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Do Human Rights Cut It? Christian Ethics and Asylum Seekers


Do Human Rights Cut It? Christian Ethics and Asylum Seekers

Lucy Allan

“How are you?” rolls off the tongue in Australian culture, the natural next line after “Hey!”

It rolls off mine often, even when I know the answer. I try to eat the words back.

“I’d be lying if I said I was good,” says an Iraqi refugee, sitting in front of me.

There are many things I have learnt not to talk about while visiting friends in Melbourne’s detention centre. My love of camping, for starters.

“What have we done?” Is the overwhelming chorus that reverberates in that place, where many have been waiting for months, some for 7 years.

Isn’t it just the most ridiculous thing, that money in this world is freer to move across borders than humans?

Increasingly in the West we have seen the Orwellian renaming of refugees as 'economic migrants', 'illegal arrivals' or even 'potential terrorists'. We have seen traumatising images of the 'European Migrant Crisis', which again, is a renaming of what is actually the mass displacement of an entire nation of people who are trying to live after their country has been torn apart by war. A war in which the West has blood-stained hands.

The most prevalent justification for Australia’s offshore detention camps and other cruel policies is that it is to stop deaths at sea. This could be described as a utilitarian argument. Utilitarianism is about achieving the greatest level of happiness for everyone. With this logic, it is conceivable to cause harm to a group of people as long as it achieves the net good. The ends justify the means. This of course ignores the fact that the deterrence policies simply mean people are not dying in our waters. Within this framework, detention camps are essentially places of human sacrifice.

The most common alternative to this logic is human rights logic. The assumption of human rights is that there are some things that are never justifiable by their ends because the lives and wellbeing of people should never be compromised by other people. That would be injustice, oppression.

But the call of the Gospel goes even beyond the logic of human rights. Human rights do not necessarily require people love one another, but Jesus requires us to love! Noel Castellanos, in his blog post put up by SURRENDER last week explored Matthew 25; the sheep and the goats passage in which Jesus says that to welcome the poor, the hungry, the naked, the stranger and the prisoner is to welcome himself. This is an expression of God prioritising the poor. What is interesting here is that Jesus calls us not merely to rehumanise the other–we must deify them in the sense that we must love and tend to them as if we are loving and tending to God. This goes well beyond the human rights paradigm!

This is actually very, very hard. Especially when these ‘others’ are not as nice or polite or easy to get along with as we thought Jesus might be! We should refrain from romanticising ‘the least of these’. It is very important to remember that people are a product of their political, cultural and socio-economic environments. And that we as wealthy citizens of the West usually contribute to or are at least complicit in the reasons why they are 'the least of these' and we are not. The global 'war on refugees' is an example of this. We must first recognise the way we ourselves are capable of violence and participate in violent systems.

Forgive us, Lord. 

Earlier this year, Australian forces joined the United States in bombing Syria–on our behalf as Australian citizens. And it is on our behalf, supposedly, that our Government continues to scapegoat and persecute refugees. For our protection. 

We have a civic and Christian duty as individuals to reject this notion. Not in our name. And as what is arguably still the most morally influential institution in Australia, the Church has an enormous capacity to bring about change.

During Christmas, we are reminded that God became a vulnerable refugee child. The Christmas story is about God breaking into the world and becoming 'the least of these'. Jesus was born into such oppression that King Herod was able to order the slaughter of babies when he perceived a threat to his power.

And so to welcome refugees is a tradition that cuts through the lights, the noise, the tinsel and Santa's sack of consumerism to the lament, joy and struggle at the soul of the Christmas story.

This is why last Thursday Love Makes A Way held a carols service outside the front doors of Transfield Services (now Broadspectrum), the corporation that holds the government contract for the management of Australia's offshore detention centres on Manus and Nauru. In his blog post, Castellanos said that, 'it is not one single verse but the entire revelation of Scripture that points us towards our responsibility to love the most vulnerable people in our society'.

Over the last two years, Love Makes A Way has seen hundreds of Christian leaders engage in nonviolent direct actions in every state and territory in Australia as personal expressions of their commitment to the Love and Justice of Jesus Christ. We will continue to seek more humane asylum seeker policies through nonviolent love in action in 2016.

May we be blessed by the lament, joy and struggle of Christmas, and may it unsettle us enough to act in the New Year.