An issue that is as divisive as it is controversial: asylum seekers.

Not since the abolition of the controversial White Australia policy in 1973 has a topic divided a nation so. The issue of asylum seekers in Australia reached boiling point in the lead up to the Federal Election with both sides of politics putting it front and square of their campaigns. Why is it such a divisive issue and what are we, as a church, doing to address it?

In July 2013, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared a dramatic change to the nation’s asylum seeker policy. Under the proposal, no asylum seeker arriving in Australia by boat would be allowed to live in Australia. Instead, they would be transported to Papua New Guinea where they would be processed and resettled even where they were found to be genuine refugees. Like any controversial announcement, it polarised opinion.

In August the Refugee Council issued a joint statement by Australian Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) on the current policies. UnitingJustice was one such organisation to sign off on the statement.

“We’re members of the Refugee Council and all of the positions that they’ve taken in the document reflect the statements we’ve been making lately. It’s a very strong statement of condemnation, calling for a new approach from both major political parties”, states Rev. Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice Australia and Chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce.

The bottom line for us as a church is that we must help those who come to Australia looking for protection.

“I’m charged with promoting the church’s position on this, and that position was determined in 2002. It’s very clear about a number of things. It’s says the human rights of all people must be upheld; that Australia must guard its obligations under international treaties and conventions; that asylum seekers should not be discriminated against based on how they arrive here; that we need an approach to caring for asylum seekers that takes account of the situations from which they’ve fled; and that they deserve to have full legal rights and protection.

“The bottom line for us as a church is that we must help those who come to Australia looking for protection. And secondly, that Australia must uphold its obligations under international conventions”, affirmed Rev. Poulos.

“To a degree I believe Australia is still struggling to overcome the White Australia Policy, which basically closed our borders to anyone that wasn’t white western European. More recently, I think what we’ve seen is a cynical attempt to use asylum seekers to victimise them and demonise them for political gain. ”

“The Tampa Incident is one of those critical things that happened in our history. That famous one liner from John Howard, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come’, is probably the most powerful political one-liner we’ve had in this country. It has seeped its way into our national psyche, because it plays on a whole lot of things that concern us, such as the vulnerability of our borders”, said Rev. Poulos.

At around the same time as Tampa, John Howard introduced a policy change that would change the face and opinion of asylum seekers.

Prior to the new policy, Australia had a separate offshore humanitarian program, which saw us bring refugees from overseas, mainly from camps across Asia and in Africa, to settle in Australia. This is not one of our obligations under the Refugee Conventions. Instead, it’s seen as something ‘generous’ we do and our program has traditionally been viewed favourably by world standards.

We also had an onshore program, which detailed how we respond to asylum seekers who arrive on our shore and ask for our protection.

What John Howard did in 1996 was to link the numbers of those two programs. And so the concept of the queue jumper was born. People were lead to believe that for every person that came by boat, one person had to be taken off the humanitarian program list.

“We are the only developed western democracy that has links to those two programs, and that program gave rise to the whole rhetoric of the queue, and that rhetoric has been poisonous in this country.

“The Uniting Church, Amnesty, the Refugee Council, and other church groups have been pleading with successive governments of both political stripes to delink those programs. But they won’t hear of it, and because that discourse is so much a part of the way that Australians view this issue, politically it becomes very difficult to go back on that. But they [the Government] need to do that because it’s a policy construction, not the way the world works”, stated Rev. Poulos.

Politics aside, the issue of asylum seekers isn’t about winning votes. In the middle of the debate are men, women and children whose lives are impacted beyond measure by the decisions we make as a nation.

UnitingJustice, working on behalf of the Assembly of the Uniting Church, takes a non-partisan stance on all of our issues. It bases its position, and that of the Church, on gospel values, on the traditions of the church, and on the history of the Uniting Church on these matters.

“On the issue of asylum seekers we’ve been very clear. What we see as a massive failure of basic humanity and human rights on the part of successive Labor and Liberal Governments. Both parties have failed to meet the things that the Uniting Church and the Uniting Church members would want to see happen.

“In terms of experiencing the devastation of civil conflict and persecution in the world, I think most Australians haven’t experienced it unless they’ve come from a refugee background, have visited a place driven by civil conflict and war, or are very close to people that have. It’s very hard to get a picture of how violent and messy parts of the world are. In Australia we like to think our government can control certain things, but the fact of the matter is we can’t. Unless we do better at tackling the root causes for refugee flows in the world, it’s not going to change”, said Rev. Poulos.

While no-one is suggesting the solution is simple to come by or implement, finding a starting point that all parties can support, no matter their political or religious persuasion should be the focus.

“Our priorities have to be peace, and doing more for peacemaking and reconciliation, and doing less to prop up militaries and governments that abuse their citizens. Australia can’t operate on its own in this regard. We need to be a leader in the world in terms of our moral leadership, and our human rights leadership.

“We have a good reputation in the international arena for our commitment to international human rights, but we’re not doing ourselves any favours in the way that we’re responding to asylum seekers. One of my concerns is that we’re now in a situation where we need to work with countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to make it safe for asylum seekers. Because that’s the way to stop the boats make it safe for people to stay where they are.

“But why would countries listen to us when we’ve said to them ‘we’re closing our borders all together.’ Our moral authority to work with Indonesia, to ask for their help to make things safer for people there, why would they agree? They’re more likely to respond with, ‘You don’t even want these people, why should we help?’

“We need political leadership that stands up and says, ’this is not the best that we can be; there are other solutions we have failed to properly consider because they’re hard, they’re long term. Unfortunately, there are not three-year electoral cycle fixes in this.

“I think a change in the language from our political leaders would be well received by people. I think one of the serious issues for Australians, and rightly so, is they don’t want people dying on boats trying to get here. But the political debate has played on that concern and said the only way we have to stop that is to punish the people that come by boat. This means we’re going to send a message to the people smugglers by punishing the asylum seekers.

“It is not appropriate to punish a vulnerable group of people in order to send a message to someone else. It’s inhumane and it causes damage.

“It’s important to point out that about 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, in our history, have been determined to be refugees. This means that they come with their own personal stories of trauma, and persecution, and hardship. They’ve seen family members die and imprisoned. They’ve seen their communities persecuted. And this is the reality of their lives, and the policies we have in place ignore that reality. They don’t pay attention to the fact that these people are forced to leave their homes and families and see no other option. And who of us could possibly say, that in their situation we wouldn’t do the same?” asked Rev. Poulos.

The Hot Potato

For ten days in August, The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) organised The Hot Potato tour – a project designed to take the heat out of the conversation and debunk myths about asylum seekers.

The Hot Potato Bus stopped in various locations on a tour around the Eastern seaboard of Australia. Along the way they served 10,000 potatoes with an international menu.

When the tour stopped on day nine at the Corso in Manly, Rev. Elenie Poulos joined a panel to discuss the issues facing asylum seekers.

The tour aims to share the facts and allow people to change their minds for themselves.

For more information, find out the top ten myths about asylum seekers and continue the conversation, go to www.thehotpotato.com.au

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission:

Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa.

While asylum seekers and refugees are in Australian territory (or otherwise engage Australia’s jurisdiction), the Australian Government has obligations under various international treaties to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected. These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.

As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.

Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights under the various international treaties, and not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.

Our position on asylum seekers

It is time for a new approach which focuses on protection rather than punishment, on facts rather than fear-mongering, and on long-term solutions rather than short-term political gain. Regardless of which party now forms government, we call on both major political parties to demonstrate true leadership by working cooperatively to refocus Australia’s policy approach in line with the following principles:

1. Maintain Australia’s position as a world leader in resettlement and demonstrate Australia’s commitment to taking its fair share of responsibility for refugee protection and supporting other countries to address refugee crises in a sustainable and cooperative way.

2. Abandon offshore processing as this policy is incredibly costly and highly detrimental to the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers.

3. Redouble efforts to build regional cooperation on refugee protection and bring Asia Pacific states under United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to improve access to registration and status determination processes, broker durable solutions and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers have access to adequate services and support.

4. Ensure prompt access to permanent protection and offer all asylum seekers arriving in Australia, who are found to be refugees, permanent protection and the support they need to rebuild their lives in Australia and contribute to their new communities.

5. Commit to a sustainable model of community-based processing of asylum claims, which offer a far more humane and cost-effective approach than prolonged indefinite detention.

6. Maintain a timely and fair system of refugee status determination to ensure Australia complies with its international obligations.

7. Provide access to timely and realistic family reunion opportunities as tragically, many family members of refugees in Australia have been seriously harmed or killed in refugee situations overseas or have died while travelling by boat because they lacked access to safer pathways for family reunion.

8. Abandon policies which pit onshore protection against resettlement as resettlement needs outstrip available places by a factor of eight to one, and many refugees (particularly those who have no opportunity to formally register their status) simply do not have resettlement available to them as an option.

Source: UnitingJustice and the Refugee Council

Passion that’s beyond measure: Rev. John Jegasothy

As an asylum seeker who fled the violence and intimidation of Sri Lanka more than 20 years ago, Dr Rev. John Jegasothy knows first-hand what it truly means to seek refuge.

John and his family migrated to Australia in 1986 after nearly losing their youngest son in a cross-fire. Soon after arriving he joined the Uniting Church and started his ministry in Parkes. He spent the next 20 years serving a number of ministries across New South Wales. In 1996, something happened to John that would change his calling for ever.

John received a single phone call about a Tamil youth was being released into the community and had nowhere to go. Without giving it a moment’s thought, John took the young man into his family home and cared for him for the next six weeks, helping him find his feet and giving him all he needed to make a new start in life. From then on, this mission became his calling and life.

Since coming to Australia, John has worked tirelessly through the Church and has formed partnerships with individuals, families, community networks, human rights lawyers and organisations like Amnesty and STARTTS, (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) as well as advocating for asylum seekers and refugees.

To truly understand the depth of John’s commitment, you need to know a little of his history.

Back to the future

During the years 1981 to 1983, John worked to resettle displaced people in Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. He chaired the Human Rights group in the region and led the Tamil people there in advocacy for peace and justice. He demanded the Government stop the violence unleashed on Tamils, a decision that would eventually force him to flee his home country and, on humanitarian grounds, be accepted into Australia.

John settled his family in Australia and in 1996 heeded the call to mission among refuges in Australia and helped establish a Tamil Congregation in Dulwich Hill – the only one of its kind in the Synod of NSW and the ACT. He also initiated UnitingCare Refugee services in the Hurlstone Park-Dulwich Hill Church.

During this time, he worked relentlessly with people who needed help and support. He acted as their confidant and mentor, guiding them through anxiety and depression, and was there for them when they felt alienated by the system. He helped those on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) gain permanent residency, and offered training, advice and assistance with finding accommodation and employment.

John also started his ministry in a number of detention centres across Australia, including Christmas Island. Here he sat with detainees and listened to their stories and their struggles. He would then return home to write emails about what he’d learned and sent them to relevant departments. In all, John has helped more than 200 young men and women in detention settle in accommodation throughout Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1997, John was invited to join the Australian Council for Tamil Refuges in Vic . He started as a committee member but by 2002 had become President. He traversed the country speaking with churches, government organisations and industry bodies. During this time he also represented the Church, ACTR and the refugees in the Consortium of Tamil Associations NSW.

In the same year John joined the Asylum Seekers Interagency an organisation dedicated to offering information, support, assistance and advocacy for asylum seekers. He also became a member of the management committee of Friends of STARTTS. Once again, John found himself in the role President, where, with the help of TripleJ, he raised $350,000 to support young refugees.

Today, John is still an active advocate of asylum seekers and refugees. He’s been a pastor minister for the past 18 years and still makes weekly visits to the Villawood detention centre and is regularly on the phone with detainees in other centres. He continues his work with various refugee agencies and organisations, and acts as an adviser on policy. To list all that John has achieved would require an entire edition of Insights.

A conversation with Rev. John Jegasothy

“One of the things asylum seekers lose when they come here is trust. They trusted the people who wanted to get them out of the country; they trusted people smugglers who let them down by putting them in dangerous leaky boats and then treated them very harshly – denying them food, water and safety. They trusted the people who told them everything would be done for them and they would be looked after. And in every state, they were not looked after properly and they don’t trust anyone now”, states John.

“For the last six years I was in Sri Lanka, I worked with suffering people there, within internally displaced people, and I was chairman of the human rights organisation from 1981 to 1983. Then I became a target. I managed to escape and relocated but after the incident with my son, we realised we had to get out of Sri Lanka”, recalls John.

“I believe Australians are absolutely compassionate people. When the tsunami hit in 2004, Australia was the most compassionate country. I know of a 16-year-old girl who runs a program to get children out of detention. There are plenty examples of Australian’s being compassionate. But the political football has caused confusion among the Australian people.

“The political game is bringing a lot of confusion and people now feel that the two parties are becoming crueler just to get the votes. But we have signed the convention and have an obligation, and we are under an international law. We might have a migration law, but that shouldn’t clash with international law. And the very fact that this is a global phenomenon and every day 23,000 people are running away from their home. We take 20,000 people a year and we make a big fuss.

“I don’t believe people should get into boats, because I know how dangerous it is. Regionally, the countries must get together and sort out the problem and find out exactly where these people are and try to help them where they are.

We have the ability to resettle them in our country, because they can’t go back to their country or origin.

We should not see them as numbers but talk about refugees and asylum seekers for who they are. They are the ones who are the subjects, the ones that are vulnerable.

“There is a war going on between people smugglers and the government. I don’t disagree. The government can’t ignore the fact that these are real people. I take the people I help to forums because I want other people to see and speak with real refugees, and I keep telling the refugees, “Learn to love these guys, then you will accept them and trust them”.

“So long as we keep ‘strangers’ at a distance, we can always forget them and go to sleep at night.”

“For me, I do what I can do, because there’s no other option for me. It’s an imperative. I have to listen to the different drums. I can hear the different drums and I have to go.”

John kindly offered to share just a few stories of hope based on his experience with asylum seekers.

Mathanraj – doctor in the making

Mathanraj came as an asylum seeker fleeing from unfair detention and torture from the north of Sri Lanka, suspected of having connections with the militants. I stood by him in every step of his settlement, the refugee assessment process, his marriage, and studies where he excelled and became a graduate in Medical science. He now holds a position of responsibility in the work place and continues to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

My wife and I were the family for him during his Hindu wedding and I was his maternal uncle that stood by him at the marriage ceremony. Even after 12 years, to this day I am still his mentor and confidant. As a toddler, Mathanraj lost his father and while I can’t replace his father, I can be there for him like a father.

Pratheep – family man and entrepreneur

I looked after Pratheep from the time he was in detention. I personally saw to it that he had a successful operation on time, which otherwise could have claimed his life. He lost his father as a teenager so I have been a father to him. I helped him through the initial work and settlement when he came out of detention and now he is a big businessman in Australia married with three lovely children.

Subra – from detainee to doting dad

This young man, Subra, was about to deported from detention in 2000. With the help of a lawyer from Amnesty, I intervened and fought the battle with immigration. Eventually, Subra got his Temporary Protection Visa and later had it converted to Permanent Visa. Today he is a father of three children, married to his teenage sweet heart. The children call me grandfather and play mate at times, and we are in regular contact.

Rahman – pining for lost connections

The Afghan young man, Rahman, and his older brother fled their homeland after their father was taken by the Taliban. By the time I met Rahman and his older brother, during the Refugee Review Tribunal, their case was as good as lost. But with the help of my lawyer and a few advocates, we fought their case with all the evidence we could gather and managed to secure them both a Permanent Visa. While Rahman is now working and getting on with life, he constantly worries about his family who also fled the country. Rahman is in constant contact with me. When he faces medical problems or worries about his family, I am there for him.

Get the facts

Under Australia’s Humanitarian Program, 13,750 refugee and protection visas are granted each year (this increased to 20,000 in 2012-13).

In 2011-12, 13,759 visas were granted (6,718 under the offshore component and 7,041 under the onshore component). For the first time since 2002-03, the onshore component of the program outweighed the offshore component at 51.2% of the total program.

Almost half of the 14,415 people who applied for a visa under the onshore component had arrived in Australia by plane (7,036), while 7,379 had arrived by boat.

Under the onshore component, most visas went to people who arrived by boat (4,766), an increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, 2,272 visas were granted to people who arrived by plane.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Australia consistently ranks in the top three resettlement countries in the world, along with Canada and the United States of America.

*Figures sourced from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Annual Report (2011/12)

Helpful websites for further research

There is a vast number of resources that can help you better understand the plight of asylum seekers, the resources available to refugees, government policy and what we’re doing as a Church to help. Here is a starting point.

UnitingJustice: www.unitingjustice.org.au/

Department of Immigration and Citizenship: www. immi.gov.au/

UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR): https://unhcr.org.au/unhcr/

Refugee Council: www.refugeecouncil.org.au/

STARTTS: www.startts.org.au

Photography courtesy of UNHCR.

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