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Christian values and asylum seekers in an election year

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Thursday, 25 March 2010

With an election looming later this year the political lunatics are out hunting for asylum seekers. Christian and family-spruiking politicians are lining up their easiest targets for sacrifice, almost willing the boats to keep coming, and sections of the media are jumping on for the ride.

One of my strongest childhood memories of growing up in Sydney is of Catholic priests at our front door telling my mother she would burn in hell if she didn’t come back to the Catholic Church. The same Catholic Church that had riddled her with guilt and left her with an interminable angst that ultimately destroyed her life. So I can’t really be surprised that so many Christian politicians hold values that are damaging to other human beings but I had hoped as a country that we might have moved on by now.

Senator Fielding from the Family First party is one of the latest to pull out his hammer and nails to deliver his doctrine, “If you're going to try and jump the queue you go to the back of the queue and wait in a refugee camp and wait your turn to come to Australia”. But if Fielding is qualified to speak on the subject at all he must surely know that many people on boats have already been waiting at the back of his imaginary queue, often for years, only to discover that the queue is one of the world’s greatest red herrings.


Fielding has visited the detention centre on Christmas Island so he must know some of the stories of people who have come on the boats. He would be aware of the trauma and pain they have experienced, the dangers, and of the squalor of the refugee camps that he is suggesting they return to with their children. He must know that many refugees are coming by boat because they can no longer bear the separation from their families who are already living in Australia and he would be aware that family reunion, other than for spouses and children, is extremely limited under Australia’s humanitarian program and that boat journeys are often taken as a last resort. But in Fielding’s “family first” ideology it seems that only families with a vote can be offered his support and spared from his eternal damnation. Paul Power from the Refugee Council recently made the point (PDF 109KB):

I am very surprised that a committed Christian such as Senator Fielding is advocating we treat refugees poorly. The Christian churches have a long history of speaking up for the rights of refugees, and have played an important role in Australia’s proud history of providing protection to refugees.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is another well known Christian who wants to get tough on people seeking safe haven in Australia. Abbott is strongly committed to protecting life inside the womb but not, it seems, to honouring the lives of men, women and children who arrive by boat after their birth. His belief in the sanctity of life is conditional, his compassion has limits, and specific human beings are apparently fair game to be sacrificed for his political aspirations. Like Fielding, Abbott would know of the trauma experienced by people on these boats, he would know that torture victims will be among the arrivals, but from his position of privilege he is willing to devalue their existence, to cast their lives as less valuable, less deserving than other human life.

Abbott wants to reintroduce the punitive temporary visas and he wants to push back the boats in a replay of the disastrous Operation Relex policy enacted under the Howard government in 2001. Under Operation Relex three boats sank during the interception or tow back process and two women on the SIEV 10 drowned - one was a young pregnant woman, the other a grandmother. I know of one toddler who struggled to survive when he was pulled from the water, his face was pushed to one side, and he has been left with permanent problems. His father says now that he is “different” to his other children.

If people are successfully pushed back to Indonesia we know that they will be condemned to years of uncertainty and many will endure conditions that are notoriously harsh. In June last year I was trying to help a Rohingya teenager from Burma, an unaccompanied minor with a relative in Australia who was being housed under appalling and dangerous conditions in a camp in Aceh, when I heard from a very reliable source that local workers had come into the camp one morning and beaten some of the men. An International NGO was well aware of the incident, as was the Australian media, but I have so far seen no public reporting of the story. An Indonesian NGO worker said to me at the time, “the Indonesians can be experts at making sure a story never sees the light of day”.

Like others obsessed with traumatised aqua arrivals, Abbott and his new Immigration wing man, Scott Morrison, don’t talk about what will happen to people when they are pushed away from our shores and they don’t ever seem to mention the plane arrivals. Their damnation is only for those who come across the seas. A glance at media releases from Scott Morrison who claims that his Christian faith “remains the driving force for my family, beliefs and values” will reveal that he has little else to talk about other than boats, and boats, and more specifically what he calls “illegal boats”. But why not talk about the planes when even News Limited admitted last year that asylum seekers arriving by plane represent “30 times the number of boat people that are supposedly ‘flooding’ across our maritime borders”. A UNHCR report released this week on asylum applications to industrialised countries notes that the country of origin for Australia’s highest number of asylum applications in 2009 was China (1,186), not Afghanistan or Sri Lanka which are the source countries for most of the recent boat arrivals.


Former Liberal advisor Chris Kenny argues in a recent New Limited article that the reason boat arrivals are more of a concern is because “those arriving by plane arrive legally, with visas in hand ... with authorities knowing who they were and where they came from”. But Kenny fails to mention that a visa is no guarantee of a person's identity. Hundreds of people are turned away from our airports each year (1,284 in 08-09) because of document fraud, or because of doubts about their identity, the largest percentage are denied entry because they are not considered bona fide visitors to Australia and others must at times make it through our airports undetected. Refusals for immigration clearance at our sea ports totalled 229 for the same period.

But by contrast it is the people who come seeking safe haven, whether arriving by plane or boat, who will present themselves willingly to Australian authorities for processing. They are the ones who want to be put through an extensive process to verify their identity, they want to be legitimately recognised by a humanitarian country, and most arriving by boat will turn out to be refugees.

News Limited publications in particular seem all too eager to whip up a storm of bad feeling against boat arrivals in an election year, egging on a divisive debate, making excuses for derogatory language. Speculation from “sources” runs in articles on one day to be followed with the official denials the next. And suggestions that people might be moved from Christmas Island to the Darwin detention centre are now run so regularly, in tandem with the Opposition’s cries, that one can only imagine the excited headlines that will follow if it actually happens.

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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