Refugees Welcome

One of my very favourite places in Melbourne is Sandridge Bridge, home to the Travellers sculptural installation.

Sandridge Bridge, via Vincent Quach. | Refugees Welcome |

Sandridge Bridge, via Vincent Quach.

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):

A real ad from the Australian government. |How should we respond to 'boat people' and other refugees? By saying 'welcome' |

This is a real advertisement from the Australian government. See more here.

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.

How should we respond to 'boat people' and other refugees? By saying 'welcome' |

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:

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:

Welcome Home
Dave Dobbyn

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

Aceh is a small part of Indonesia with a long history of oppression, war, and suffering in the 2004 tsunami. Here’s how they responded to the recent refugee crisis in Indonesian waters:

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:

Exodus 20:1-3

And God spoke all these words:

‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

‘You shall have no other gods before me.’

Later in the same section:

Exodus 22:21

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.

How should we respond to 'boat people' and other refugees? By saying 'welcome' |

And you might remember how Jesus sums up the entirety of the law:

Luke 10:25-37

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.’

The correct response to refugees: Welcome |

A God Speaks billboard, image credit unknown.


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:

New Colossus

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.

An economic analysis of the effect of a small Australian town welcoming a large group of Karen refugees from Myanmar found an economic benefit of $41.5 million.

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.)

Refugees welcome

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:

The story of an Auckland family befriending refugees

Why our family is moving to South East Asia

A World Vision reflection on Jesus’ family’s experience as refugees, looking at He Qi’s painting

Refugees welcome - how to respond to 'boat people' | | Photo credit Partners Relief & Development,


Do you want to use one of these shiny sharing buttons?

9 comments on “Refugees Welcome”

  1. Heather Reply

    Thanks for this. It’s an issue dear to my heart. I’m conscious that it’s only due to that accident of birth that I am alive: were I to have been born in many (most?) other places I would have died long ago…

    And thanks for the stories of the generosity of the Acehnese. I knew they had chosen to rescue many people, but I hadn’t been aware of the honour with which they welcomed them! Heartening 🙂

    • Heather Reply

      Urs Signer has put together a Facebook group for people who’d be willing to open their home to a refugee.

      To be honest, I haven’t signed up yet. We do have a spare room with two beds in it, but we’re also a pretty fragile household… Last time we had a vulnerable person to stay we had to ask her to leave after only 3 weeks as we weren’t coping, and there’s still some mental health issues following on from that nearly 4 years later. So, it’s not something to be gone into lightly (and, to be honest, you’re not likely to have to do it for real, as the government seems pretty opposed to letting more people in), but it is worth considering…
      Heather recently posted…Parliamentary inquiry into assisted dyingMy Profile

  2. Pingback: A couple of Horton’s I heard this week | Journey of a Seed Disperser

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge