Refugee mistreatment makes me sick at heart

Crowd protesting

These are difficult times. For many in our world, the difficulty is surviving poverty, or escaping from a murderous regime.

I live in Australia. I don’t live in poverty, and while our government has some very bad features, it isn’t a direct threat to my life. For me, some of the difficult issues are ethical.

Like whether my country’s government is pursuing a murderous policy towards others.

Migration to Australia

Ever since European people began settling in Australia, often mistreating the indigenous people in the process, we have been a country that welcomes immigrants. At times only Europeans were welcome, but in recent decades people from Asia and the Middle East have come in numbers.

The Australian Government has immigration criteria and quotas, and this has always allowed for a reasonable number of refugees to be welcomed in accordance with the UN convention.

Refugees and Australia

Australia is a large island of relative prosperity, located close enough to parts of Asia to make it feasible for refugees from murderous regimes or terrorists to make the perilous journey here by small boat.

And so, in the last decade, refugees, predominantly from Afganistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka, have been arriving by boat and seeking asylum.

Asylum seekers – a problem?

Some believe these asylum seekers are a threat to Australia, because we cannot easily control the numbers and it is feared they may become a flood that threatens our way of life (or something). And so public opinion, whipped up by the Murdoch press and a conservative government/opposition looking for an issue it can win votes on, has been strongly against the asylum seekers.

Subtle lies?

Various claims, which in the main are quite misleading bordering on lies, have been made. The refugees have been called “illegals” even though what they are doing is understandable and in accord with the UN convention. The present government’s military-like process to deal with these boat arrivals is called “border protection”, as if these poor suffering victims present some sort of military threat.

Bad policy breeds evil outcomes

And so successive governments have set up processes to discourage asylum seekers from making the trip. The main strategy is off-shore detention in harsh and repressive conditions for long periods (years). Of course, conditions in a detention centre have to be really bad to deter someone fleeing from the Taliban!

And so the detainees, including children, become frustrated. Many protest, sometimes there are riots, a few even suicide, and psychiatrists warn that we are increasing the risk of serious mental illness.

When does it become torture?

The UN disapproves of our policy. Many commentators in Australia have likened our strategy to torture.

Manus Island, 2014

Manus Island is an off-shore detention centre in Papua New Guinea. We don’t know much about it because our government refuses to tell us. But it has recently experienced riots, an attempted breakout, and apparently a break-in by PNG police and locals. During the melee, scores of detainees were injured, and Reza Barati, a 23 year old asylum seeker from Iran, was killed, bashed in the head. No-one yet knows who was responsible.

A shameful response

The government continues to pretend that this is all acceptable, continues to release minimal information, and continues to refuse to relent in its hardline policies. The Prime Minister has praised the Minister for Immigration for not being a "wimp".

Many Australians are feeling ashamed. Some recall how many countries refused to accept Jews seeking to emigrate from Germany after Hitler came to power, and wonder whether Australia is behaving similarly. Many feel history will pronounce our present actions as shameful.

Light the Dark

Many people wanted to do something. And so last Sunday evening tens of thousands of Australians held peaceful “Light the Dark” candlelight vigils, apologising to the family of Reza Barati for his treatment and our lack of care and protection, and to protest the Government’s apparent indifference to common standards of humanity.

It felt like a breath of fresh air.

What to do?

There are no easy solutions to this issue. But in my next post I will attempt to grapple with a christian response.

Read more

Photo: Amnesty International.

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