A Time To Stand Up and Be Counted

On 2 February 2016, a number of prominent Anglican leaders in Australia announced that they would offer sanctuary to asylum seekers. I must admit when I heard that, I immediately thought of the dramatic scene in The Hunchback of Note Dame, where Quasimodo swoops in to save Esmerelda from the flames, retreats to the cathedral and solemnly yells “Sanctuary!”

But what the Anglican Church in Australia (‘the Church’) has done is far less last-minute, melodramatic romance and much more thoughtful political protest. To invoke the medieval concept and practice of providing individuals with sanctuary from the state authorities is a significant and meaningful play by the Church. It may go a far way in re-asserting their moral authority on the left. It will mean something quite different for the right.

I.      BACKGROUND

Successive Australian governments have pursued a policy of off-shore detention for asylum seekers. I’m not going to wade in at all as the debate is more complex than people would like – but I will give you a brief outline of the facts leading up to the sanctuary proclamation.

Two hundred and sixty-seven refugees (including thirty-seven infants) are facing deportation from the Australian mainland to the Pacific Island of Nauru. The government classes them as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. The High Court dismissed an application by one of the refugees and decided that the government’s actions are lawful (read a summary here).

SIDENOTE

If I can editorialise here briefly, it is important for people to recognise that the judges of High Court are not necessarily agreeing with virtues of the policy. They are not sending the refugees away. That is not their place. They are simply deciding whether the government is acting lawfully in their decision to deport the plaintiff.

II.    TIMELINE

  • 2 February: the Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt, publicly declared that his cathedral would offer sanctuary (read here)
  • 3 February: the High Court of Australia upholds the Federal Government’s decision to send the refugees back to Nauru 
  • 6 February: Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and NSW Premier Mike Baird all offer assistance and care for the refugees. 
  • 8 February: Mass rallies across Australia unified by the message of #LetThemStay
  • 16 February: NZ offers to resettle the refugees (under the auspices of an accord between the Key and Gillard governments in 2013)
Rally at St George's Cathedral Perth. Photo by: Aisha Novakovich

Rally at St George's Cathedral Perth. Photo by: Aisha Novakovich

III.  INTERVIEW 

I interviewed the Dean of Perth, the Very Reverend Richard Pengelley (full disclosure, Richard is a mentor and friend of mine). I interviewed Richard as the whole play fascinated me. I wanted to better understand the motivation, practicalities and the hope behind making this politically dangerous declaration.

Richard had just sent me several photos from the rally at St George’s cathedral a couple of days prior. We started talking about the rally and how they had one of the refugees on the phone, over the speakers, talking to masses who had gathered in their support. Richard told me that the refugees were currently held a home detention centre near an airport. This meant, that while the offer to provide sanctuary is real, it is unlikely that it could be practically taken up by the refugees. They can’t just leave their current situation. If they did manage to practically claim sanctuary and forces were brought to take them into custody, Richard said he would offer non-violent protest.

One of the things that struck me was when Richard explained that the refugees are very self-conscious about upsetting the government. Imagine going through what they have gone through and being concerned about the government being perturbed. I mean, I get that they might be concerned from a self-interested, let’s not bite the hand that feeds perspective, but it still seems remarkable that they would be worried about upsetting the government. That’s stayed with me.

I wanted to know more about how these kinds of decisions are made. Like practically, who decided to make the offer of sanctuary? Richard explained that he and Chapter made the decision. Chapter functions similar to a board or government council. The decision was morally unanimous.

But this didn’t mean everyone was on board with Richard’s stance as Dean. Richard told me that a few people left during his sermon when he announced and explained his decision. Members of the public were calling his office to vociferously complain about the Church’s position. Perhaps one of the most intriguing points in the interview occurred when Richard explained one of the people who disagreed with the decision.

This dissenting individual was an emergency telephone responder during the Christmas Island boat crash disaster in 2010. To this person, any measure to stop the boats was morally justifiable decision. Richard felt he had to respect his decision, although he may not agree with it.  I can see why.

But for Richard the time had come to stand up and be counted as a Christian leader. To him, history has given us countless examples of morally justifiable, no morally required, civil disobedience – from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Civil disobedience is compelled by the inconsistency between morals and laws and Richard views the government policy towards refugees as reprehensible. He cited the fact that some of the children in off-shore detention facilities exhibited some of the highest PTSD that an independent inspector had ever seen in children. Richard tells me that suicides and self-harm are rife in these facilities. 

More than the contemporary historical examples of morally righteous individuals, Richard is compelled by the heart and mind of Christ. To him, there is absolute clarity that Jesus would not condone this treatment of refugees. If you pause, pray or reflect, there is no way Jesus would send refugees back, Richard told me. Historically, there is a great Jewish tradition of welcoming the nomad going back to the time of Moses. One must offer and also receive hospitality. Theologically, Jesus radicalised this notion by associating and delighting with the marginalised, the disaffected, the ‘other’.

On a more personal level, Richard himself is what he called a ‘privileged migrant’. So I suppose this draws Richard closer to the issue. It is not as abstract as it is for some of us. It is also personal for Richard as he is now a public face for this decision. His family is nervous about this. But, as Richard said, there is a time to stand up and be counted.

Often people on the Left are labelled as unrealistic and are accused of constantly failing to offer pragmatic solutions. So I was keen to investigate if Richard had thought of alterative ways and means to process refugees. For Richard, the best short term outcome is for the refugees to be accommodated and processed in Australia. In the longer term, the refugees policy must change. He believes that we need to humanely process refugees, still deciding who comes, but in a way which is not so utterly cruel. We cannot condone a policy which directly creates a sub-industry where cruelty is rife. 

Obviously Richard doesn’t have a White Paper which contains an ideal solution and spells out a specific 100-point action plan. But there is an appreciation that the government still needs to process and decide on who enters. This isn’t a bleeding heart lefty with a crazy plan to completely open the borders.

The Reports

During the interview, when Richard was explaining the moral outrage over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, he mentioned the Australian Human Rights Commission Report into the conditions at Nauru (read here) and how this has been ridiculed by the government. When I read the report, it did cause me to pause. To seriously reflect on how we had got to this place. It is a difficult area no doubt, but surely there is answer which doesn’t lead to severe trauma for children. I mean, maybe there is not…but surely.

Some further context, the Senate established the unimaginatively named Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru. This report stated that: The committee is nevertheless of the overall view that the present conditions and circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre on Nauru are not adequate, appropriate or safe for the asylum seekers detained there.” You can read the full report here.

To be even-handed, it is important to note that progress has been made. The Commission welcomed the release of several hundred children from immigration detention facilities, the removal of all children from Christmas Island, the establishment of a Child Protection Panel and the greater scrutiny of the consequences of Australia’s policies of third country processing and mandatory immigration detention. You can read more here. The Commission did go to call the Government to immediately act to remove the 174 children still in immigration detention in Australia and Nauru.

IV.  Conclusion

I didn’t get this article out as quickly as I hoped. I wanted to release this during the #letthemstay movement and while there was currency in the press. But I am happy that it did take me a while. I think the public should be steadily considering these issues and not fluctuating into movements of outrage and apathy. Perhaps I’m just rationalising my delay. But maybe there is something in returning to issues when they aren’t hot or sharply defined.

Issues of immigration and treatment of refugees are only going to become increasingly important for governments across the world. It is important we take the time to work out a humane and proper way to address this phenomenon. And while the media often like to focus on the proponents of hatred and exclusions (viz. Donald Drumpf), I believe it is ennobling and right to look at examples of inclusion and humanity. And while we might not agree on the best way forward, we should all agree this debate should be measured and properly considered.