Asylum seekers

Well, what are we to do? As individuals. As families. As a nation. As local communities.

Asylum seekers. Some come by boat, some come by plane. With Australia being an island continent, they are the only options.

It’s the boat people that get the attention. They are on the front pages regularly, and have been so on and off for years. At present it is a growing problem. During the Howard years the numbers of boat people arriving dwindled, but there were voices being raised that our treatment of them was inhumane.

With a change of government conditions for asylum seekers, and specifically for ‘boat people’ were eased. The effect was that the trickle of boats became a flood. Australia’s system for dealing with them was overwhelmed. Something had to be done. The response came when Kevin Rudd was re-instated as Prime Minister. Going much further than Prime Minister Howard had done, he has said that people who arrive on boats without visas will not be resettled in Australia but in Papua New Guinea. He has signed an agreement with the PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill – an agreement which presumably has Australian aid attached.

There are of course positives and negatives with this proposal.

What should a Christian response to this look like? How should we respond to this humanitarian crisis of our times?

Many Christians think first of all of the people involved. They see the suffering and say ‘This is wrong. We need to care for people better. Jesus wouldn’t treat people this way, and neither should we.’. Being personally involved within my own family in a difficult migration issue, I feel this very strongly.

But governments do not see just the personal suffering. As Tim Costello said ‘we are thinking in stats and categories, not looking into faces.’ And so governments must. They have to step back from the individual case and take a larger perspective. They have other considerations to deal with as well.

I have sat with my wife in a hospital emergency department on a number of occasions when she was quite ill. We waited for hours. We saw things that you want to deal with immediately. A child with a foot that had been scalded with boiling water. Waiting, for hours. A young man with a badly cut scalp. Waiting, for hours. My wife, in pain, feeling nauseous, waiting for hours. It’s not as though the staff in emergency didn’t care. They just had too many to deal with at once. So they had to prioritise. See the most needy first and then move to the next one. They had to devise a system that enabled them to deal with all the people needing assistance. The hospital also had to deal with the people coming in by ambulance. Sometimes people have to wait in an ambulance for hours till the hospital is able to accommodate them. Here in Victoria they are looking at training paramedics to a higher level so they can administer a basic level of medicine at the patient’s home rather than take them to hospital. Other methods of encouraging people to find other alternatives than presenting themselves at emergency are being looked at.

The point of this story is that when the numbers go up a simple compassionate response of wanting to help needs to be organised. You need some sort of a system in place to deal with the numbers. That is when governments have to look at stats and categories. At issues like assimilation and national security. Social cohesion and harmony have to be part of a government’s considerations. As do the provision of infrastructure and services, and so on.

Then Christians have a problem they have to consider. How do we apply Jesus’ model of compassion at this level, when there are many to care for? Jesus never did that. He cared for individuals and healed them, and so should we. But Jesus never established a hospital or administered a nation. He indicated that we would be doing those things when he said that we would be doing ‘greater things than these’.

So the challenge for Christians is to work out a compassionate system that works on a national level but never loses sight of the individual. This is not an easy challenge, but we need to do it.

There are no doubt people with vastly more ability than myself who have already looked at these things. Julian Burnside is one, and much of what he has to say is good – though he does spin statistics to suit himself. He compares the four million people who arrive in Australia by legitimate means with the 25 000 boat people who arrive by illegitimate means, but does not mention that almost all of the 4 million leave again after their holiday/ business stay/ education is completed, whereas the boat people intend to stay permanently.

I also like Mark Glanville’s approach, though he seems to me to not really recognise that not all boat people are fleeing from life threatening situations. That many are is true, but that doesn’t mean that all are. There are many who face a life of limited economic opportunity and look at Australia and think ‘It’s better there, I’m going to go there.’ And who can blame them? But that doesn’t mean that Australia necessarily has to accommodate them.

Also Mark’s statement that ‘True care for these people is to provide them with a home.’ doesn’t take into account how we are to deal with large numbers of such people. And he does not seem to give enough credence to the matter of dealing with people smugglers. One may disagree with Kevin Rudd’s method of dealing with them without wanting to disagree with the idea of somehow dealing with them.

There’s also a useful article on how it would affect PNG by Victoria Stead in The Age

There are many others more qualified than I to speak about these things.

Nevertheless it seems to me that this needs to go beyond the ‘experts’ and be discussed by the people, the ordinary people. All Australians, including Christians, need to be in on this. And we need to be properly informed about all aspects of the matter. It is excellent that Christians are posting on Facebook on this matter. It is excellent that more than one point of view is being presented – though some of it doesn’t rise much above shouting slogans.

But as I have said any discussion on these must go beyond the tragedy of individual cases and look at the wider picture of what governments must necessarily consider.

Some questions to consider:

  • How many refugees should Australia accept every year?
  • Are there visible and accessible legitimate channels for genuine refugees to access? You can’t accuse people of queue jumping if there is no queue to jump!
  • What are the motives of asylum seekers? Is it valid to respond differently to different people who have different motives?
  • What social cohesion issues do we need to consider? Large groups of one people group with very different cultural assumptions that Australia’s can cause significant social disruption.
  • What national security issues do we need to consider? Are the numbers of refugees coming in – not just this year, but accumulating over the years – a national security issue?
  • How easily do people from different people groups assimilate into Australian culture? If there is not some degree of assimilation you will have a fractured national fabric. Does that mean we should limit the number of people from any one culture or people group? This will lead to charges of racism, as Geoffrey Blainey found out.

There’s a lot more to be said on this, but this will do for now.