The community debate on the response to the flow of asylum seekers to our country continues. It has influenced the outcomes of elections in the past and has the capacity to do so again. As worldwide conflict proliferates the flow of asylum seekers is not predicted to ease in the foreseeable future.
There are some important facts to consider when evaluating the current debate. Firstly, it is not illegal to seek asylum in another country. All recognised refugees are asylum seekers before they have their status as refugees verified. Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. As such we agree to offer a place of safety to a limited number of people escaping persecution in their own country.
Secondly, Australia is not being overwhelmed with asylum seekers. The 2010 UNHCR report tells us that 80% of all refugees turn to developing nations for sanctuary. Pakistan currently hosts the highest number of refugees. The argument advanced by the UNHCR is that the west is taking far from its fair share of refugees on a worldwide scale.
The UNHCR argues that whilst the refugee problem is an overwhelmingly humanitarian one its solution is political. The prevention of conflict in the first place and efforts to resolve established conflict are the only sure means to stem the worldwide flow of refugees. Our politicians deserve our support in whatever means they engage in to resolve international conflict.
Thirdly, refugees represent a net gain to the community. Within a very short time many become significant contributors to our economy and are often characterised as hard workers and high achievers.
Despite widespread support for the cause of human rights there are aspects of the asylum seeker issue that are cause for concern. Politicians regularly point to the activity of people smugglers as contributing to the flow of asylum seekers to our shores. Unscrupulous operators who load people onto unseaworthy vessels have certainly been the cause of untold loss of life at sea.
Apart from the legal and political aspects of this issue the moral dimensions of the argument also require our attention. Scripture articulates a consistent call to hospitality, generosity and kindness to the stranger in our midst. Persecution and suspicion of the foreigner are low points in the story of God’s people. As Baptists we value our heavenly citizenship over nationalism. Our denomination had passed assembly motions calling for the compassionate treatment of asylum seekers waiting processing for refugee status and calling on the Australian Government to “reduce the rate of asylum claims” by addressing human rights violations in countries of origin and disempowering people smugglers.
The story of the shipwreck of the apostle Paul on the island of Malta offers some compelling parallels with the modern day asylum seeker story. Both events involve a dangerous journey with risks apparent from the outset. The modern day people traffickers have their villainous counterparts as the sailors on board Paul’s boat who were ready to jettison the ship and kill all the prisoners to look after their own interests. The near catastrophic end of Paul’s journey is vividly described. Sadly such scenes do not only reside in our imaginations. Many Australians watched the scenes of the shipwreck at Christmas Island in 2010 with horror and we continue to witness many perilous rescues of asylum seekers at sea.
Luke tells us that the natives of this small island rescued Paul and his fellow passengers and treated them with great kindness and hospitality. There was suspicion and misunderstanding but Paul was able to serve the community to the extent that when they left they were honoured and their departure was lamented. To this day the Maltese community describes itself as the people who rescued and showed hospitality to Paul.
What kind of people do we want to be known as? An enduring story is one that illustrates values that transcend place. A community that describes itself as one that shows generosity and compassion remains strong because there is no situation where those values are redundant. We have an opportunity as a denomination to articulate the values of compassion, and justice as a way to make our community stronger.
For further reading and to discuss please visit www.togethermagazine.com.au