s about what Australia as a rich modern country cando to help people desperately in need, and what it chooses to do instead.

  • It’s about Australia’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention versus our current treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Signatories to the UN Refugee Convention accept 3 primary responsibilities:

  • To offer protection to asylum seekers

  • To consider their claims for asylum

  • To not return them to danger.

Our current policy, in fact, does quite the opposite.

  • It is refusing asylum by turning back the boats.

  • Manus Island has been in operation for 16 months, and not one claim for asylum has been completed. There are no plans yet in place for permanent re-settlement.

  • We are returning people to danger – sometimes through forcible deportations, and more and more by making the conditions for asylum seekers so unbearable that they agree to repatriation.

And so we ask ourselves: What should we do? What we need to do is:

  • Get Informed, understand the policy and how we are treating people,

  • Get involved, help us work for change,

  • And commit to a long struggle.

Facts have been pretty thin on the ground in the political debate and in the media coverage about refugees. There is a great deal of mis-information circulating. In defence of the current harsh policies we hear that: “We had to do something to stop the deaths at sea. This policy is about saving lives. It is the only effective way.” So we are told.

These tough policies are not the only way. Australia is the only country in the world with indefinite, mandatory detention for all asylum seekers. No other country has the need to do this. We could stop the drownings by:

  • removing the need for people to get on boats from Indonesia or Sri Lanka or Malaysia,

  • by swiftly processing their refugee claims where they are,

  • and by improving their lives while they wait for their claims to be processed, ensuring they are safe and secure.

People would not undertake what they know to be dangerous sea journeys if they had an alternative.

Everyone agrees that what are needed are workable, cooperative, regional arrangements for receiving asylum seekers and efficiently processing their claims for refugee status. Everyone agrees on that: all three of our major political parties, refugee advocates, the UN, the Gillard Government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seeker policy. But by its actions of entering into bilateral agreements with PNG, Nauru, and now maybe Cambodia, the Australian government is obstructing any development toward a multilateral regional agreement.

For examples of other ways to treat refugees we only have to look at how we used to do it. After WWII and the Vietnam War, refugee claims were processed in Europe or Southeast Asia. Australia accepted refugees, including boat people, in large numbers – over 200,000 after WWII and over 70,000 after the Vietnam War. We had “reception centres” not detention centres, in Australia where people had initial health, identity and security checks, and then they were settled in the community, often initially billeted with Australian families. They were welcomed into the community.

Or we can look to how the rest of the world is dealing with the arrival of asylum seekers today. Let’s look at Jordan, for example. Jordan is a country slightly bigger than Tasmania, with population of 6.5 million, and a GDP per capita a fraction that of Australia’s. It is now hosting 600,000 refugees from Syria who have been arriving on foot by the thousands daily. At the border, these asylum seekers are met by members of the Jordanian army, not to turn them away, but to assist them with completing their journey, understanding that they will be weary and in need of help. Just as Jesus would have.

In 2012 the Gillard Government set up the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers to receive submissions and then report on the best way forward for Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It is worth noting that 290 of the 340 submissions made to the Expert Panel, that’s 86%, recommended against the re-opening of Nauru or Manus Island, and warned of the serious risks of doing so. One wonders how the Panel then arrived at its recommendation to resume offshore processing on both Manus and Nauru when the overwhelming expert advice warned against this approach. The so-called “PNG Solution” clearly was a political fix.

Of course, the primary focus of concern in this matter is the unacceptable, unfair and inhumane treatment of refugees. But we might also want to consider what this experience is doing to us as a community. What does it say about what we value as a nation? Australians like to see themselves as warm, welcoming, and generous. It’s the land of the “fair go”, with a proud history as a defender of human rights. But we now, so it appears, endorse policies that intentionally deny refugees of their human rights, are intentionally cruel and unfair – to people who just want to be safe, and have asked us for help. Is something shifting in what we value, and what we find acceptable?

After the recent horrific events at Manus Island, there does appear to be a groundswell of public disgust and questioning of conditions on Manus. More people are asking themselves: “What is going on? What is being done in my name”?

And so, what should we do with that anger & frustration? Talk with your family & friends about this. Break the silence. Dispel the myths about refugees & asylum seekers. Most people change their minds about this when they know the facts. If you want to know more, grab one of our flyers with a “Fact Sheet” on the back, go to our website: www.refugeeaction.org. There you’ll find links to a number of other great sources of information such as the Refugee Council of Australia, and Amnesty International

Write letters to the editor, to your MP, ACT Senators, make an appointment to see your MP, with a group from your church. Let them know you do not support this policy and expect Australia to do better.

Organise a group from your church, neighbourhood, or family to attend the Palm Sunday rally in April. Get your youth groups involved. Organise a project at your schools.

Come along and get involved with the Refugee Action Committee (RAC). Tonight is your point of contact with RAC. Come and talk with us later over coffee and tea. Fill in one of our sign-up sheets. We need your time and talents. Everyone can contribute to this effort in some way, to whatever extent you are able.

We must be prepared for the long haul; it will be a long, difficult struggle. Both major political parties are committed to these harsh policies. They’ve staked a lot of political capital on this issue and are not going to turn around easily. I would like to emphasise that RAC is non-partisan. This is not about party politics, not a left/right issue. It’s a humanitarian issue that requires all of us to work together.

Yes, we have a hard task ahead of us, but we must not get discouraged. If we look back at the public protest against government refugee policy after the Tampa affair, we see a similar situation of bi-partisan political support for tough refugee policy. Persistent action over time successfully raised public awareness about the human tragedy of mandatory detention, and we started to see small political breakthroughs. There were reforms, notably the decision to move children out of closed detention. Most importantly, on-going public protest ensured that, for the time, the line was held on the introduction of harsher policies.

But there has been much regression during the last few years. While many of us sat shaking our heads in disbelief, thinking “It can’t get any worse.” – it did. Again & again.

That is why we must act now & stick with it. We hear the government proudly declare that their harsh policies are strongly supported by the Australian people.

We must get the message across that: “No, they are not! We want our fellow human beings treated fairly and humanely”.

I would like to close by addressing a few words to my fellow Seniors, to encourage you to take seriously our role as the Elders of our community.

This is not the time to stand back and say “I don’t want to make a fuss, don’t want to draw attention to myself.” Now is the time to stand up and say: “Pay Attention! What our country is doing is wrong and something must be done about it.”

Help support the work of RAC. And, yes, I do mean marching in the streets, right up front, arm in arm with some of the fantastic, dedicated young people you’ll meet. What have you got to lose? Your reputation? Surely at our age, we’ve figured out that it really matters very little what other people think about what we do. Your kids will shocked? Good! It’s probably time they found out a bit more about who you really are. Bring them along. And the grandkids. What a great family outing for Palm Sunday.

It’s not fair of us to think: “We can leave this to the young people.” No, that’s not good enough. We all need to play our part. Our part as Elders is important.

In conclusion, to all of you, consider getting involved and help us work toward more humane refugee policy. Do whatever you can. The alternative is to do nothing. And you know we can’t do that.

We know we are in for a long battle against the formidable opponent of entrenched government policy and public opinion. But we know we are right. And we know from experience that on-going public action will be effective. We just have to persist.

And remember, to quote the title of a book by Christian author Joyce Meyer, “You can’t defeat Goliath with your mouth shut”.