Over the next couple of weeks I will blog regularly on Australian refugee policy, in order to explain how it works, and to offer scrutiny in light of scripture. These blogs are prompted by the Rudd Government’s recent decision to remove all asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores by boat, to Papua New Guinea, and also to deny all of these people any chance of being settled in Australia.
In this first blog I address the disingenuous rhetoric surrounding this recent decision. (In future blogs I will explain and scrutinise the policy itself, yet untangling the rhetoric surrounding the decision is probably the most helpful place to start.)
I argue here that a number of the given motivations for the new policy announced on Friday, July 19th, are not genuine (then I will turn to scripture to conclude). Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has used fine humanitarian rhetoric: ‘The sight of asylum seekers being exploited by people smugglers is appalling.’ And: ‘The bottom line is that we have to protect lives by dealing robustly with people smugglers.’ And: ‘Australians have had enough of seeing asylum seekers dying in the waters… They have had enough of people smugglers profiting from death.’
Yet there are good reasons to think that these stated motivations are not genuine. First, as Erin Wilson has recently pointed out, refugees arriving by boat are often fleeing life-threatening situations, and may make a decision that risking death on a boat trip to Australia is better than risking death by remaining in their country of origin. True care for these people is to provide them with a home.
Second, Erin Wilson has pointed out that the Government has funded offshore detention centres with money originally earmarked as aid for developing nations—to the tune of three billion dollars over four years. This seems inconsistent with the Government’s stated goal to preserve human life.
Third, all asylum seekers arriving by boat will be sent to PNG. Yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has recently expressed seven serious reservations regarding the suitability of PNG as a place suitable for asylum seekers, in a letter to Chris Bowen, former Minister for Immigration. This includes concern over the level of human security in PNG, that PNG has not party to the UN convention against torture, that there is no legal framework concerning refugees, and that there are no immigration officers able to undertake status determination.
Fourth, regional pathways to refugee status are very limited in the Asia-Pacific, and genuine efforts to care for refugees will prioritize collaboration between nations in order to provide reliable and consistent access to processing and settlement. A Government that genuinely desires to care for refugees will prioritize such constructive collaboration. Such efforts will of course reduce the number of people arriving by boats.
And now to scripture: what are we to think of this disingenuous rhetoric? Across cultures, it is common for powerful people to cloak injustice with rhetoric of righteousness. Such ‘righteous’ rhetoric disarms critique—and vulnerable people may be left helpless. Yet the third commandment forbids this kind of dishonesty:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain (Deuteronomy 5:11).
The third command extends beyond improper use of God’s name to improper use of God’s authority—and it includes pretending that unrighteousness actually has God’s approval. The prophet Isaiah observes the elite in his time attempting to sanctify evil with ‘righteous’ rhetoric:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Isaiah 5:20).
Scripture roundly condemns the disingenuous rhetoric surrounding this new policy regarding asylum seekers.
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Blogs and articles in this series (Australian asylum seeker policy, Aug-Sept, 2013):
Laws of Inclusion and Strategies of Exclusion: New Australian Asylum Seeker Policy Under the Scrutiny of Deuteronomy, published with CASE magazine.
Loving the Stranger, published with the Centre for Public Christianity.
The PNG solution and Biblical Ethics, published with Eternity Newspaper.
 Erin Wilson, “That They May Have Life,” n.p. [cited July 17 2013]. Online: http://publicchristianity.org/library/that-they-may-have-life#.UejKGr_Ibs3.
 Antonio Guterres, n.p. Online: http://unhcr.org.au/unhcr/images/121009%20response%20to%20minister%20on%20png.pdf.
 Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 68-69.