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Australian Refugee Policy for Dummies - Part 2 - PNG, Australian Neglect, and Positive Policy

Monday, 2 September 2013  | Mark Glanville

Australian Refugee Policy for Dummies: PNG is Violent and Dangerous—Rudd’s Policy is Harsh and Selfish

The intention to send all asylum seekers to PNG convinces me that the new policy is motivated by selfish national interest, and desperation for political popularity. According to the new policy, all asylum seekers arriving by boat will be sent to PNG with the intention that they be resettled there. Yet PNG is unlikely to be a secure place for refugees. In a letter to the former Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has expressed seven serious reservations regarding PNG as a suitable place for asylum seekers (read his letter here). As refugee advocate and lawyer David Manne has said, "All the independent evidence points to PNG being … a place where there is widespread and pervasive violence, including against women, and serious and ongoing daily human rights abuse."[i] Indeed PNG is a country from which people flee daily, as refugees (the author is friends with a refugee claimant from Port Moresby). Further, the Government’s own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a series of warnings to travellers to PNG:

We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Papua New Guinea because of the high levels of serious crime.

(There’s the first of thirteen warnings). Also, the week on which Rudd announced the new regional agreement, the PNG military attacked the medical faculty of the University of PNG—displaying the unrestrained and unpredictable behaviour of the PNG military.

How can the Australian Government intend to settle thousands of vulnerable people in PNG under these conditions? PNG is dangerous for many of its own citizens, not to mention the likelihood of increased violence toward refugees due to ethnic differences and so on. Resettlement in an unstable and potentially dangerous place is hardly in keeping with Rudd’s stated intention of concern for refugee safety. This selfish policy leaves me concerned that the hearts of the Australian Labour and Liberal parties, as a whole, are calloused with limited capacity for compassion. Read Maria O’Sullivan’s discussion of the suitability of PNG as a destination for refugees here.

Now let’s observe the radical welcome to which Scripture calls humanity. (What follows is taken my article: “Ancient Laws and Canadian Refugee Legislation: Evaluating Bill C-31 in Light of the Book of Deuteronomy”). 

The Hebrew word behind the Old Testament words – ‘stranger’, ‘alien’ and ‘sojourner’ – is (usually) ‘ger’. The noun ‘ger’, in Deuteronomy, describes someone who is both ethnically displaced and economically vulnerable. The circumstances of the ‘ger’ in Deuteronomy may be further clarified as being in a dependant relationship with the Israelites with whom she lives. In Deuteronomy ‘ger’ (‘stranger’) occurs twenty-one times, indicating the importance of ethics concerning the stranger for this book.

There are two main narrative trajectories, so to speak, that undergird Deuteronomy’s ethic toward the stranger. The first is that God has generously given land and its produce to Israel and this gift is to be shared. Ancient Israel’s worldview begins with a gift: at the heart of reality is a God of limitless generosity. In turn Israel is to respond with thanksgiving and generosity. These three dimensions – gift, thanksgiving and generosity/inclusion – are all joyfully displayed at the seasonal harvest festivals that Israel shares – at the sanctuary. Israel is commanded: 

And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you… (16:11. See also 16:14; 26:11)

Thus Deuteronomy’s social program can be summarised well with the words of Craig Blomberg: "God owns it all, and wants everybody to be able to enjoy some of it" (Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions  (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press/Apollos, 1999), 241). 

The second ‘story’ undergirding Deuteronomy’s ethic towards the stranger is Israel’s own history of being a ‘stranger’ or ‘refugee’. This story begins with the displacement of Israel’s fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (26:5). It is exemplified with Israel as a ‘stranger’ in Egypt in the time of Jacob and Joseph (e.g. 26:5). When Israel was residing as a stranger in Egypt, Egypt did not offer Israel the hospitality she would have desired, but oppressed her with slavery (e.g. 26:6-7). The LORD her God delivered Israel from Egypt’s slavery and gave her laws that would shape a new society in which every person can thrive, as a deliberate response to Egypt’s oppression (e.g. 26:8-11). That history is the background for this famous passage, along with many others: 

[The LORD your God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (10:18-19)

In light of these two powerful stories of the LORD’s deliverance and provision, it is no surprise that Deuteronomy’s ethic concerning the ‘stranger’ is an ethic of radical welcome. 

An examination of all the details of Israel’s responsibility toward the ‘stranger’ would require a substantial book, so for now I briefly note two aspects of their responsibility. First, as Deuteronomy’s laws unfold it becomes apparent that the implications of the command to ‘love the stranger’ include welcoming the stranger into whatever town they might wish to live (23:15-16). Second, individual families in Israel have the responsibility to include the stranger in their agricultural and cultural lives, including the most joyful events on their calendar: annual journeys to the sanctuary in order to celebrate with feasting and joy (16:11, 14; 26:11).

Australia is not pulling its weight in refugee settlement
Rudd’s new policy is accompanied by a rise in his popularity. Why? A perception in Australia is that the country is being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers and is asked to settle far more refugees than its fair share. "In Australia, a country surrounded by water, the metaphor of swamping waves is used unrelentingly in news media about asylum seekers arriving by boat." This rhetoric produces fear about unusually high numbers of asylum seekers overtaking Australia. 

Yet immigration statistics tell a different story. In 2011-12, 14,620 people were admitted into Australia on humanitarian grounds, only 6% of the total overseas admission into Australia, which totalled 245,270. Australia extends a warm welcome to immigrants with wealth and education but is resistant to welcoming vulnerable people seeking refuge from persecution.

By comparison, recently, over two million refugees have fled Syria due to civil war, receiving impressive hospitality within Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Millions of refugees have been hosted by Kenya due to local conflicts, and Pakistan has become home to over two million Afghan refugees. Calculated relative to total national gross domestic product (GDP), Australia is ranked 52nd as a recipient of refugees. Former Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said recently: 

From time to time, I hear people involved in public debate suggest that Australia’s values could somehow be under threat from people coming from outside the country. Perhaps our national values could be enhanced by a greater understanding of Arabic and Turkish hospitality.

Scripture insists upon a radical welcome for displaced people seeking a home. In offering generosity and welcome we acknowledge that the Lord has been generous to us. The text that is perhaps the best known in scripture regarding the stranger is found in Deuteronomy:

He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving them food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

The text indicates that Old Testament Israel was to ‘love’ the stranger, as Yahweh loves the stranger. It is clear from the text that loving the stranger includes providing for them materially, offering help with food and clothing. Also, ‘love’ (Hebrew: ‘ahav’) is a technical word in the Old Testament for covenant commitment—which means a committed relationship that is expressed in action.

Furthermore, while Australian immigration policy favours those with wealth and education, biblical ethics insists that vulnerable people are prioritised—and it resists practices that privilege the rich (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:4).

Biblical ethics regarding the stranger are radically at odds with Australian refugee policy and roundly condemn Rudd’s new policy as immoral.

A Positive Policy Solution
Critiquing Government policies is easy; finding positive solutions is more difficult. Yet positive solutions to Australian asylum seeker issues have been recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for years, centring on regional collaboration. The Bali Process, as it is called, gathers leaders and experts from the region in order to address irregular movements between countries, with the aim of stopping people smugunhcr-1951-refugee-conventiongling and protecting displaced people.

Regional collaboration, steered by the UNHCR, is holistic and comprehensive, encompassing "both legal and safe passage issues while also recognizing the root causes of irregular migration."

Collaboration is essential: the Bali process acknowledges that pathways to refugee status are very limited in the Asia-Pacific. (Statistical forecasts suggest that at current rates of resettlement, placing those people presently fleeing persecution would take five hundred years! The Government’s mantra that asylum seekers should ‘wait their turn’ and pursue ‘regular pathways’ to settlement, ignores our shared responsibility to provide such pathways.)

Genuine collaboration between nations in order to provide reliable and consistent access to processing and settlement, has the potential to both ‘stop the boats’ and care for those fleeing persecution.

Rudd’s new policy has been criticised by the UNHCR as it erodes the integrity of regional collaboration. It also nullifies Australia’s own authority as a potential voice of reason and compassion in the Asia-Pacific. Rudd’s policy is a step backwards not only nationally, but regionally.

Worse, to our nation’s shame, the Australian Government has chosen to disregard hard won international agreement for the protection of refugees, represented in the Refugee Convention of 1951. Thanks to Rudd’s policy, the Refugee Convention has less authority than it had a few weeks ago—this is tragic. With this erosion of humanitarian authority for ethical action we are sinking in the mire of national self-interest and the mud-slinging of petty politics—Australia is experiencing an absence of moral leadership.

Here is policy suggestion, consistent with both international Conventions and a biblical ethic of welcome: prioritise regional collaboration, as the UNHCR suggests, dealing with organized criminal networks and enhancing protection and reliable processing for asylum seekers. Meanwhile maritime arrivals to Australia are treated with dignity and respect, living within the community as their claims are processed. And Australia should heed the UNHCR’s recommendation for greater collaboration in order to minimize deaths at sea.

Biblical ethics call for a new idealism in Australian politics: for citizens and leaders who dream bravely toward policies that lead to the flourishing of all (idealism, visible in the leadership of the likes of Lincoln or Mandela, is glaringly absent in current debate). 

And it calls for a new idealism among the people of God: if witness to Christ in Australia is to be authentically biblical and if it is to be heeded by compassionate Australians, then the church must carefully attend to biblical ethics regarding the stranger and both advocate for, and model, the radical welcome of Christ.


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