The world faces a growing refugee crisis. At the end of 2015 over 22 million people had been forced to flee their homeland as a result of persecution. 21.3 million of these had been assessed by authorities as meeting the internationally accepted definition of a refugee as someone who is outside their home country and unable or unwilling to return due to a reasonable fear of persecution. Another 3.2 million were asylum seekers, meaning they had applied to be accepted as refugees but their claim was yet to be assessed.
The United Nations Convention on Refugees grants those fleeing persecution the right to make their way to any country that is a signatory to the Convention and apply for protection. If their claim is established they are to be provided with protection for as long as they need it.
Yet the international protection system is failing. A small number of mainly poorer countries that border the major refugee producing countries are facing an overwhelming burden as hundreds of thousands of refugees cross their borders and seek protection, while many of the more developed nations fail to bear their share of the burden.
Australia operates a very successful refugee resettlement program. At present each year around 13,750 refugees are accepted from host countries overseas. In 2015 Australia agreed to take an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. However, at the same time, we have closed our borders to asylum seekers who come by boat, either returning them to the port from which they set out or detaining them offshore on Manus Island or Nauru while they wait for their refugee status to be assessed.
A number of biblical themes need to be considered in relation to our response to refugees and asylum seekers:
- Stewardship – The Bible declares that the earth is the Lord’s and its resources are to be shared by all people. This suggests that the proper attitude for Australians is to recognise that this country and its wealth belong to God, not us, and are to be used in a manner that reflects God’s heart;
- Justice – Justice can be thought of in a number of ways, but one of the key concepts in the Bible is that God reveals himself to be just, that is to do what is right, when he liberates people from situations of oppression and evil. We too are called to pursue justice for the refugees and asylum seekers;
- Love – Jesus taught us to see anyone in need as our neighbour and to use the resources at our disposal to care for them. In Matthew 25:35-40 Jesus says, ” ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison, and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” We are called to see refugees and asylum seekers as our neighbours and to use the resources at our disposal to care for them.
For more theological reflections on our response to refugees and asylum seekers, go here.
When a refugee flees their home country, they have three options for the future. First, they can remain in a country close to their homeland and wait until it is safe to return home. Second, they can become citizens of the nation that is providing them with protection and so begin a new life in that host nation. Third, they can be resettled in a third country and begin a new life there. The reality is that these options are not available to most refugees. Each year less than 2% of the world’s refugees were able to return home, less than 2% were made citizens of their host country, and less than 1% were offered resettlement in a third country.
The result is a small number of mainly poorer countries that border the major refugee producing countries are facing an overwhelming burden as hundreds of thousands of refugees cross their borders and seek protection, while the rest of the members of the international community are not willing to equitably share the responsibility for protecting refugees
Australia is far removed from the current refugee hotspots and so receives only a very small number of asylum seekers, that is, people who make Australia the place to which they flee and seek protection. Historically the numbers have fluctuated between a handful and a few thousand per annum. In 2012 and 2013 there was a substantial increase, with up to 25,000 asylum seekers in each year.
Australia has responded in two ways to asylum seekers and refugees. First, we operate a very successful refugee resettlement program. At present each year around 13,750 refugees are accepted from host countries overseas. This is set to increase to around 18,750 by 2018-2019. Second, we have closed our borders to asylum seekers who come by boat. To deter boat arrivals Australia seeks to intercept boats at sea and return them to the port from which they set out. Where this is not possible, asylum seekers are detained indefinitely on Manu Island or Nauru where they face years in inhumane conditions waiting for their refugee status to be assessed. If and when they are found to be refugees they will not be settled in Australia, but must wait for another country to offer them a place. To date the Australian Government has struggled to find countries willing to accept a burden that they believe is Australia’s.
The turn back and offshore detention policy is defended on the grounds that it is the only way to deter asylum seekers from making the hazardous journey from Indonesia to Australia, during which around 3-5% of asylum seekers drown. Critics point out that the policy cuts off access to Australia but does nothing to change the circumstances that drive people to board boats – years spent in a country where they are unwelcome, their rights violated, and where they are unable to build a life. As a result the policy, argue critics, will not prevent deaths at sea but just push asylum seekers to make equally hazardous journeys to other parts of the world.
Any workable solution must see the members of the international community equitably sharing responsibility for protecting refugees. This requires greater investments in efforts to bring peace to refugee producing areas; greater financial support for those countries that border refugee producing areas and consequently receive the bulk of the world’s refugees; and for emerging and industrialised nations to increase the number of refugees they accept.
Many who work in the area believe Australia should begin by working collaboratively with countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand to develop a regional agreement that would see refugees and asylum seekers to our region quickly processed and then settled in any one of these countries. This would prevent drownings at sea by addressing the reasons people board boats, and would be the forerunner of an international agreement.
Learn and Reflect
Spend some time learning about the current refugee crisis. A Just Cause has produced a background sheet that provides useful information; you can access this sheet here.
Pastors can spend some time during a church service to reflect on the topic using the Sermon Guide and Prayer Resource produced by A Just Cause. An ideal time to do this would be during or around refugee week, June 18-24.
Small groups can learn and reflect using “Boundless Plains to Share”, a short book and study guide that “cuts through the myths and misunderstandings that commonly surround the issue”.
Engage with social media. Each day of Refugee Week (June 18-24), A Just Cause will be posting to Facebook a chart that counters some of the myths people hold about refugees. Check out the posts and share them to your own page.
Link Face-to-Face with a Refugee
If you live in an area where refugees are settling, consider ways you can be welcoming to them. These are people who have experienced deep trauma, and now find themselves in a country where they are not familiar with people, the places, the language, or the customs. Try to be helpful and take the time to form friendships with refugees.
You can also meet face-to-face with refugees by hosting a Table Talk at your church through Sydney Alliance or holding a Fair Go for Families picnic through the Refugee Council of Australia. For more information on how to host a Table Talk, go here. For more information on how to organise a Fair Go for Families picnic, go here.
Additional Action Items
If you would like to learn more about how you and your church can be involved in helping refugees, including ways to advocate to your local MP, visit A Just Cause.
Pray for peace in refugee producing areas, for the international community to provide adequate protection for refugees, and for refugees and asylum seekers themselves.