This week, an asylum seeker died on Manus Island, in an apparent suicide. The Rohingya man, Salim, was a member of one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Salim, who had a history of both medical issues and mental health concerns, had been on Manus Island for more than five years. The Rohingya people have been fleeing from persecution and genocide in Myanmar-last year in just one month, over 6,700 Rohingya people were killed in the violence in Myanmar. This number includes over 700 children under the age of 5. The tragic, heartbreaking irony is that this man died not because of this violence, but as a result of Australia’s cruel policies regarding asylum seekers.
Manus is notorious for its poor conditions. Worse, though, is the total lack of hope experienced by those still living there. Five years is an incredibly long time to live in deprivation and dehumanising conditions. It would be still worse to live for over five years in limbo, away from your family, with all hope that things might change for the better being slowly stripped away from you. And we here in Australia? The majority of us seem very content to turn a blind eye to this suffering that our policies have caused. If it’s not happening in front of us, why should we care?
I read a frightening statistic recently. According to a recent study done in the USA, the group least likely to think that the US has a responsibility to accept refugees is Evangelical Christians. Yes, the least likely. These are the people who say that they follow the teachings of Jesus, who was himself a refugee at one point of his life. This same Jesus says that the way we treat the least of our neighbors is the way that we treat him. It literally says in the Bible “…when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.” There are many other scripture references that talk about protecting the vulnerable, welcoming strangers, not turning away those in need. I could go on. And yet Evangelical Christians seem unwilling to put into practice these very principles. As Evangelical writer Jen Hatmaker said, in reference to the study I mentioned, “We are as lost from our own gospel as we’ve ever been while screaming at everyone else that we are the only ones ‘found’.”
But it’s different here in Australia, right? It’s true, we are much more of a secular society. It’s very difficult to find statistics on the numbers of people who support our asylum seeker policies across different groups. And yet, 52 % of Australians identify themselves as Christians, while we hold tight to policies that are clearly harming people, not to mention drawing international condemnation. These are policies such as withdrawing financial support and housing from asylum seekers, detaining children, using gestapo-like techniques to detain peaceful refugees, and refusing to allow the asylum seekers on Manus Island to settle in countries such as New Zealand, despite repeated offers. The Immigration Department deliberately uses policies that harm or cause suffering in order to accomplish their aims. And too often, we as voters are silent on these issues.
There is a small but passionate group of Christian leaders and laypeople who often speak out publicly on our treatment of asylum seekers, such as the ‘Love makes a way’ group, who engage in non-violent protests, usually praying in politicians offices. Here in WA, we have the First Home Project and there are others around the nation who are acting to support and advocate for refugees. Christians such as these give me hope that Christianity is not going to become irrelevant, only caring about protecting its own interests. Of course, religion cannot claim a monopoly on morality. There are many non-religious people in our country who also speak out for those who have sought help from Australia, only to be mistreated and dehumanised even further. (I love the fact that the tiny QLD town of Biloela is protesting the attempted deportation of the Tamil refugees who lived there.) But it’s the Christians who really puzzle me. I mean no personal attack on anyone, but it’s the Christians who claim to follow the Christ who says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and “give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away…” – why then are the Christians not storming the Parliament and demanding that we change our inhumane policies?
But the boats, you will say. These policies might be cruel, but they’ve stopped people dying at sea trying to get to our shores. At least we’ve stopped the boats! I’m sorry, but the end does not justify the means. Not at all. You can’t tell me that we, an intelligent, resourceful people, cannot come up with a better way to stop deaths at sea than these inhumane policies. When we say that we don’t want people dying at sea, we’re simply saying, ‘don’t die over here, please – die somewhere else.’ We have spent at least $5 billion on detaining people on Nauru and Manus Island. We could have spent this money on stopping the boats at the source, supported refugees in camps in South East Asia, AND increased our refugee intake. We could have spent this money on helping people and becoming a better nation ourselves. Instead, our leaders have given in to cowardice, to the lowest common denominator, and to those who would make us a weaker, more craven version of ourselves. At the VERY LEAST, we could have resettled the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru without this interminable delay, somewhere that would provide a hopeful future for them.
I don’t believe that we as a nation lack compassion. At least I hope not, more than anything else. But when we keep asylum seekers offshore, keep the kids who simply want a future out of view, and keep the families out of our communities, we stop seeing these people as people. They’re just statistics, just a part of the problem, just ‘boat people’. That’s what we made Salim into-we dehumanised him. But he was a father, with three children, aged eleven, eight and five years old. He had never seen his youngest child, who was born when he was on his way to Australia, looking for a better future for his kids. He had epilepsy, and he would have fits very often, fits that exhausted him. One of Salim’s fellow asylum seekers, a Kurdish journalist, Behrouz Boochani, wrote that Salim loved flowers, and would often pick flowers from along the prison fences and playfully place them behind his ears or in his hair. According Boochani, when the Australian camps on Manus were closed, and the Australian immigration officials and local Manus police came to forcefully remove the asylum seekers, Salim took flowers and went to welcome them to the camp. I hope that this is how he is remembered-as a gentle man who offered flowers to those who would persecute him, and who wanted a good future for his kids. But also, I hope that we as a nation can do better for Salim’s fellow asylum seekers, those who are still on Manus. We’re better than this, I know we are.
So what can you do?
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’re interested in asking, like I am, what can we do to change this situation? The Asylum Seeker Resource Center has this great article on things that you can do right now to help refugees. I would also suggest that you contact your elected representatives and let them know your concerns. Remember these issues when it comes time to vote. Follow and share people who write about these issues on social media (such as Love Makes a Way or Behrouz Boochani). Also keep the conversation going – let’s not stay silent any more.