November 22, 2017
By Kelly Crawford, Public Engagement Coordinator
Baptist Churches NSW & ACT
It would have been difficult the past few weeks to have not heard something about what is going on at Manus Island. There are almost daily news events about the closure of the offshore detention centre and the movement of the men housed there to different accommodation. There have also been numerous stories of protest on Australian shores, including one in which protesters climbed the Opera House with signs reading “Australia: World Leaders in Cruelty”. The report from last Monday is that the PNG government will be moving the remaining 420 men to new accommodation.
Refugee and asylum seeker policy is obviously a divisive topic, even among Christians, and yet the way people are treated as they flee harm and seek asylum shouldn’t cause division, should it? We should all be able to argue for the humane and ethical treatment of people and a narrative that doesn’t vilify humans as they seek safety and a new life in another country.
I believe the way people have been treated while in offshore detention is deplorable. Others agree. The UNHCR has given Australia 12 months to change its refugee policy.[i]
The former Director of Christmas Island, Greg Lake, has spoken out about the purposeful dehumanising practices that were put in place to break the spirits of those in detention and hopefully discourage others from coming.[ii] [iii] These included giving people numbers and refusing to refer to them by their names, constantly changing schedules, setting strict times for daily living tasks so that people couldn’t make their own decisions, moving people without notice, etc. The purpose of the policy was to destroy hope and make coming to Australia by boat a less attractive prospect than staying put. Health professionals have argued that it has led to serious mental health issues in those on whom it was practiced. Developing and putting into practice a policy that aims to dehumanise people and destroy joy in life and hope in future scares me.
The men who have barricaded themselves in the now closed Manus Island detention centre have legitimate fears and concerns about moving to the temporary accommodation created for them in Lorengau, PNG. The new accommodation is not as secure as the detention centre and they are afraid of attacks from locals. There are serious concerns that the protection promised will not be enough to ensure their safety. They have already seen or experienced attacks from locals in that community and have not received the response they expected from the local police.[iv] At times they even were victims of abuse from the police. [v] Their concerns about safety are well-founded.
I think sometimes we feel we have to come up with a solution to the problem in order to engage well with the issue. We may feel that it is too simple to say “Bring them Here” and so we choose to disengage with the topic and hope that everything is going to be alright. Then when people raise concerns about how people are treated in offshore detention, we rest in the notion that at least the boats have stopped and people are no longer dying at sea (although it isn’t quite that straightforward either).
The reality is that it is ok for us to listen to these stories of what is happening in our detention centres and to listen to how as a country we seem to be talking about refugees in general and to say, “This is not good. I don’t have the answers but this does not reflect my values as a Christian and it does not reflect our values as a nation. This is not what God wants.” It is ok to say that without having a definitive policy solution to offer. It is ok to wrestle with the pain of it and to have your heart break over it without knowing exactly what to do about it.
However, I think that as we sit in that pain and as we pray and meditate on God’s word and His character, the Holy Spirit presses upon our hearts something that we should do individually or collectively. The soft whisper says, “Pray in church, raise money, offer to host someone, contact your MP, raise awareness, etc.” As Christians, we should stretch ourselves to think about what tangible things we can do to voice our concerns and offer better solutions. Earlier this year a number of Baptist leaders from around the country met with MP’s in Canberra to ask that Australia would do its fair share in addressing the global refugee crisis. They asked for an increase in funding to the UNHCR and an increase in refugee intake to 30,000 per year. These were not excessive asks. Rather, they simply represent a move towards our fair share based upon the size of our country and our GDP. The National Council has also recently agreed to send a letter to the Prime Minister expressing concerns about the treatment of refugees on Manus Island.
Some thoughts for reflection
When I lived in the U.S., I worked with newly resettled refugees. It was complex and deeply rewarding. It was hard work but much harder for those people trying to learn a new language, a new culture, heal from previous trauma, find jobs and send their kids to school. As I think back to that time and as I reflect further on what is happening to the men on Manus Island and our approach to refugee resettlement, the following thoughts come to mind:
- Are we letting fear rule us? Are we afraid that our policies won’t protect us and that our policies won’t protect our money? Even as a Christian, it is easy to fear for the future, to fear that the more people that are allowed into Australia means more competition for jobs and less provision to go around. But is this really truth? Is this really the way the economy works and is this really what God offers us for the future? Do we trust God and His provision?
- The world is messy. Policy is messy. My working out my faith is messy. God’s character is not messy. Complex issues don’t lend themselves to easy policy solutions. The more I engage with tough topics, the messier the world seems to me. As I work out my faith, I change my mind about issues and then I sometimes change them back. This is ok. However, I know that the messier my mind gets as I work out my thoughts on something the more that I know that God’s character is not messy. He always offers something more than this world has to offer. He always asks us to experience His love and to offer that love to others in real and practical ways as well as a mindset towards humanity.
- We shouldn’t expect others to have goals for themselves that are less than the goals we set for ourselves. I have heard many people say, “They are safe at Manus. They have water and food, why isn’t that enough? Or, why did they leave Indonesia in the first place?” Get to know a refugee. Accept that people have dreams, goals, and aspirations that go beyond running water and a roof…dreams that go beyond not getting slaughtered. Refugees are smart, often very well-educated and extremely resourceful. That’s a good thing. It builds good economies. It raises the bar for everyone.
I know from my previous work experience with refugees that there are no simple solutions to this complex problem. But I also know that my life was greatly enriched by my interactions with refugees from a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. They were forging ahead with their lives in a completely new place. The little neighbourhood outside of Pittsburgh where they were living took a while to adjust but was better off for having them. I’d like to think that our neighbourhoods would be better off too.