Good intentions alone aren’t enough to prevent you from sometimes winding up in a hard and rocky place. That’s what’s happened to churches that have decided to challenge the government by offering sanctuary to 267 asylum seekers — including 37 babies — who are temporarily in Australia for medical treatment. Exercising the right to religious freedom can easily end in a moral mix-up.
Church leaders led by Brisbane’s Anglican dean Peter Catt are trying to prevent the government returning the asylum seekers to offshore detention in Nauru – a ‘living hell’ according to the protesters, even though the tiny, largely Christian island is home to 10,000 Nauruans. More than 110 church groups around the country have decided to join Dr Catt and take a stand by reinventing the ancient religious concept of sanctuary. ‘I like to see it as converting Australia to a sanctuary,’ says Catt, ‘which is what we do in civil society all the time.’
According to the UN, a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted. Catt and co. clearly believe that any refugee, so defined, should be entitled to enter any country of their choosing on any ground whatsoever. Arrayed against them are those who insist that a sovereign nation has both a right and a duty to protect its borders and determine who will cross them.
Unfortunately the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), to which Australia is a signatory, is of little help in resolving this dilemma; recognising the right of a refugee to leave one country but not recognising an absolute right to enter another — consigning refugees to wander a moral no-man’s land.
Sanctuary protesters waving placards saying ‘Refugees are Welcome’ are stating the obvious: refugees have always been welcome in Australia. Refugee resettlement under the 1951 Refugee Convention is a voluntary scheme for participating nations complementing the provision of protection given to people who apply for asylum under the Convention. Over the past 40 years, Australia has consistently ranked as one of the top three resettlement countries in the world — ahead of Canada but behind the USA.
Even so, the number of refugees we resettle here is on the low side compared to our overall migrant intake — normally less than 5 per cent. According to government figures, the number of visas allocated to refugees resettled with UNHCR assistance is actually going down and is thought to have been just over 3 per cent last year. A good case could be made for boosting this intake to around 6 per cent, which would make a significant difference to people languishing within the UNHCR system. Compassion for refugees and strangers is a golden thread running through Jewish and Christian scriptures. ‘A wandering Aramean was my father,’ begins Judaism’s credo that remembers Israel as a refugee people uprooted by human tyranny. Christians, in turn, remember how the young Jesus and his parents fled persecution at the hands of King Herod. Living as ‘strangers and exiles on the earth’ remains a common experience for people of faith.
By ancient tradition, church buildings were a place of refuge where lawbreakers could seek sanctuary from arrest. With its roots deep in Jewish scriptures, Christian sanctuary became such an established practice that it passed into English Common Law only to be abolished by statute in 1624 because of concerns that wrongdoers were escaping the King’s justice. The doctrine of sanctuary has never been part of our legal system.
Catt and co. risk flouting the requirements of the Migrant Act 1958 that makes it an offence to harbour someone who is ‘an unlawful non-citizen’. Advocates of sanctuary are demanding the recognition of one set of boundaries — those of church buildings — while calling for another set, national borders, to be ignored.
Of course, illegality, in itself, does not mean that acts of civil disobedience are always morally wrong. There is a long history of such protest in free and open democracies. When a duly enacted law is considered unjust, disobeying it may well be the moral thing to do. And churches should certainly be entitled to exercise their right to religious freedom. But in doing so, they need to make the distinction between encouraging an action that is moral and encouraging one that is not.
With no legal basis whatsoever for their actions, the sanctuary protesters have taken to stomping about on the sunlit uplands of moral indignation to wage their shrill campaign. They may well be right about the principle — compassion for refugees — but they are completely misguided about the practice. Vast movements of displaced people around the world, many millions of whom are refugees, mean that our immigration policy must be balanced, fair and consistent.
However much the sanctuary protesters may despise the authority of elected politicians, they need to understand the public has little taste for illegal or irregular arrivals jumping queues while others, many of whom have waited for years, languish in camps. The court of public opinion will not tolerate a repeat of the reprehensible chaos that led to the deaths at sea of thousands of people during the years of the first Rudd government. Any signal that our policy is softening will simply encourage the people-smugglers to resume their ghastly trade.
Australia is already likely to be the destination country for people waiting on Nauru for resettlement, as was the case under the Howard Government. Nobody is content to see the images of human misery and suffering that have come to haunt us in recent years. Australians are generous people; we are proud that this country always stands ready to receive new people. But Catt is misguided if he thinks that ‘converting Australia to a sanctuary’ is either moral or sensible. The moral course would be to maintain thoughtful pressure on the government to increase the resettlement intake, to encourage and support recent arrivals in their new home, and to increase overseas aid for refugees. Australians, with their innate sense of fairness, would support such a campaign.
Instead, the sanctuary advocates continue their noisy protest, which simply forces the government into a corner where the options are to stand firm on policy or to relinquish responsibility. Who can win in that situation? Religious believers make a significant contribution to civil society, but when church leaders spout nonsense, their standing in society is diminished — and when their standing is diminished, so is their capacity to be effective and prophetic voices for change.
Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
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