Enormous steel figures fan out along the bridge (they used to move out at sunrise and in at sunset) representing the indigenous people, and then nine successive waves of migrants. The bridge also hosts 128 panels for Melbourne residents’ countries of origin from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The Running Couple represents the refugee era, the period beginning in 1956 when Australia signed the United Nations Convention on refugees.
In contrast to this moving memorial to Australia’s history of welcoming people from all over the world, the Australian government is now so horrified at the thought of desperate people seeking sanctuary in Australia that ‘by hook or by crook‘ it turns away any who arrive by boat, breaching its international obligations.
This is the official government message to anyone thinking of seeking refuge in Australia by boat (a perfectly legal method of seeking asylum under international law):
My own country is on the edge of falling into this moral cesspit too. In New Zealand we haven’t had any refugees arrive by boat this century, though the Prime Minister hints darkly that it is just a matter of time.
We are pretty good at resettling refugees. We receive people from all over the ravaged world, reserving spots for women at risk and people with disabilities or high medical needs. We give them a crash course in New Zealand life for six weeks in Mangere, partner them with trained and willing volunteers who help them settle in, and then generally treat them just as other citizens.
But we don’t give very many people this opportunity. We haven’t increased the number of refugees we welcome since 1987. We are 90th in the international table of how many refugees we open our arms to, per capita.
Here’s another embarrassing fact: 86% of refugees are currently being hosted by developing nations. Pakistan alone has 1.5 million refugees. Thailand, not even a signatory to the UN Convention, has more than 700,000. The rich world is not nearly pulling its weight.
The New Zealand annual quota is 750 people whose home countries are too dangerous for them – or perhaps no longer in existence. They’re screened and chosen for us by the United Nations, though we also accept 300 more of their family members under a slightly different process, and another couple of hundred asylum seekers who arrive here outside the UN process are granted refugee status each year (somewhere between 6% and 30% of those who arrive under their own steam seeking asylum each year are eventually granted refugee status).
Australia takes up to 20,000 UN refugees each year, five times more per capita than New Zealand, so in that department they are far ahead of us.
With 59.5 million people now forcibly displaced from their home countries, the highest number since World War II, it is shameful that we are not increasing – or even revising – our intake. Our Prime Minister says our quota is ‘about right‘, in the face of calls from Amnesty International and others to double the quota, though it appears he hasn’t actually had any expert advice on the issue, and the Minister for Immigration now says he’s open to considering the figure when it next comes up for regular review next year.
But I’m scared that not only are we not going to do so, but that if desperate human beings, like the Rohingya from Myanmar, start arriving here (by nautical miracle) in boats, that we may find we are no more compassionate, rational or humane than our neighbours in Australia.
In 2013 Parliament passed the Immigration Amendment (Mass Arrivals) Act 2013 which allows ‘mass arrivals’, such as a group of asylum seekers coming by boat, to be detained for up to six months initially, and then month by month after that.
As far as I can tell, this – like Australia’s practice – is contrary to our international law obligations, since we’ve signed the United Nations treaty on refugees, and have agreed not to detain refugees unless necessary.
Just to be clear, we’re saying that when we come across people who have the legal right to have their case heard, and be protected and welcomed in the meantime, we will lock them up for months because they came by boat. Surely, surely we can do better than that?
This is horrifying and not consistent with our migrant history, our other, excellent, refugee resettlement practices or in fact anything except Australia’s example. It has not yet been used. May it never be.
What not to do
When you see refugees on the horizon – people whose lives are so difficult or dangerous in their home countries that they risk their lives to flee to a golden land – this is what not to do. This is what Australia currently does:
- Use the military to turn the boats away; do everything possible to stop them reaching Australian land.
- Tow the boats back to their countries of origin, even if that means the asylum seekers are prosecuted at home for leaving the country illegally.
- Pay other countries with poor infrastructure and human rights records themselves (Papua New Guinea, Cambodia) to take refugees who arrive in Australia by boat.
- Restrict the briefing of the media on the subject of asylum seekers and ban media access to asylum seekers or detention centres.
- Send any refugees who do reach land for ‘processing’ to other countries.
- Detain (by which we mean ‘imprison’) asylum seekers in detention centres, contrary to obligations under the UN Covenant.
- Detain asylum seekers in poor conditions amounting to cruel and degrading treatment, where their physical and mental health suffers. Ignore calls from national medical bodies to close these centres.
- Detain asylum seekers for years.
- Detain children, provoking church leaders to call the practice ‘state-sanctioned child abuse.’
- Pay those piloting the boats to turn around.
- Make it an offence, punishable by imprisonment, for doctors and teachers in contact with asylum seekers to speak publicly about their concerns.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calls Australia’s practices ‘hostile and contemptuous.’ Please, let’s not go down this path.
Who not to copy
South East Asian nations (none of whom have signed up to the UN Convention) followed Australia’s example recently when human traffickers abandoned thousands of asylum seekers from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Thailand actually towed boats from its waters into international waters in order not to have to deal with these people. Indonesia and Malaysia did the same until the situation became embarrassing internationally and a partial, interim solution was found.
If asylum seekers start arriving in New Zealand in larger numbers (this is unlikely given our distance from every other nation on earth) I have no confidence that our government would do anything different from Australia’s appalling example. We have to think in advance about the right way to respond, so we don’t get dragged into this obscene behaviour.
What to do
Thank you, Dave Dobbyn, for the correct response to refugees:
Tonight I am feeling for you
Under the state of a strange land
You have sacrificed much to be here
‘there but for the grace…’ as I offer my hand
Welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
Welcome home from the bottom of my heart
Out here on the edge
The empire is fading by the day
And the world is so weary in war
Maybe we’ll find that new way
So welcome home, see I made a space for you now
Welcome home from the bottom of our heart
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
Keep it coming now – keep it coming now
You’ll find most of us here with our hearts wide open
Keep it coming now – keep on coming now
Keep it coming now – keep on coming now
There’s a woman with her hands trembling – haere mai
And she sings with a mountain’s memory – haere mai
There’s a cloud the full length of these isles
Just playing chase with the sun
And it’s black and it’s white and it’s wild
All the colours are one
So welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
Welcome home, see I made a space for you now
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
From the bottom of our hearts
Let’s be like Aceh
On 20 May, Malaysia and Indonesia finally agreed to allow the boats ashore – but not before Acehnese fishermen had chosen to ignore their government’s policy and rescue almost 2,000 people.
“We Acehnese have suffered a lot, that’s why we understand well the plight of the Rohingya,” she said. “My husband disappeared during the conflict and we have never seen him again.”
Yanah said she sends leftover food from her restaurant to the nearby camp at Kuala Langsa, a port that shelters 425 Bangladeshi migrants and 231 Rohingya refugees.
“I feel that they are part of our family, part of the Acehnese society, because they have suffered as much as us,” she said. “It’s better if they stay permanently here.”
The welcome that the boat people have received in Aceh is unmatched anywhere else in the region.
…[I]n Aceh, the refugees were welcomed with a concert on 29 May that was organized by Rafly, a popular local singer who like many Indonesians uses only one name. The event was held to raise money for the refugees and it was also a Pemulia Jamee, a traditional Acehnese ceremony to honor guests, which opened with the thunderous beating of more than 50 Rapai Pasee traditional drums.
[Read more at IRIN News.]
Let’s be like Aceh, eh?
Why every Christian should be a refugee advocate
See those borders? God doesn’t value them
It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that political borders dividing countries are an artificial construct.
Have a look, if you like, at this wondrous collection of photographs of borders. The Macau-Mainland China one is hilarious. Some of the others are terribly sad. They all make the point, in different ways: borders are arbitrary, powerful and morally dangerous.
It’s convenient to organise ourselves into nation-states, but if our loyalty to the arbitrarily-limited body of people we happen to be part of goes beyond cheering for a sports team, then we are making an idol out of our citizenship.
All human beings are made in the image of God. Patriotism is utterly irrelevant to following the way of Jesus Christ.
And if that’s true, then what makes me and an Iraqi refugee any different? What makes one of us more deserving of living a calm life in New Zealand? On what basis can I justify keeping this beautiful land for myself?
We have a duty of care to the foreigner
Deep in the identity of the Jewish people, as we watch their history unfold in Scripture, is the notion that they were once unwelcome foreigners in Egypt until God rescued them.
This part of Jewish identity is referenced again and again when God gives Moses the law. The giving of the Ten Commandments begins like this:
And God spoke all these words:
2 ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’
Later in the same section:
21 ‘Do not ill-treat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.’
The exhortation to treat foreigners well is a theme throughout the Hebrew Bible, and continues into the New Testament.
Jesus includes the Gentiles (anyone who is not Jewish) in his stated mission to redeem the world. The first big ruckuses among his early followers resulted in expanding Jewish privileges to all people following Jesus.
And you might remember how Jesus sums up the entirety of the law:
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
26 ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’
27 He answered, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
28 ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
30 In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Emma Lazarus wrote this famous sonnet as a fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. If you’re like me, you may only know the last few lines:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
May we all live up to the Samaritan’s example and Emma Lazarus’ exhortation.
May our nation be a Mother of Exiles.
We’re lucky, not deserving
I know I’m flipping lucky to have been born in New Zealand, with all the privileges that go along with that.
Someone born in Sudan, Syria or Myanmar is unluckier, in some big ways, than me. If they want to come and live here, then what right do I have to keep them out? How can a desire to keep New Zealand for the lucky ones who are already here be anything other than the worst kind of selfishness?
We have no right to reserve our islands for the lucky few. We did very little to deserve our place here – perhaps nothing at all – and our bountiful luck needs to make us generous and open-armed.
Let’s not miss out on the benefits, either
We should welcome more refugees because it is the right thing to do.
As it happens, it’s also a beneficial thing to do.
And as Sam Kilpatrick wrote, some time ago, being supportive friends with refugees is an enriching experience that brings benefits to all parties.
Like Sam and, actually, quite a range of other people I know, I have volunteered with refugee resettlement support, and it’s been a overwhelmingly positive experience for all of us.
Here’s one volunteer’s take on it:
Jade says her first meeting with her Columbian family was emotional, exciting and nerve-wracking. “I didn’t expect the overwhelming emotions that would be involved for all of us. There were tears and hugs… I’ve never heard the words ‘thank you’ so many times in my life.”
She’s since developed an amazing friendship with the family and recalls one incident that made her feel like they really clicked. “A Led Zeppelin song came on the radio. Every single one of us in the car was singing as loud as possible… although we don’t share the same language or culture we have so many things in common… like our love for Rock music… I have even taken them to a rock concert.”
Jade says while being part of their lives is rewarding, one of the most important parts of the role is introducing the refugee families to New Zealand culture. Not only does Jade take them to local community events, but also invites the families to her own family events like Christmas celebrations.
“I have developed the most amazing friendships with my families, and I cannot imagine not having either of them in my life.”
The volunteer training is fun, practical and straightforward, and there’s always the need for volunteers. If you have kids, this is also a brilliant thing to do as a family. Get in touch with your local organisation if this seems like a good fit for you (New Zealand contacts here.)
When we’re forming our refugee and migration policies, and when we’re scanning the horizon for boats, let’s be like the Acehnese, like Dave Dobbyn, like the Mother of Exiles, like the Good Samaritan.
If you see a rickety boat coming towards you across the sea, full to the gunwales with brave, frightened people, make sure you give them a welcome to be proud of.
If you’re newish to Sacraparental, you might like to check out the Sacraparental Facebook feed, with daily links and resources, my Twitter feed and my Pinterest boards, especially the topical Change the World.
You might like to check out these other posts on refugee matters: