a christian perspective on the world today

Our refugee problem

In 2015, I was part of a group visiting a number of sites from biblical and early Christian history in the nation of Jordan. Our guide was Jacob, a Jordanian Christian. As well as the specifics of the places we visited, he was proud to tell us about his country and the role it plays in the world historically and presently.

One of the things that took me by surprise was his obvious pride at Jordan’s ability to host refugees from the neighbouring war-torn nations of Syria and Iraq. At the time, the Za’atari refugee camp in the country’s north was the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, hosting about 150,000 people. For a nation of 9 million people, they were accommodating a refugee population of about 750,000.

This situation is certainly not without its problems and challenges, but for Jacob and many of his fellow Jordanians, it was something to admire. “We are proud that our country is a safe place that people want to come to,” Jacob explained. “And we are pleased that we have the resources to be able to help them.”

After 15 years mired in the Australia’s ugly politics regarding refugees and asylum seekers, this was a breath of fresh, a reminder that the Australian political expedience is not how it has to be and that there are other nations who choose differently.

The contemporary political mire regarding asylum seekers began with Prime Minister John Howard and his hard-line response to the Tampa “crisis” in August, 2001. Australia had had a chequered history in relation to migration and refugees, but in the 1980s had generally responded positively to people in need, particularly the Vietnamese “boat people” of that time. But by refusing to allow the 433 asylum seekers taken aboard the Norwegian freighter to land in Australia, Mr Howard found a politically galvanising issue, spurred by the growing fears of terrorism after September 11 that year, and used it to win the federal election that November.

Since then, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been largely a competition between the two major politically parties—goaded on by politicians and media on the further right—as to who could maintain the most anti-asylum seeker stance. While occasional deaths at sea as a result of unsafe journeys and unscrupulous people smugglers were undoubted tragedies, these were used as pretexts to further harden the responses, and so to further play to and aggravate the fears and prejudices of Australian voters.

This policy reached a low point in 2013 when the Abbot government instituted the policy that no asylum seekers who arrived in Australian waters by boat would ever be allowed to reach Australia. Instead, they were to be “outsourced” to Regional Processing Centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, detention centres that had been set up as part of the “Pacific Solution” by the previous Labor government. At great expense to Australia, these boat arrivals were sent to these neighbouring nations, cajoled into choosing to return to the dangerous nations they had escaped from and otherwise left to wait indefinitely.

Our “refugee problem” was “solved”! From behind the veil of secrecy that descended with the advent of the new Border Force regime, we were assured that the boat arrivals had been stopped—and the collateral human damage for this policy “success” was so removed as to be almost out of sight and out of mind for many Australians.

Five years later, the situation is even worse. More than 1600 of Australia’s asylum seekers—almost all of whom have now been processed and found to be genuine refugees, people who have escaped from their home country because of a real fear for their lives—remain on Manus Island and Nauru. These are remote tropical islands with limited infrastructure, support or opportunities, and resentful local populations. The refugees arrived in Australian waters as people who had escaped trauma via dangerous and harrowing journeys. Their physical and mental health has deteriorated with years of detention. Cases of suicides and self-harm, whether as a form of protest or a symptom of despair, are becoming more common.

During this year, a number of cases in Australia’s Federal Court have seen refugees challenging their lack of medical care. The cases have involved a variety of medical and mental issues. The Australian government did not even try to deny its responsibility for the health and wellbeing of these refugees. And in every case the challenge to the limited care provided has been successful, with orders made for the patient to be moved to Australia for the provision of proper medical diagnosis and care.

The provision of adequate medical care in such remote and challenging locations will always be a difficult task. In his findings in relation to the much-publicised death of Hamid Khaezi—the 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, who eventually died from a tropical infection in a Brisbane hospital in 2014—the Queensland Coroner recommended that moving refugees to a more accessible location would be a significant step toward better health care. But he also urged that medical decisions—such as provision of appropriate treatment and medical evacuation when necessary—must be made for medical reasons, not political considerations, as often seems to be the case.[1]

The Australian government’s prioritisation of politics over human need has not gone unnoticed. Addressing the 38th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on July 2 this year, Daniel Webb of the Human Rights Law Centre put it like this: “The denial of essential medical care has become the latest political tactic used against the refugees indefinitely imprisoned on Manus and Nauru.” He described the current approach as a deliberate plan by politicians to “harm refugees for their own political ends” as a form of “brutal and deeply cynical politics.”[2]

In June, the Australian government quietly settled a lawsuit brought on behalf on the men detained on Manus Island. Each detainee received a payment between $50,000 and $70,000 for the suffering they have experienced in detention, even while that detention and the suffering it brings is continuing—with no end in sight.

Our refugee problem is not asylum seekers or refugees. We have never been “swamped” with refugees in anywhere near the numbers that are still housed and cared for in Jordan. As a country with a larger population, more space and more resources, we have never been asked to bear anything like the cost that they have been prepared, even proud, to pay. Which demonstrates our real refugee problem—a lack of compassion.

In June, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton warned Australians that any acts of compassion in relation to refugees might undermine Australia’s border security policies. The larger issue for Mr Dutton and his political colleagues is that true compassion would undermine not only his signature policy but also their ability to use these issues for electoral purposes. When a nation’s leaders feel the need to warn its people against compassion, we are facing more than a refugee problem.

At the inauguration of the nation of Israel about 3500 years ago—a group of people who had escaped over borders from oppression and slavery—its new citizens warned that other nations would be blessed and cursed depending on how they treated people, particularly those most in need: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19). Whether or not this curse would arrive by act of divine judgment, it would be fulfilled by an absence of compassion and what that means for what a nation is and what its people are becoming. From my conversation with Jacob in Jordan, it seems we need to re-discover our sense of compassion and that might best begin with a compassionate response to the people and the problems we have created on Manus Island and Nauru.

[1] For more on these Coroner’s finding, see “Immigration Bureaucrats Still Undermining Doctors Despite Hamid Khazaei’s Death” by Sara Townend: <https://doctorsmakechange.org/updates/2018/8/27/immigration-bureaucrats-still-undermining-doctors-despite-hamid-khazaeis-death>.

[2] For more on the failures of medical care on Nauru, see “A Cynical Politics of Medical Neglect” by Nathan Brown and Sara Townend: <https://wp.avondale.edu.au/news/2018/08/03/a-cynical-politics-of-medical-neglect/>.

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