I have a confession to make. I was once a hard-line protectionist, wanting our national borders to remain closed against the rising tide of ‘illegal’ refugees who were seeking to sneak into our beautiful country. As a conservative Australian, I was supportive of government policies that sought to lock up ‘boat people’ in off-shore detention centres and ship them back overseas. My justification for this viewpoint was a triple concern:
- Wanting to protect our nation from infiltration and subversion by hostile cultures and religious philosophies with an obvious agenda to destroy our Christian-based western society.
- Wanting to protect our nation from developing large ethnic ghettos of immigrants who do not assimilate into our culture and who bring with them their racial intolerance and hatred of other ethnic groups, thus creating a sectarian battlefield in our once peaceful country.
- Wanting to protect us from large numbers of immigrants who would end up on social welfare and ‘bludge’ on the rest of our society, becoming a burdensome drain on us economically. Either that or they take jobs from Australians, thereby, forcing more people onto the unemployment lines.
They all sound reasonable arguments, don’t they? After all, who wouldn’t be concerned about those kinds of issues?
But in recent times, my opinion has undergone a transformation. While I remain deeply concerned about these three issues, and I still believe that whatever policies we put in place for processing refugees must provide adequate protection against these possible threats, I have also come to see that a blanket denial of refugee claims is not the answer. Because there are many genuine refugees who would not pose a threat in any of these three areas.
I recently watched a documentary on the millions of refugees fleeing war-torn countries all over the world and my heart broke. Many of these people are honest, loving families who have fled their homes in fear for their lives. They have packed up their meagre belongings and carried their babies and children for sometimes hundreds of kilometres to escape severe persecution. And when they arrive at the borders of prosperous western nations such as ours, we lock them up in prison.
The Australian off-shore detention centres of Nauru and Manus Islands are squalid prisons with appalling living conditions, and there are families who have now been incarcerated there for 10 years or more. In the recent documentary I watched, nurses and school teachers who have worked in these places broke down in tears as they described the terrible living conditions in those places and revealed the horrifying incidence of rape and abuse of children.
After watching the documentary I was deeply moved and did some research. I accessed our Federal Government’s Department of Home Affairs website, along with other related websites, to find out if it is possible for an Australian family to sponsor a refugee family to obtain a residential visa, by providing them with accommodation and financial support for their first year or two. The short answer? Under current legislation, it isn’t possible. Even if I promise to house and feed a refugee family permanently, the Federal Government will not grant that family a visa. In fact, the current government policy is that anyone coming to our shores ‘illegally’ (via boats) and now housed in detention centres will NEVER be granted visas to enter Australia, no matter how valid their refugee status. This seems an appallingly callous stance.
It is easy to treat these people as ‘criminals’ who have tried to gain entry to our country ‘illegally’ if we simply judge them from a distance and regard them as some kind of amorphous plague or virus threatening our precious way of life. But if we step closer and consider the personal stories of individual refugees, it is very difficult to maintain such selfish, protectionist attitudes.
Consider the case of Rozhan and Jwan and their 12-year old son, Adrian, who fled from Iraq. Jwan was a schoolteacher who refused to convert to Islam. As a result she and her family began to experience increasing violence from people in their community. Finally, after some extremists tried to abduct their son from a bazaar, they packed up their belongings and fled their homeland.
Then there is the case of Said Imasi, who has been in Villawood Detention Centre since 2010. Yes, that’s right! Since 2010! He was found wandering the Western Saraha Desert when he was 6 years old and was sent to an orphanage on the Spanish Island of Las Palmas. For a few years, he was transferred from orphanage to orphanage across Europe until, at age 10, he escaped from an abusive foster family in Belgium. As a 10-year-old boy, frightened and alone, Said train-hopped from country to country, eventually being ‘adopted’ by a drug gang in Holland and was used as a drug mule to carry drugs across borders. He had no idea what he was carrying. In 2004 Said was arrested and temporarily imprisoned in Norway in a detention centre for juveniles and then placed in foster care with a loving family. For the first time in his life he attended school and thought he had finally found love and peace in his life. But the drug gang made contact again and threatened to kill him if he didn’t start working for them again. He fled for his life, borrowed a passport from a friend and came to Australia via New Zealand. He was arrested for having a false passport and no visa, and has been in detention for over 10 years, his application for refugee status having been denied.
Our detention centres are full of individuals and families who have fled from horrific situations, having risked everything to find a place where they can build new lives and raise their children in peace.
There is a growing movement of concerned citizens such as me, who are now voicing concern over our harsh, inhumane treatment of refugees and our callous indifference to their heart-wrenching stories. Because the fact is, I could just as easily have been in Said Imasi’s shoes. My citizenship of a peaceful and prosperous nation was a complete accident of my birth. What right do we have to close our borders and deny the right of others to share in our blessings when our ‘ownership’ of those blessings is a product of pure chance? Aren’t we citizens of the world before we are citizens of a particular nation? Don’t we have a responsibility to share our abundance with our suffering brothers and sisters?
Canada has had a Community Sponsorship Program in place for about 15 years whereby groups of families band together to sponsor a refugee family, providing lodging, employment and social support for genuine refugees. In Australia at the moment, there is a call for a similar program to be implemented. The Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative is a movement of ordinary Australians seeking to pressure the Federal Government into supporting such a scheme. If successful, the scheme would involve groups of 5 or more families offering to sponsor a refugee family, by providing lodging, transport, employment, social assistance friendship and more during their initial integration into our society.
I absolutely love the idea, because it offers a viable means of effectively helping genuine refugees and integrating fully into our society, thereby avoiding the establishment of ethnic ghettos of non-integrated immigrants.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, you can check out their website here:
Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)