The indefensible war on asylum seekers

Enough.

refugees on a boat
Image Credit: Joel Van Houdt, New York Times

Dear Australia

According to recent research:

Most Australians think asylum seekers who arrive by boat are not genuine refugees and there is strong support for the Abbott government to treat boat arrivals more harshly.

A nationwide opinion poll by UMR Research shows that 59 per cent of people think most boat arrivals are not genuine refugees…

The poll, based on a nationally representative sample of 1000 online interviews, shows only 30 per cent of Australians believe that most asylum seekers are genuine refugees while 12 per cent are unsure.

A strong majority of Australians, 60 per cent, also want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers… Only 30 per cent of Australians think asylum seekers should not be treated more severely, while 9 per cent are unsure.

That is staggering. We’re not just talking about maintaining the status quo, which most mental health professionals and human rights advocates already believe is too harsh. We’re talking about people who want this treatment to get worse.

Maybe this is purely malice. Maybe it is ignorance. Maybe it’s something else. I hope it is ignorance. Though 9% of people admitted they weren’t sure what they wanted.

If you’re one of these 59-60%  – and statistics suggest there’s a pretty good chance that you are (better than 1 in 2 (without accounting for what lovely people my readers are) – could you please commit to meeting at least three refugees this year and hearing their stories.

Why not make 2014 the year you expand your horizons beyond the lines you’re fed by people with particular “special interests”? I’m not claiming not to be biased. It’s pretty clear I feel strongly about this issue.

But that’s no excuse for you to simply dismiss my opinion without taking steps to make your own opinion better educated, and perhaps, more compassionate. Could I challenge you – even if you stop reading right here – to put human faces on the statistics we’re reading about asylum seekers, and, to avoid hypocrisy – can I offer to help. While I’m asking you, a statistic, to put a face to these statistics, can I ask you to become a face to me as well. Share your story with me. Tell me why I’m wrong. Tell me why we should be treating humans whose crime is not to be born in Australia – something not many of us have much control over for ourselves – as less than less than human (we already treat boat arrivals as less than human, so to make the treatment harsher again would be to dehumanise them further). Convince me.

If you’re one of these 59% of Australians – can you contact me, speak to me, become a face for me – and allow me to introduce you to some refugee friends? I’d be happy to. If you’re not in Brisbane, I’m pretty sure I can put you in touch with someone who lives near you who can help.

More than half of us don’t want to look after people who are so desperate for help they flee their homes, their families, their friends – and get on rickety boats (even if they’re told these boats are going to transfer them to more comfortable ships for the journey) – in the hope that Australia, the country they’re heading to because we have a reputation for promoting freedom and welcoming multiple cultures – will welcome them. More than half of us don’t want to welcome or care for our fellow humans. Not only do we not want to care for them – we want to treat them more harshly. This might be out of ignorance too.

If you want to read a first hand account of the boat journey – just the boat journey, without the underlying personal trauma associated with fleeing your home – two New York Times journalists made the trip, and wrote about it.

Maybe you’re one of the 60%. Maybe you haven’t felt about what it does to a person to be pulled off a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, ferried into captivity, referred to by number, placed with a bunch of strangers, given no certainty about how long you’ll be held…

Maybe you aren’t aware that a Commonwealth Ombudsman report on suicide and self-harm in migration detention described the conditions, presently, in our detention centres – funded and operated in your name, Australian – as prison-like, featuring: “omnipresent surveillance features, including high wire and razor wire fences, surveillance cameras, body searches, room searches, roll calls, and being constantly watched over by uniformed security personnel.”

Maybe you’re not aware that 62.5% of people held in detention centres have significant mental health issues – exacerbated by detention, and according to that same report: “Australian and international evidence supports the conclusion that immigration detention in a closed environment for a period of longer than six months has a significant, negative impact on a detainee’s mental health.”

Maybe you’re not aware that almost 1 in 5 asylum seekers attempt self harm in detention, and 14% of these self-harm cases involve children.

Maybe you’re not aware that these conditions, and detention itself, scars detainees by causing significant ongoing mental health issues, and not only does it cost about $578,000 per offshore detained Asylum Seeker ($1 billion to keep 1,728 refugees in off-shore detention), the mental health care costs when they are inevitably released into our community are huge – about $25,000 per individual (source: T. Ward, Long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers, (Melbourne, Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, 2011).

It feels crass to make an economic case not to keep people in detention – or treat asylum seekers who arrive by boat “more harshly” – but that’s a political reality. It seems. Which is sad.

Politicians do whatever they can to stay in power, and we keep the politicians who serve our self interests in power for longer.

Dear Australian Christians,

Statistically, about 62% of Australians identify as Christians – there has to be some overlap between that 62% and the 59% who want us to be nastier to vulnerable people. Even if the 38% who don’t identify as Christians were hypothetically part of that 59%, there’s another 21% of Australians who are Christians who want us to treat asylum seekers “more harshly” than we already do.

If you are one of these Christians, then let me speak to you for a moment about why your position is fundamentally inconsistent with the Gospel – you know – the foundational truths of Christianity.

Let’s, for a moment, imagine that Christianity is fundamentally the story of people looking for a better future because their ‘present’ is filled with brokenness, and that part of becoming a Christian involves escaping the brokenness. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. Because that’s exactly what Christianity involves. But it doesn’t just stop there.

Christianity involves a king, a leader, who doesn’t just show compassion to us, as refugees who are fleeing a future we don’t want, he grants us a future we don’t deserve. He doesn’t just grant us a future we don’t deserve – he dies to buy our ticket to this future, to secure our place.

We don’t get in on merit. We don’t get in on lining up in the right place. We get in by asking for mercy from the king.

If you want to pick a stance on this issue that imitates Jesus and gets you a hearing for the Gospel message, the ability to tell the story of Jesus with consistency – a story that involves self-giving, sacrificial love from a king, not just for strangers from another country, but for his enemies – then I’d urge you to reconsider the stance you are taking on refugees.

Sure. It is possible that by being generous and compassionate people will abuse our generosity. People may come through our gates who we don’t want coming through our gates. There might be “security” risks. But risks come with rewards, and at the moment we are perpetrating a terrible evil by being complicit as our leaders mistreat people in our name, while they give us what we want. It’s time to want something different. To want something better.

We can start by not wanting something worse.

We can start by understanding the plight of the refugee, the complexity of the decision making process involved in fleeing one’s country.

We can start by insisting on treating refugees with dignity, with love, with compassion – even if we feel strongly that they shouldn’t have taken their own lives in their hands on a dangerous journey with some manipulative and unscrupulous people smugglers.

This is an issue that transcends party politics. Don’t read this thinking I’ve got it in for Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party. It’s not about the Liberal Party. It’s not about the Labor Party, and while the Greens are a compassionate voice in this debacle debate, I’m not suggesting we all join the Greens. Politics in our country is far more complex than a neat dichotomy (or trichotomy) allows. There are issues scattered through history where all the obvious and popular positions were wrong, and immoral. And when we see such immorality enshrined in our legislation, or when we realise we’ve vicariously been participating in this sort of immorality, change requires people speaking up in every party, from every ideology.

If we want genuine change the solution to this issue needs to be something that affects every party. We can learn something from how those agitating for changes to the Marriage Act are approaching their advocacy – pushing for conscience votes, and advocating the issue on a person to person basis, through stories, rather than accepting the lock-step conclusions of two party rooms – even if you disagree with their cause, their methods are effective.

Because Australian politics is now, perhaps more than ever, predicated on giving people what they want, not giving people what they need, or what is right (because that’s how you stay in office) – our Prime Minister has amped up the rhetoric on the asylum seeker issue.

“If stopping the boats means being criticised because I’m not giving information that would be of use to people smugglers, so be it. We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers. If we were at war we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves… Let’s remember that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong.”

Disgusting.

Dear Prime Minister Abbott,

Sorry Mr Prime Minister. With all due respect – we must do better as a nation, and your job is to lead us in doing better in promoting selflessness, not to pander to our self interest.

We live in a democracy, where transparency is essential for our votes to be cast in an informed and invested way, as is our right. You are robbing us of that right by promoting secrecy – it is, I feel, better to inform both the smugglers and the Australian public, rather than informing neither group. This isn’t a war. This isn’t an issue of national security. This isn’t about mere “idle curiosity” – this is about letting the Australians who care about our international obligations, and about other people, you know, our fellow humans, keep you accountable as our elected representative and leader.

Perhaps worse than the lack of transparency is the fundamental abuse of the truth in your pandering to the “will of the people.” Your statements to The Guardian are misleading and make criminals out of the victims of crime.

a) it’s not illegal to seek asylum by boat. It’s wrong to people smuggle.
b) none of the asylum seekers I’ve spoken to had any idea the thousands of dollars they spent to get here, or the boats they got on were the “wrong” way to come here. They certainly weren’t paying thousands for a dangerous trip on a non-seaworthy rust bucket. “Ishmael” tells the story better than I can.
c) comparing the circumstances of people fleeing from the tragedy of war, or violence, by conflating the motivation of asylum seekers and the scourge of people smuggling is abhorrent.

Even if it’s true, what you say, about many of these asylum seekers being “economic refugees” – and it doesn’t appear to be, given that the vast majority are found to be genuine refugees – these individuals have the right to test their refugee status by seeking asylum. And, are allowed to seek asylum in whatever way they are able.

I spoke to a friend, an asylum seeker from the Middle East, a Christian, who had fled religious persecution from his home country – and sure, his reason for specifically seeking refuge in Australia was that it offered new opportunity – both for the freedom to practice his faith without fear, and economically – but the very nature of seeking asylum is to seek new opportunity for life, from a situation where there is no opportunity for life. Every refugee is an economic refugee, it’s a meaningless category.

Here’s another story. From another asylum seeker.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

15 thoughts on “The indefensible war on asylum seekers”

  1. For the record, I sent an amended version of this post to Tony Abbott via this form.

    “Dear Mr Abbott,

    As a life long Liberal Party voter I read your comments in The Guardian with some disappointment, and some disillusionment. I refer specifically to the following remarks:

    “If stopping the boats means being criticised because I’m not giving information that would be of use to people smugglers, so be it. We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers. If we were at war we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves… Let’s remember that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong.”

    I hope these were off the cuff marks, and not carefully prepared written statements, because it disappoints me to think that my vote, my share in your government as a citizen of Australia, is being used in this way.

    Sorry Mr Prime Minister. With all due respect – we must do better as a nation, and your job is to lead us in doing better in promoting selflessness, not to pander to our self interest.

    We live in a democracy, where transparency is essential for our votes to be cast in an informed and invested way, as is our right. You are robbing us of that right by promoting secrecy – it is, I believe, better to inform both the smugglers and the Australian public, rather than informing neither group. This isn’t a war. This isn’t an issue of national security. This isn’t about mere “idle curiosity” – this is about letting the Australians who care about our international obligations, and about other people, you know, our fellow humans, keep you accountable as our elected representative and leader. Perhaps worse than the lack of transparency is the fundamental abuse of the truth in your pandering to the “will of the people” (I read recently that 60% of Australians want us to treat refugees more harshly). Sadly, your statements to The Guardian are misleading and make criminals out of the victims of crime.

    a) it’s not illegal to seek asylum by boat. It’s wrong to people smuggle.
    b) none of the asylum seekers I’ve spoken to had any idea the thousands of dollars they spent to get here, or the boats they got on were the “wrong” way to come here. They certainly weren’t paying thousands for a dangerous trip on a non-seaworthy rust bucket. “Ishmael” tells the story better than I can.
    c) comparing the circumstances of people fleeing from the tragedy of war, or violence, by conflating the motivation of asylum seekers and the scourge of people smuggling is abhorrent.

    Even if it’s true, what you say, about many of these asylum seekers being “economic refugees” – and it doesn’t appear to be, given that the vast majority are found to be genuine refugees – these individuals have the right to test their refugee status by seeking asylum. And, are allowed to seek asylum in whatever way they are able.

    I spoke to a friend from my church, an asylum seeker from the Middle East, a Christian, who had fled religious persecution from his home country – and sure, his reason for specifically seeking refuge in Australia was that it offered new opportunity – both for the freedom to practice his faith without fear, and economically – but the very nature of seeking asylum is to seek new opportunity for life, from a situation where there is no opportunity for life. Every refugee is an economic refugee, it’s a meaningless category.

    I know yours is a difficult job, and this is a complex issue, I will continue to pray for you as you represent our nation and lead us.

    Regards,

    Nathan Campbell”

  2. Thank you Nathan for this great article. I have worked with asylum seekers for the past 22 years and cannot believe how inhumane and cruel we have become as a nation. Our leaders forget that virtually ALL refugees have used people smugglers to leave their country and have crossed borders illegally – so does Tony Abbot think all these people are evil/ wrong and should go back to their homelands? Yes people smugglers can be cruel and have no morals or ethics but we should not punish those who have been persecuted.
    I certainly hope and pray that Australian Christians will react to the latest punishment where people are being denied the right to bring their wives and children for years and years. Family relationships are being destroyed; Children are growing up without their parents/ husbands without wives/ etc. The mental health costs in the future are going to be huge let alone the other problems that will occur with children whose childhood has been destroyed. Have we not learnt from what we did to the aboriginals, the war children from England and children taken from single mothers? I see yet another Royal Commission and further calls for yet another apology.
    Thank you Nathan for challenging us. I too can be contacted by people in South Australia who would like to meet asylum seekers or refugees.

  3. I really struggle a lot with this, I have worked with asylum seekers since I was in my teens, teaching young afghani males how to have fun, socialise and have a childhood that they missed after 4 years in detention. Now I work with many refugees and study migration issues and the effects on indigenous populations. Over this time I have become less supportive of some refugee causes, and knowing that some approved cases are not as urgent or dangerous as those who will never be given asylum. really knowing how much support does not exist in our county for settlement and then family who come to settle that are not refugee status, but come as reconnecting family, and they miss the support alltogether, this has caused a lot of social issues. So now I can neither say for or against as it is very situational. So for someone like myself, black and white stats would not show the truth of my opinions, I am also sure many people are in the same situation. I would love to discuss my experience and thoughts if you would like to email me.

    1. Hi Debbie – I’d love to hear more, but I’m sure those reading this post would like to learn from your experiences too. I absolutely agree that we need to be committed to loving and supporting refugees and their families when/if they are allowed to settle in Australia in an ongoing way not just welcoming people in the very early stages, I agree we need to be bringing people to Australia more proactively (those who are urgently in need). I don’t think we should be seeing this as a competition. There is plenty of Australia to go around. What sort of support do you think is necessary for refugees settling in Australia? Where are the gaps?

      1. Specific issues I cannot say in such a public place, as you know words can be taken and used against refugees and that is not fair to tarnish them all with the same brush, or even use it in an uneducated manor. But in a simpler way, I deal with a group of people who’s culture is obviously different. But far from this being a race/culture issues and fitting in, I am anti-assimilation if that gives context.

        However it is good to remember that other cultures are different, not bad, but different, ongoing all/some cultures have many bad things that exist within them (including us). So people who are just people in their home nation, their behaviour if it occurs in Australia would be criminal. Now far from preaching any hate, what we need is to fill the gaps in support, much like all of Australia’s social sector, their is no money and volunteers are left filling gaps, but may not be the best people to deal with these criminal behaviours.

        Now the issues I am referring to don’t really affect people beyond the community involved, so australia at large isn’t being effected, but the community who did these acts in their home countries continue them here behind closed doors. We do not have a force educating about these issues, and helping people to change cultural behaviours. This does come from within when you have someone in the community strong enough to fight it, but as you are aware given a lot of refugee travels and situations sometimes these people can be really thin on the ground, and then often ostracised out of their community for fighting against cultural norms. A great example is FGM, so you understand what kind of behaviours I mean.

        Then ongoing is the family reconnection program, so people who in bad situation who are not refugees, but gain entry into Australia, they don’t get support, they miss the process which just makes the problems worse. And to use an example, my family were refugees, but because of the white australia policy were denied entry. So they came here on some English passports instead, so they skipped the process of being a refugee and gaining the support, but we’re literally refugees, because of the home situation. This has very detrimental effects, so we need to fill the gaps into immigration as well.

        As an Australian in a lower socio-economic bracket, I also personally struggle with the wealth needed to become a refugee, more money then I could ever gain. Such as if I needed to escape australia for some reason, I could not afford to, my family does not have access to that much money. Over history it has shown that refugee status is afforded by the wealthy of a society only. This is not about people, but about the choice of who in society will be saved, who is worth saving, who can afford to save themselves. If you needed to escape would you pay your way, or would you give all your money so someone you don’t know, someone who is in a generational worse off situation then you? Who chooses? Who lives and who dies?

        I could not choose personally, I would stand and fight, I would die for my fellow people and all who cannot afford the safety. I would fight to bring safety to where I live, my people fort and died, they built a resistance, they tried. sadly my family left before this, and the community left back home is very small, many left after peace came. But I think they should have stayed, if they did they would be strong, they would prevent this from happening again.

        But I do not hold this against any refugees, it is a hard thing to do, and my family has been taught to never do it again, to never run. And I understand the biggest problem with resistance is the sale of weapons from the US/Russia to both sides, they perpetuate the fighting and the rich team will win, so they enlist as many people as they can and bribe people to fight for them, no body can trust anybody, the enemy is hidden now, and people don’t know how or who to resist against.

        It is different everywhere, I take what I know with certain groups, but we are fighting here on the home front to protect vulnerable people within refugee communities. But we have little to do it with, and the words stop the boats in my head gives me more time to deal with what I have in front of me, and not be spread thin doing a half good job. People are being hurt because of too many refugees, or too little support/money to do what we need to do. No one should be harmed, no one should be in danger, but they are, Aussies here, indigenous peoples, refugees are being harmed on our soil in our societies. I am however far from despair, I continue to fight here, I continue to work with refugees and teach tolerance and cultural changes where needed, mostly through the empowerment of the community to talk about issues and aim to make Australia great, not bring the pains of home here.

        No one should preach or teach hate, our government, the church, and other refugees. Hate needs to stop and actions need to take place that oppose this ideal of hate and fear mongering.

        Thank you for your time.

  4. I’ve met a few local refugees, after talking to them all I could think was.. Winger, Coward, Opportunist. Not willing to fight to the death for their own country, they run away to some place nice. Then when they get a nice job, a nice car, their kids in school.. I ask them, so.. how much of your income do you send home to fight against the oppression that you fled? How can they have mobile phones, nice cars, nice houses and sit there all happy. No, these people do not deserve to be here.
    I Went to some of these countries. and I told people. Don’t go to Australia, most people are racist and bigots, myself included. Stay here and fight, use the money you have to band together with others and fight for your rights. Make your country better.
    Australia has alot of its own problems, I came back to be shocked at how bad things have gotten here, so many people without power, water. What % of the population is in 3rd world conditions, how uneducated has Australia become.. we need to educate the refugees to not come here, Don’t spend billions on camps and prisons for these people.. make them work for the cost to send them elsewhere. The world is far too populated to be looking after Everyones children, when we can’t even look after our own.

  5. Debbie, thank you for sharing your insights. As a teacher in a Christian school whose student population includes many refugees from African countries, I have been shocked at the lack of social support for families once here. Debbie says it’s gappy so I stand alongside her to call for a more thorough process. Regardless how refugees arrive here, they do need a standardised program to ensure they have a chance at understanding this community of which they are now a part. For example, women are allowed to seek an education, daughters should not be circumcised, we respect each other’s right to speak or worship freely. It’s not treading on the toes of their culture, but ensuring they have a fair go at succeeding in this country.

  6. A question I’ve asked many of my friends who support large refugee intake is “what happens as numbers get larger and larger” (we can only support so many humans), as they most certainly will as word spreads about our generosity. It will get to the unstoppable stage – as governments of both persuasions realise. Forget the Greens’ criticisms. They find it easy to moralise since they’ll never have the tough job of governing.
    Another question is how do we teach then them to integrate and not simply collect together in ghettos, disrespectful and disenchanted people who remain basically slaves to their own very different cultural ways while feeling anger and bitterness as disenfranchised minorities often do and with the troubles that issue from that situation.
    Not one has ever answered either of these questions with much more than a shrug. It’s OK for them in their nice suburbs, never facing issues that poor long term Australians in less salubrious circumstances and suburbs will have to face.

    1. Australia currently does not get ,large numbers of asylum seekers. In the last ten years we have not even received enough Asylum seekers to fill the new Adelaide oval stands. In the meantime countires who are struggling with incredible poverty are receiving THOUSANDS of asylum seekers on a weekly basis – countires like Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, pakistan, etc let alone some of the European countries.
      I also do not agree that refugee communities do not integrate and live in ghettos. In their first few years of arrival yes they tend to live in similar suburbs. That is natural – even if you go overseas you will find “expatriate” Aussies congregate in ghettos and do not integrate much!! By the time the next generation comes along the community start to disperse and by the third generation many have even married outside their own cultural background and well and truely integrated…..and many of the chinese and Vietnamese have done so well with education and business they are now living in the more “salubrious” suburbs! The older generations are the ones who sometimes have the most difficulty integrating and struggle to learn English, and often long to return to their homeland, but they have wonderful stories and wisdom to share if you get to know them.
      When I was a child we feared the Greeks and Italians; then it was oK so we feared the communists and all the Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees who we were told were going to take over our country. Now we have turned out fear to the Middle East refugees and once again policitians play on our fears. We have been enriched by all these cultures. What a vibrant wonderful society we have become. If we work together with a positive attitude we can find much better and more humane ways of dealing with the current wave of asylum seekers….and our nation will be the better for it,

  7. There is quite a widespread belief that the poll we are discussing is unreliable and possibly even rigged. Xenophobia is more prevalent in some areas than others, so it is simply a matter of selecting where to poll. I know for certain that if I asked 100 people in my home town, the result would be much lower. Others have agreed that a poll among their acquaintances would show the majority to be against harsher measures and many in support of asylum seekers. Maybe the SMH had its own motives in coming up with that horrifying 60%. Having said that, it is obvious that far too many Australians would agree with more cruelty, but perhaps overall we are not as bad as some in the media would have us believe.

  8. You’ve conflated refugee with boat person and assumed that antipathy towards boat arrivers means we are similarly mean spirited towards those who come by boat, taking the limited places from those who the UN might have assessed as being more needing of protection.

    It’s probably a sense of a fair go for those who don’t have the means or ability to get on a boat and pay off a criminal to get resettled in a comfortably rich western country that grates. By all means, take in many more, but it isn’t unreasonable to be able to ensure our charity goes to those who are most deserving rather than those who shove others aside.

  9. AndyM you are obviously unaware that a large number of those people who have arrived by boat are actually people who have been recognised as refugees by the UNHCR but could not wait in danger any longer for the very long arduous process of the UN! And still Immigration locks them up. Also the majority of refugees who are overseas and assessed by the UNHCR have already paid people smugglers to get them out of their countries to the country of first asylum. Let’s get rid of the myth that because someone has paid a people smuggler they are not a genuine refugee!

    1. Libby, they may well indeed by refugees. No dispute. Why should they get settled preferentially compared to those who languish in UN camps? Is their need greater?

      That’s the nub of my point. To reiterate: “By all means, take in many more, but it isn’t unreasonable to be able to ensure our charity goes to those who are most deserving rather than those who shove others aside.”

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