St Joseph’s Parish Social Justice Group was upset by negative Australian attitudes to asylum seekers and decided to do something practical in support of people in this situation.
Meetings with other community groups were set up and, as a result, the group is responsible for housing and maintaining a young couple, Aliyah and Amak, fleeing with their two children from religious and civil violence in Iraq. They arrived in Australia legally and applied for asylum in this country. Their initial application was rejected and they are now waiting for their appeal to be heard.
In some ways their plight is more difficult than the plight of the detainees. At least the latter are housed, fed and given medical attention, whereas this couple cannot apply for work, are not eligible for any benefits and are totally dependent on welfare organisations for the necessities of life. So naturally the young family are very grateful for what is being done to help them.
Some people in Australia are not concerned with the plight of detainees. Do you agree with them?
The following scenario allows you to explore the viewpoints of a range of different people.
Finding The Facts
UN Declaration of Human Rights
We might begin by checking the rights of people suffering under oppressive regimes. Refer to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 is especially relevant here.
Our next task ought to be to make sure we are aware of the actual status of Aliyah and Amak. Are they ‘illegal immigrants’? If so, does that mean they have broken the law and should be immediately deported? Are they ‘asylum seekers’ on temporary visas? Are asylum seekers the same as refugees? The Refugee Council of Australia site will be helpful in sorting out the facts about the status of Aliyah and Amak. It offers good material with which to explore this issue. See also the Edmund Rice Centre site which tackles some of the ‘myths’ about asylum seekers.
To explore something of the situation they are fleeing, we could click on a Human Rights status reports on world trouble spots to understand the situation they are fleeing. This site offers a chilling list of the numbers of refugees round the world and names the current trouble spots.
We could then look at one of the organisations that support people such as Aliyah and Amak, like the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project. This site outlines the many ways the Brigidine community is addressing the needs of asylum seekers in Melbourne while providing up to date news and events where people can get involved. Or you could look up the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and discover the limitations on asylum seekers seeking freedom within the Australian community.
A brief Wikipedia summary outlines the history of mandatory detention in Australia while a document from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship entitled Managing the Border conveys the Government’s attitude to those seeking refuge in Australia.Both parties in recent years have been embroiled in controversy over their policy of dealing with asylum seekers. The Liberal government under Mr Tony Abbot is embroiled in controversy over both the policy of off-shore processing of asylum seekers and the situation in detention centres operated by Australian employed agencies.
A key point of those who argue for a punitive approach to asylum seekers and refugees is that it will discourage people from making life-threatening trips in open boats and also discourage people smugglers who exploit other peoples’ desperation for gain.
Meanwhile the position of immigrants on temporary visas remains largely unchanged. We might want to consider the point of view of Fr Frank Brennan about an ethical way forward in the way Australia treats refugees.
- To deepen enquiry into the facts of this difficult topic try the Think, Puzzle Explore thinking routine.
- What makes you say that? is another useful technique for examining claims.
- What is the origin of this issue? Why do countries resist welcoming refugees?
Reviewing philosophical attitudes to the refugee, to strangers and to those who are sick may be a valuable exercise in helping us to come to a humane, ethical response to the problems of these members of our society who are at its fringes.
A brief and ‘angry’ article by Malaika Finkelstein, entitled ‘Acts of God: The Deserving Poor and Everyone Else‘ asks some pertinent questions about exactly who deserves our sympathy and help. Some of these angry questions are examined in a more measured way in an article by John Ozolins, Head of the National School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University. Ozolins analyses the popular argument that boat people do not deserve sanctuary in Australia because they are ‘queue jumpers’ who are taking the law into their own hands and displacing other, more worthy, immigrants.
Though this article is some dated his categories and synthesis of the issues is worth scrutiny.
Can compassion form a basis for morality in relation to both the situation of refugees and the ill on the fringes of our own society.?
- Who deserves our compassion, and why? How is it that we easily overlook some kinds of suffering but are deeply moved by others?
Exploring Sacred Texts
The history of Israel detailed in the Old Testament is one interlaced with the Jewish sense of being a people in exile, searching for a homeland. It is, at heart, a story of the possession and dispossession of a land.
A significant part of our heritage are the gospels of Jesus Christ. Turning its pages in an effort to clarify our responses to dispossessed people, we might note that, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus and his family were themselves refugees in a foreign land in Jesus’ childhood.
Gospel of Matthew
The Bible, as a whole, is a manifesto of the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings. The gospels are full of stories of Christ’s compassion towards the sick and outcast, and his teaching is consistent on the principle of love and forgiveness. Christian ethics take us beyond the ‘sensible’ duty of caring for family, friends, kin and those who are worthy of our love and support. We might re-read Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matthew 22:34–40, to understand just how radical Jesus’ teaching is concerning the treatment of others. In another extract from Matthew’s Gospel we might reflect on how the followers of Christ are to be judged is also based on their actual responses to those in need.
The Last Judgement in Matthew Ch 25, is also pertinent to the topic of Refugees.
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
Over the centuries the Church has endeavoured to put into practice the teachings of Christ. For a long time the Church was primarily responsible for aspects of human care and endeavour – hospitals, schools, work guilds, universities and so on – that are now primarily the province of the State. In Australia the Church is still the largest non-government provider of health care and education, and as such continues to have a strong voice in matters of social justice and policy.
Bishop Chris Saunder’s statement Refugee Policy- ‘A campaign of cruelty’ is especially relevant.
Teaching on human rights has been an important part of the Church’s public advocacy, so we might refer to a Theology Library that holds some important Church statements on human rights, among them a 1998 Pastoral Letter of the Australian Catholic Bishops. The recent writings of Pope Francis continually promotes his favored theme of ‘mercying’ that the Church should strive to offer those in need. We could also refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding its teachings on immigration and refugees (#1911 and #2241).
Many proclamations of Saint John Paul II encourage openness to refugees while the Australian Catholic & Refugee Office site provides the Catholic position on refugees and offers resources and a downloadable pdf pamphlet that can encourage discussion in a class.
- What does the social teaching of the Church suggest about a Christian attitude to refugees and migrants?
- According to UN figures, at the end of 2013 there were approximately 45.2 million refugees/displaced persons in the world. Assess current Australian Government practice against the affirmations outlined in the Church’s Charter of Rights of Displaced Persons.
- Since the Catholic Tradition has had an exemplary role in caring for the needy in many countries over many decades what is the urgent role it should play in the current debate?
Current Catholic Context
The Syrian Crisis: The Catholic Response
Australian Catholic Social Justice Council
Watch the Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops
Explore the following releases from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference:
Read and explore ‘Archbishop speaks to refugees and asylum seekers’
Read and explore Archbishop Hart’s letter ‘Responding as a nation and at parish level to the needs of asylum seekers’
Read and explore Frank Brennan’s article The inviolable inherent dignity of Aylan Kurdi
Frank Brennan speak about ‘What I Believe’: Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 5 September 2015.
Caritas: Syria Crisis
Think about the Syrian Crisis as you view the PowerPoint ‘Stand with Syria’ created by Caritas.
The ongoing crisis in Syria is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. March 2015 marked the fourth anniversary of the crisis.
Explore what Caritas has to say:
Create your response and join with Caritas:
PRAY for Syria
MORE FOR TEACHERS
Prayer for Syria PowerPoint
More Education Resources from Caritas including a Stand with Syria event kit
More on Migrants and Refugees
Church Without Frontiers, Mother to All
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference have produced this resource Church Without Frontiers in response to the 101st World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office have included the voices from Holy Father Pope Frances and Bishop Vincent Long. This resource also includes 20 years of Migration Policy in Australia.
Bishop Vincent Long OFM
Bishop Vincent Long was a ‘boat person’ who came to Australia as a refugee from Vietnam. This transcript and accompanying interview provides a moving account of how this experience has shaped his faith life.
Australian Catholic Communications Congress
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference have created two documents below based on refuguees and aid to facilitate understanding of these issues through focused discussion, education and questioning. The purpose was to listen to what might be stumbling blocks to communicating the Church’s messages on these hot media topics. A one-page flyer has been prepared about each issue stating the Church’s position, current messaging and resources.
Respecting Other World Views
The paper ‘Buddhists and Human Rights‘ by Robert Traer discusses whether an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow human beings arises from the Buddhist concept of ‘dharma’ and whether, within Buddhism, human nature rather than human rights is central.
Damien Keown’s longer article ‘Are there Human Rights in Buddhism?‘ explores this is more detail, making the point that, while the concept of human rights has not been explicit in Buddhism, it is implicitly understood.
‘Human Rights – Knots and Webs‘ by the editor of Hinduism Today is sharply critical of the assumption that all cultures need to accept the concept of human rights as understood in the West. In the same magazine, the article ‘Human Rights – A Primer‘ by Dr Kusumita Pedersen is much more positive about the notion, and calls on all the major religions to embrace and give moral support to the cause of human rights.
The Institute of Islamic Information and Education website contains an article ‘Human Rights in Islam‘ that locates the origins of human rights in the will and plan of God rather than in human statutes (referring to the UN Declaration of Human Rights) and sets out the rights of human beings in an Islamic State. In an article entitled ‘Are Human Rights Compatible with Islam?‘, Riffat Hassan discusses especially the issue of women’s rights within Muslim communities. Finally, a Harvard review essay entitled ‘Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion‘ by Amartya Sen draws attention to the diversity of opinions within both Eastern and Western culture on the question of human rights.
- On what grounds do some thinkers from other religious traditions have reservations about the notion of human rights?
- Is there any broad agreement across different religions as to the response demanded for the refugee issue? What are the specific differences in approach that the religions display?
Examining Personal Experience
Members of the social justice group might reflect on their own immigrant antecedents – the motivations and impulses that caused their parents, grandparents and great grandparents to leave their homelands and come to Australia. They might also think of difficulties faced by mentally ill friends or relatives, and the stigma and lack of community support generally available to people who suffer mental illness. Having explored some of the thinking behind the issues and reviewed their own attitudes to the variety of difficulties that place people on the fringes of society, they should be in a better position to respond to questions about their priorities.
After going through the process with members of the social justice group of establishing their response, identify and articulate your own response.
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience.