“Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the rights of the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy” (Proverbs 31:8,9).

Australians are proving to be a difficult people to please on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. The reality is that the majority of Australians really don’t know what they want done with refugees. Every suggestion has problems and most Christians are no better informed or clear in their thinking than anyone else. Often popular media images, and political alliances determine our thinking on issues like this. Sadly the compassion of Christ for the hurting person seems to be a lesser concern.

CONFUSED? Jim  Reiher says Australians don't seem  to know what they want when it comes to handling refugees. PICTURE: © Guenter Guni (www.istockphoto.com)

"The parable of the sheep and the goats reminds us to care for the suffering and the hurting of the world. To do that is to do it for Jesus Himself. To not do so, is to ignore Jesus Himself. If we can’t see refugees and asylum seekers fitting into the parable of the sheep and the goats, then we are wearing blinkers."

Consider our confusion over the issue:

• We don’t want boat arrivals even though they are only a tiny percentage of all applications we get for refugee status in Australia;

• We don’t want people to drown at sea but we don’t want to help them either;

• We just want the boats to stop coming, but we have no idea of how to see that eventuate;

• We don’t mind refugees, including children, being placed behind razor wire on some island in the Pacific, but we don’t want to send refugees to Malaysia where they might suffer indiscriminate abuse;

• We want to be “tough” on refugees, but we don’t want to be “cruel” – however that looks (which we can’t really work out);

• We are happy (it seems) to be a part of wars, and even help to start wars, in our region (including Afghanistan) but we don’t accept any responsibility for displaced persons as a result of those wars;

• We seem to want someone else to house refugees and have them indefinitely, even though we are the richest and largest nation in the region with the most space and the least population density;

• We don’t want to “mess up our pretty nation” with a major refugee holding camp of some sort, even in a remote location. We want poor small neighbours to do that instead; and,

• We want to pretend that the world is not the mess it is, and we can stay exactly as we are without any of the wars or troubles in our region affecting us.

I think we are delusional, confused and have no idea what we really want.

The parable of the sheep and the goats reminds us to care for the suffering and the hurting of the world. To do that is to do it for Jesus Himself. To not do so, is to ignore Jesus Himself. If we can’t see refugees and asylum seekers fitting into the parable of the sheep and the goats, then we are wearing blinkers.

The statistics and realities of the issue
Christians are supposed to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But sadly many of us fall for the nonsense that circulates in the popular media when it comes to issues like refugees and asylum seekers. Some Christians are about as smart as doves and as innocent as serpents, on this issue!

For example, did you know that 93 to 95 per cent of all applications that come to Australia for refugee status, have come from people who arrive here on aeroplanes? And about five to seven per cent of applications come from people who arrive by boats. Think about that...think about the amount of television news that we get covering ‘boat arrivals’ compared to how much time is dedicated to discussion about people who arrive at our international airports, and come off planes.

And the 93 to 95 per cent of applicants who come on planes, are allowed to live in the broader community until their applications are decided. On the other hand, the people who arrive by boat, are locked up behind razor wire, until their applications are decided.

Also: Of all the boat arrivals, we end up accepting about 95 per cent of them as genuine refugees. Of all the plane arrivals, we send back about 55 per cent! So we lock up the real refugees, and we allow an awful lot who are not real refugees, to live in our midst!

Did you know that we bring into Australia about 180,000 new arrivals a year? Every year. Most of that number are official immigrants, but 13,000 are refugees. Soon it will be 14,000 of that number being refugees when we start taking 1,000 a year more from Malaysia.

Finally: the United Nations recommends that a country of the wealth and prosperity of a place like Australia, should take about 0.1 per cent of its population as refugees every year. If we did that we would take 0.1 per cent of 22 million. That is 22,000. We take 13,000.

What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?
A refugee is a person fleeing from something that threatens them. It may be persecution due to ethnicity or religion. It may be famine or war. The UN has stated that anyone can be a refugee and it is never about how rich or poor they are, how much they have or don’t have, what age or religion or gender they are. Australia agrees with this, and we can be proud that we are a signatory to the UN charter on refugees.

An asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in a country like Australia and has asked to be seen as a refugee. They are in the ‘pre-refugee’ state, in an Australian legal sense. Technically, they are refugees by definition of the UN. But legally they are not ‘quite’ refugees as far as Australia is concerned. We need to check their claims and make a ruling on whether or not they really are fleeing some terrible situation, or just trying to get into Australia when they don’t ‘need’ to. There will be health and security checks to be made first. 

"You can not be an illegal refugee. It is nonsense to call such people ‘illegal immigrants’. Using the terms together (illegal immigrants for refugees) is logically flawed. A person is either an immigrant or a refugee (or asylum seeker)."

You can not be an illegal refugee. It is nonsense to call such people ‘illegal immigrants’. Using the terms together (illegal immigrants for refugees) is logically flawed. A person is either an immigrant or a refugee (or asylum seeker).

Why some asylum seekers come on boats.
Depending on the country they come from, there may or may not be a process in place to help them seek to be accepted in a country like Australia. Generally, the more chaotic and war torn a country is, the less chance there is that there is an orderly process to assist a desperate person wanting to get out. This is important to remember: the more chaotic the place, the less likely the fleeing family will be able to ‘get the right paperwork’ organised; the less likely they can stand in an orderly queue and request documents to leave the country.

If people arrive as boat arrivals without paperwork, risking the very dangerous journey over the seas, they are very likely to be genuine refugees. If a person comes to Australia with all their paperwork in order, and arrive on a place with visa and passport, then it is possible that they are not fleeing quite as dangerous or chaotic a situation as the boat person. Of course there will be exceptions to that, but the statistics demonstrate the general truth of it.

What truth is there in the term ‘queue jumper’?
In many parts of the world there are no orderly queues to join. You can’t be a queue jumper if there is no queue for you to join.

Perhaps the term can be applied to the UN camps where people await placement in sympathetic countries. If a person bypasses the UN camp, and comes by boat to Australia, to end up at somewhere like Christmas Island while awaiting processing - are they ‘queue jumping’ over other refugees who have ended up in refugee camps?
Not really: they have decided not to get on a UN detention list, but go instead to an Australian camp and be on the Australian detention list. They have chosen one queue over another queue. And Australia has two accepted pathways for people to come here on as refugees: either from UN camps or from our own camps.

The 13,000 refugee figure, is broken into two groups: about 7,000 of them go to the special humanitarian program and onshore protection network (including both plane and boat arrivals), while 6,000 of the number come from UNHCR applications through refugee camps around the world. That will be 7,000 soon, once we start taking 1,000 extra a year from refugee camps in Malaysia.

Note that: there are two separate quotas within our humanitarian intake: one quota from the first queue, and another quota for the second queue. If a person sees a long queue, and moves to a shorter queue, this is not ‘queue jumping’. It is queue swapping. 

Is Australia being flooded by boat people?
In the last 34 years (from 1st January, 1976, to 20th September, 2010) we have had a total of 23,380 people come by boat to Australia seeking asylum. That’s an overall average of 746 asylum seekers a year. At this rate it would take 134 years to fill the MCG just once with boat arrivals!

Some years see more boat arrivals than other years of course. There is a myth that circulates that they are worse that ever right now. The current numbers are huge (supposedly). In fact the highest actual year on record to date was 2001 with more than 5,500 boat arrivals. Last year (2010) saw about 4,000. This year is a lot less (even though most Australians surveyed think it is growing at the moment!)

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
A survey was taken of 1,000 Australians. It was commissioned by the Red Cross and released for Refugee Week 2010. It indicates that most Australians, when asked questions with a different emphasis and in a different way - are actually sympathetic towards the plight of refugees:

• 86 per cent of people would flee to a safe country, if they lived in a conflict zone and were under threat.
• 94 per cent of these people would use all their money and assets to get to a safe country.
• 31 per cent know of someone who has come to Australia escaping persecution or conflict in another country.
• 83 per cent agree that people fleeing persecution should be able to seek protection in another country.
• 83 per cent are willing to assist a refugee in their community settle in Australia.
• 67 per cent agree that refugees have made a positive contribution to Australian society.

The so-called 'Malaysian solution'
In May 2011, the Australian Government announced the Malaysian solution as their key response to the “boat people problem”. Australia plans to send 800 boat arrivals (asylum seekers) to Malaysia, and in return we will take 4,000 processed refugees from the 100,000 waiting in Malaysia. Any boat arrivals after the date announced, would be in the group to be sent to Malaysia.

Good things about the Malaysia solution:
• It does take 4,000 refugees from the refugee camps there. These folk might have been waiting years for placement somewhere;

"Christians, of all people, need to get past slogans and political alliances, and see real hurting human beings here."

• It is taking 4,000 processed and recognised refugees - security and health checks have been done, their claims about being real refugees agreed to officially, we are giving them a new home and a new life; and,

• It might be a stepping stone for Malaysia to actually begin treating their refugees and asylum seekers with more humanity. As the spotlight of the world looks a bit more closely at how they treat refugees, it could help them to change the way they do things there. It might be a step toward getting Malaysia to actually sign the UN refugee convention and the UN Convention Against Torture. 

Problems with the Malaysia solution:
• Malaysia is not currently a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention or the UN Convention Against Torture, and we know that asylum seekers in that nation have been, and continue to be, abused. Despite assurances from the Malaysians, there is no legal framework protecting the people we send there;

• Malaysian law does not distinguish between illegal immigrant workers and asylum seekers. Even recognised refugees who are suppose to be issued with a refugee card for their protection are, at times, arrested and abused;

• Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia do not have access to education for their children, health care, or employment. They end up working illegally and therefore risk arrest, beatings, and deportation;

• The agreement undermines the right to seek asylum in Australia. Under international law, all asylum seekers who come to Australia regardless of their mode of transport here, must have their claims for protection assessed, and, if found to be genuine, they must be offered protection;

• Unaccompanied children are to be included in this questionable arrangement; and,

• If the goal of this plan is to reduce boat arrivals (and deter people from making the dangerous journey) then it might backfire in a number of ways. If the Malaysians do improve and show compassion and help for the people we send there, some might be willing to accept that outcome and still come to Australia by boat. But if the Malaysians don’t change, while it might deter some boat arrivals, it seems that many of the desperate families coming by boat will still try to find a better life despite the risk of being sent to Malaysia.  And this all presupposes that we should ‘stop the boats’ – which is an assumption that Christians need to seriously question. Why do we want to avoid helping desperate people fleeing war or persecution? Perhaps we want to stop people taking the dangerous journey that ends in death at sea for some. That is not such a bad thing, surely. But it is also possible that we are being swept along in an anti-refugee sentiment and a “fear” or being swamped by outsiders who will “change our culture”. Such fears are unfounded and irrational, especially considering the small numbers we actually receive.

The decision to send boat arrivals to Malaysia was delayed by a court challenge, and over 300 boat arrivals were in limbo, waiting for the outcome of a High Court Challenge against the policy. Refugee advocacy groups believe the Malaysian plan is illegal and immoral.

The High Court made its ruling on 31st August. They blocked the Malaysian deal. As The Age newspaper reported that afternoon: “The High Court has upheld the injunctions preventing the Federal Government from processing asylum seekers in Malaysia. Chief Justice Robert French said the court ordered Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and his department be restrained from sending asylum seekers to Malaysia. 'The declaration made...was made without power and is invalid,' Justice French said.”

The politics and realities of the new situation
This decision by the High Court leaves the Labor government in the embarrassing situation of having to scramble for another solution.

In many ways the Labor Party are their own worst enemy on this issue. The Liberals have consistently been very tough on asylum seekers (and it seemed to win the Liberals lots of popular support at election time) and so Labor jumped on the same bandwagon ever since the Tampa incident in 2001. The trouble for Labor is that in their efforts to look “tough on refugees” they are now seen as not just tough, but also mean. They are not just being "strong” – they are seen as being willing to send refugees to a place that abuses people. While the Liberals seemed willing to let asylum seekers drown at sea ("we will turn the boats back"), that was never really teased out by a conservative popular media. The Liberals have surfaced in this debate as the more compassionate party, when in reality neither party has any real compassion for refugees. Both use desperate people as a way to win political points. Labor seemed intent on taking the mantle of toughness from the Liberal party. And they have been successful. But in doing so, it seems to be backfiring on Labor, and now people are seemingly changing: they want tough, but they don’t seem to want cruel. And the Malaysian solution seems too cruel. 

Final words
Christians, of all people, need to get past slogans and political alliances, and see real hurting human beings here. We should not join in the game of using such people as political pawns to improve the chances of one side of politics or the other. We should be standing up for the powerless and the voiceless. As Proverbs 31: 8,9 says: “Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the rights of the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.”