Bishops’ statement challenges politicians’ hard hearts

By Andrew Hamilton SJ – Eureka Street 09/09/15

The Australian Bishops’ 2015 – 16 Social Justice Statement on justice for refugees and asylum seekers comes at the right time. The image of the little boy who died in Turkey has stirred effective compassion in Europe for refugees, and has led Australia to increase the number of Syrian refugees it will take.

But the bishops’ statement is not likely to receive enthusiastic support. It advocates for people who have sought protection, not in Europe, but in Australia. Some 70 per cent of Australians, and presumably the same proportion of Catholics, agree that Australia must do what it takes to stop the boats.

The bishops are concerned with ‘what it takes’. Their statement describes and criticises strongly the way in which people who seek protection in Australia are vilified and treated.

The tone of the statement is set in its introductory quotation from Pope Francis’ sermon at Lampedusa. He went there to repent for the hard heartedness that led finally to the deaths of people seeking a humane life in Europe.

He focused on the people who made the journey and the people who responded to them. His tone was elegiac in focusing on the fate of people who sought protection, and uncompromising in deploring the hostility and rejection which they found. He encouraged his hearers to enter the experience of asylum seekers and allowed their outrage.

As you would expect in a statement directed to Australian Catholics, the bishops appeals to the Christian values embodied in the stories of Jesus and in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The statement embodies these principles in the experience of people who seek protection, beginning with the persecution they experience in their own nations, their flight to seek safety, the effects on them of prolonged detention, particularly on vulnerable people.

This exploration of experience invites its readers not to imagine people who seek asylum as a problem to be dealt with, but to see them as people like ourselves in need. Through this lens they criticise severely the way in which governments of both major parties have treated asylum seekers, sketches the outlines of a humane policy based on assessing their claims in Australia, and offers ways in which Catholics can express their compassion and can demand a better way.

The core argument of the Statement is that Australian policy treats living people as things. Their brutal treatment is a means to a policy end.

As a nation, we harm innocent people by detaining them, pushing back their boats and transferring them to other impoverished nations. We pretend that the pain and diminishment of one group of people, including children, is a justifiable price to pay for sending a message to others. This policy dishonours the human dignity of people who seek protection and denies the truth of their humanity.

In its uncompromising moral judgment the statement takes a hard approach to a hard issue. It will be accused by some of lacking rigour because it fails to take full account of the Australian reality.

This reality is that when people were able to find protection in Australia after arriving by boat, the number of the people who took to boats and died on them increased massively. This led to such popular hostility to on-shore asylum seekers that no political party can now hope to gain support if it does not stop the boats.

In this situation, the critics will say, general appeals for justice and compassion by Pope and bishops will do nothing for the people they represent. They must recognise the necessity to stop the boats and propose practical steps by which the policy can be made more humane.

This criticism is right in pointing to the need to work at ways of reducing the harm done to people by Australian policies. But the statement recognises also that efforts to change policy and to minimise harm will be ineffective as long as people regard them as enemies.

To support any alleviation of their treatment Australians will need to see asylum seekers as people with feelings and desires like their own, whose sufferings deserve sympathy and whose demonisation and ill-treatment merit outrage.

The last word can be left with a young man quoted in the statement: ‘It is our mistake we were born in this world. Everywhere we will be threatened. Even when we came to Australia there is also no mercy to look after us.’

To call for mercy and justice may not be enough. But to do so is still owed to the young man and his companions.