After Sunday worship on the last day of National Refugee Week (June 23rd), the Justice and Mission group of the Ocean Grove congregation hosted a panel discussion on the experience of migration. The panel was moderated by Yvonne Hargrave, and included Shokoofeh Azar, Iranian journalist, artist, author and refugee; Nell Brethouwer, an immigrant from the Netherlands 64 years ago; Rev. Bob Thomas, an American who made Australia home in 1971, and a young Chinese person, whose identity will remain confidential, lest the person’s safety is compromised.
Very appropriately, the occasion coincided with a celebration of the birthday of the Uniting Church in Australia (the anniversary of Union, June 22, 1977), itself a celebration of bringing together different traditions, and from them, forming a united body, with the theme, unity in diversity.
As with the church, so too the nation; forged from the union of many cultures over many generations. Australia often has been the distant horizon for people of other nations, beyond which is imagined new opportunities, new challenges and, for refugees, the hope of a haven from oppression, poverty, abuse, disaster, hunger and war.
The panelists shared their experiences of moving from their homelands, the difficulty of leaving behind family, friends, jobs, customs and culture to move to what can seem like a strange land. Rev. Bob found the transition easier than the others because Australia is so similar to the United States where he grew up. The others all had to learn a new language, adjust to new customs, learn to eat different foods, etc., and there are aspects of culture that are still missed.
Except for Bob, the panelists did not make a totally free choice to come to Australia. For Ms. Azar, a journalist who had criticised the government, it was either leave Iran or face the direst of consequences. The other two panelists were driven by love, but none regrets living here now.
Bob raised the question of racism, recognising that his easy assimilation into Australian life might have been made more difficult had he been from Africa, the Middle East or Asia. The Chinese member of the panel reported such difficulties, but Ms. Azar has found ready acceptance by people; however, she thought this may have been because she lived and worked among writers, artists and other university educated people.
Mrs. Hargrave thanked the panel and all who came to listen, and then pointed out that Ms. Azar had written a historical novel set in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and copies were available to be purchased. Not just any book, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the Stella Prize last year and was a finalist in the Queensland Literary Awards. (In addition to availability from bookshops and online booksellers, an e-book version is readily available from Wild Dingo Press: www.wilddingopress.com.au)
Ms. Azar is only one out of many, many gifted, talented, hard-working, educated people who have come to Australia from overseas, and helped to build this nation. Unfortunately, there are many – far too many – people here who would deny to people in need the hope for a better life in Australia, especially to those who are not caucasian. It is not that such people are bad or uncaring, but they are fearful of what they might lose, and fear of the ‘other’ is the engine of racism. Such fears are exacerbated by the government and the media, and one very visible result is the indefinite incarceration of many refugees, including children, in concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island.
From a Christian perspective, any racism, and particularly Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is indefensible.* One of the major themes of Scripture is the hospitality of God’s people. (See https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/hospitality/). Of particular note, people often misunderstand the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to be God’s punishment of homosexuals; however, in fact, it was retribution for the radical inhospitality of the populace toward God’s messengers, compared to the hospitality offered by Lot and his family. When faced with Australia’s radical inhospitality toward asylum seekers, what defence can be offered in light of our offence against Scripture’s demand for hospitality?
One doesn’t have to be a Christian, or even a believer, to appreciate our guilt. From a common-sense justice perspective, how can anyone in Australia, except members of the indigenous population, dare deny entry to anyone else? Each one of us has either come to this country as an immigrant or is descended from someone who has immigrated. Furthermore, this land was stolen from the aboriginal population by the British, so how can any non-aboriginee, with any sense of morality, justice and fairness, try to exclude anyone else from coming here?
Those who approve of the government’s handling of ‘boat people’ cite the fact that this category of refugee is ‘illegal’, i.e. they are people who haven’t gone through proper channels, but it begs the question of who has authority to make the ‘proper channels’? The descendants of those who invaded the land in the first place?! Those who make the immigration laws are, for the most part, in this country only through the dumb luck of their birth. They did nothing to earn their Australian citizenship, so it is patently absurd for them to claim the authority to determine who will or will not be admitted to these shores.
Refugee opponents refer to the problems posed by unlimited immigration, such as stress on infrastructure or the cost of supporting new immigrants. Certainly, there are costs involved, and no one likes to pay higher taxes, but this is just a fact of life, and as we live in rich country, we can well afford it. However, the argument is ultimately irrelevant, because every economic analysis I have seen has demonstrated that, in the long run, immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take from it.
So-called ‘nationalists’ complain the Australian culture and way of life is threatened by immigration, but there has never been a static ‘Australian’ culture; rather, a continuously evolving one as new peoples have been added to the fold through immigration. The new arrivals bring their own customs, language, food, religion, music, etc. to be assimilated, continuously forming a new culture.
Of course, the government is fond of inciting fear of terrorists and unwanted criminals, but when one looks at the facts and figures *, one notices the migrant population (migrants plus their Australian born progeny) has a lower crime rate than that of the wider Australian population and, for all of the millions of recent immigrants and their progeny in this country, we haven’t found many to be terrorists. In fact, the worst acts of terrorism committed in this part of the world have been by white, anglo-Aussies, so it seems that one way to lower the overall crime rate quickly is to increase immigration.
* Aussie/New Zealand 63.29% of population, 73.43% of the criminal population
Other Ethnicities 36.71% of population 26.57% of the criminal population
I can imagine a table listing people in order of their ‘right’ to be here, and near the bottom of the list are those non-aboriginal people, making up two-thirds of the population, who have been born here. They have not chosen to be here. They didn’t make the courageous effort that immigrants have to make to give up their families, cultures and countries of origin, and actually choose to go to Australia.
I would put this group, which includes my children and grandchildren, next to last, because the only ones less deserving of a place in Australia are those that never wanted to come in the first place; English and Irish people who stole a loaf of bread or insulted a magistrate’s wife, and for their trouble, were sentenced to transportation to the antipodes. But as there haven’t been any of this category for a long, long time, the bottom belongs to those who have been born here.
Just above native-born Aussies are the so-called 10-pound Poms and other assisted migrants; the people who were invited by the government with offers of paid passage plus accomodation when they arrived. These people chose to accept a generous offer, and good on them, but it was not a great hardship to do so.
Then, at the next level, come people like this writer, who took a gamble, paid their way, and found the rewards they sought in the new land. In this group are the thousands and thousands of Greeks, Italians, and other European and American migrants who imagined a better life over the horizon, and made the effort to seek their fortune overseas.
We are getting close to the top of the list now, adding the people who spent all or most of their wealth, leaving everything behind, to dare the unknowns of a new culture, new language, etc, and risk their lives to get to Australia by any means possible; people seeking refuge from poverty, disease, war, oppression, abuse, famine, climate catastrophes, ethnic cleansing, et al. There are untold millions of such people in the world, but only the ones who have the requisite resources, courage and determination actually set off for Australia. Are not these the sort of qualities Australia wants and needs among it population? Surely, these are the ones who most deserve a place here. They’ve struggled for it; earned it.
On top of the list, of course, are the indigenous peoples of Australia, making up the oldest continuous culture in the world. They are the ones for whom the land has been part of their souls for 60,000 years. The rest of us are interlopers, and the vast majority of us are well down the list.
Of course, the above talk of ‘deserving’ a place in Australia is done with my ‘tongue’ firmly in my ‘cheek’, though not without moral foundation. The notion of ‘deserving’ is based on a flawed preconception. Human beings are all part of the same family, all of whom share the basic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, irrespective of where one happens to be born. The earth is our home, and each one of us should have the right to choose where we live on this planet, as long as we respect the basic rights of everyone else. National boundaries are the constructs of those who would deny this right for their own self-focussed purposes, and the existence of such artificial barriers is merely an example of the primitive state of human evolution. Surely, we can be better than this.
Bob Thomas, June 2019
- * There will be those who will argue that the internment of refugees is not racist, but a matter of ‘border protection’ or ‘national security’ or to ‘stop people smugglers’. Really? Can you imagine ‘boat people’ being sent to offshore concentration camps indefinitely had they been, say, white American refugees from Trumpland or Anglo-British people fleeing ‘Brexit’?