Wednesday, July 11, 2012
By Julian Burnside
Tony Abbott says that boat people are “un-Christian” for coming to Australia the way they do.
Specifically, he said:“I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door. … I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way. … If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.”
It is not surprising that Mr Abbott has a view about the moral dimension of refugee issues. It is entirely appropriate that he should consider the matter from the perspective of Christian teaching, given that he trained for the priesthood. I would go so far as to say that more politicians should pay attention to the moral implications of the policies they have to determine.
What is striking is that Mr Abbott could get the matter so spectacularly wrong, both as to the facts and as to the moral equation.First: the facts. Mr Abbott should know that there is no queue when you run for your life. The recent execution of an Afghan woman by the Taliban (another example of a very well-established pattern) gives some idea of why people seek asylum. A significant proportion of boat-people in the past 15 years have been Afghan Hazaras fleeing the Taliban. If an Afghan were to embrace Mr Abbott’s scruples and look for a queue, the obvious place would be the Australian Embassy in Kabul. The Department of Foreign Affairs website informs us:“The Australian Embassy in Kabul operates from a number of locations that are not publicly disclosed due to security reasons. The Australian Embassy in Kabul has no visa function.”
So where is the queue?
Leave aside that the location of the Australian Embassy is a secret, the larger point is that refugee flows are always untidy. The idea that desperate people will conduct themselves as if waiting for a bus to take them to the shops is not only ludicrous, it reveals a complete lack of empathy, or even understanding, of why refugees flee for safety in the first place.
As it happens, more than 90 per cent of boat-people who have arrived in Australia in the past 15 years have been accepted, eventually, as genuine refugees. Mr Abbott should understand this: it means that they are people to whom we owe a duty of protection according to our own laws, and according to the obligations we voluntarily undertook when we signed the Refugees Convention.Second: the moral question. Mr Abbott should know, better than most politicians, that the Christian doctrine he claims to understand and espouse emphasises the message of welcoming and protecting the stranger. The parable of the Good Samaritan is just one example. Nowhere in Christian teaching (and nowhere in any moral code) is the message of kindness to strangers qualified by reference to their method of arrival.
From time immemorial, victims of persecution have fled for safety. It is usually untidy. The flight of Jews from Europe in the 1930s is an obvious example, and one which should focus our minds on the need for a response which is informed by moral learning rather than by political opportunism.
And how is it that it is “the wrong thing” to do whatever you can to try and save yourself and your family? What bizarre twist of reasoning makes it wrong to do whatever is necessary to save your family? Perhaps Mr Abbott needs to watch The Sound of Music again: the von Trapp family were refugees; the nuns were people smugglers; they did what they could to help the von Trapps through the back door.Third: the dog whistle component. Many politicians here and overseas have found it easy and expedient to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment in recent years, just as it was easy, in earlier times, to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment.
It can hardly have escaped Mr Abbott’s attention that a significant number of boat-people in recent years have been Muslims. It is inconceivable that he failed to notice that some people, hearing his comments about boat-people being “un-Christian”, would have understood him as criticizing boat-people because they are Muslim, not Christian. It is a sad reflection of the depths to which political debate has fallen in this country that an avowed Christian could stoop to such shabby tactics.Finally: A question for Mr Abbott. Imagine, just for a minute, that you are a Hazara from Afghanistan. You have fled the Taliban; you have arrived in Indonesia, where you will be jailed if you are found; you can’t work, and you can’t send your kids to school. You will have to wait between 10 and 20 years before some country offers to resettle you. But you have a chance of getting on a boat and heading for safety in Australia. What will you do?
I know I would get on a boat; I know that most Australians would get on a boat. I imagine that Tony Abbott would get on a boat.
I challenge Tony Abbott to answer this question directly and honestly: What would you do, Mr Abbott, if you were in their shoes?
If Mr Abbott answers this question, we can take another look at his criticism of boat-people as “un-Christian”.
If he is not willing to answer it, then we have a fourth reason to disregard his criticism of boat-people.
Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian Barrister and an advocate for human rights and fair treatment of refugees. He tweets @JulianBurnside.