Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Do we really all share the responsibility for boat people deaths at sea?

There couldn't be a starker contrast in the messaging on refugees and migrants at the moment.

And no, I don't mean between the Liberals and Labor, who, for all the talk and attempts at product differentiation, seem to me to be pretty much on the same page.

I mean between the policies of most Governments around the world, and what the Pope and bishops are mostly saying.

But is either extreme really tenable?

Lampedusa, the Christmas Island of Italy

The Pope has been visiting the island of Lampedusa, the Christmas Island of Italy, and while there gave Westerners a blast for not caring sufficiently about refugees and would-be migrants, arguing that instead of embracing them as brothers, we are instead addicted to the culture of comfort.

We all, he claimed, bear responsibility for the deaths that have occurred at sea.

The Vatican Information Service reports that he told immigrants “The Church is at your side as you seek a more dignified life for yourselves and your families”.

He also sought to challenge the conscience of those who live in first world countries:

“This morning, in the light of God's Word which has just been proclaimed, I wish to offer some thoughts to challenge people's consciences, to lead them to reflection and a concrete change of heart”.

“'Adam, where are you?' This is the first question God poses to man after his sin. Adam lost his bearings, his place in creation because he thought he could be powerful, able to control everything, to be God. Harmony was lost, man errs and this error occurs over and over again also in relationships with others. The 'other' who is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply another person who disturbs our lives and our comfort. God asks a second question, 'Cain, where is your brother?'. The illusion of being powerful, of being as great as God, even of being God Himself, leads to a whole series of errors, a chain of death, even to the spilling of a brother's blood! God's two questions echo even today, as forcefully as ever. How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live … we do not take care of that which God created for all of us, and we are no longer capable even of looking after each other. And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed.

“'Where is your brother?' His blood cries out to me, says the Lord. This is not a question directed to others, it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us. These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they sought a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found only death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God! I recently listened to one of these brothers of ours. Before arriving here, he and the others were at the mercy of traffickers, people who exploit the poverty of others, people who live off the misery of others. How much these people have suffered! Some of them never made it here.

...“Today too, this question emerges forcefully: who is responsible for the blood of these, our brothers and sisters? Nobody! That is our answer: it isn't me, I don't have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: 'Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?'. Today no-one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters; we have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, perhaps we say to ourselves: 'poor soul...!', and then go on our way; it's not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalisation of indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others, it doesn't affect me; it doesn't concern me; it is none of my business. The globalisation of indifference makes us all 'unnamed', responsible yet nameless and faceless.

“'Adam, where are you?' 'Where is your brother?' These are the two questions which God asks at the dawn of human history, and which he also asks each man and woman in our own day, which he also asks us. But I would like us to ask a third question: 'Has any one of us wept because of this situation and others like it?' Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – 'suffering with' others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! In the Gospel we have heard the crying, the wailing, the great lamentation: 'Rachel weeps for her children… because they are no more'. Herod sowed death to protect his own comfort, his own soap bubble. And so it continues… Let us ask the Lord to remove the part of Herod that lurks in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this.

Back here in Australia...

In the statement on issues we should consider in the context of the upcoming Federal election, the Australian Bishops have stated that:

"Migration has played a prominent part in the development of the Catholic Church and has helped transform Australia into a vibrant, prosperous democracy. Sadly, millions of our sisters and brothers are forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution or through displacement because of war or famine. A small fraction of these people will seek to make Australia their new home. A smaller fraction again will come by boat.

We are called to treat strangers well and to welcome them. All asylum seekers, regardless of how they arrive in Australia, should have their claims processed in Australia according to international convention and as speedily as possible. We should end mandatory detention, especially for families with children and unaccompanied minors, so we can care for asylum seekers in the community.

Asylum seekers and refugees should have access to employment and government services, giving them the security they need to build a new life in Australia. Church bodies will continue to serve the needs of migrants and refugees, both in Australia and overseas."

None of those policies are reflected in the two major parties platforms.  In fact in the last week we've seen an escalation in the battle between the Liberal and Labor parties over who is toughest on would-be refugees arriving by boat.

Labor have been talking up the idea of a tougher test of who is a refugee, aimed at weeding out what it claims (without much evidence) are economic migrants, and working with Indonesia to develop yet another 'regional solution'.

The Liberals are still talking about towing back boats, even calling for the SAS to be used to do a repeat of the Tampa debacle (presumably hopefully with more effect this time around, since virtually all the Tampa refugees ended up in Australia...), and to help turn back the boats to Indonesia.  Opposition leader Tony Abbott even said he would accept responsibility for whatever happened, but that the Government should not give into what amounted to blackmail when asylum seekers threaten self-harm other action in order to avoid being taken back to Indonesia.

So yet another issue on which Mr Abbott looks at odds with the Church?

Church teaching

But do the Pope's comments really high level Magisterial teaching, or can we take another view?

One test is consistency with what has been said previously.

It is certainly true that the Church has always supported the right of people to leave their own country, to migrate, for whatever reason.

And it has always emphasized that refugees and migrants have a right to be treated with dignity.

That includes according them rights which both the Liberals and Labor want to deny them.

But that doesn't mean countries like Australia are bound to accept everyone who turns up at our borders.

In fact Pope Benedict XVI's 2011 message on World Migrant and Refugee Day said:

"At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity."

Reconciling Church teaching and Government policy

In reality, when it comes to economic migrants, Australia has a very good (indeed arguably too good a) story to tell - it is probably the most open country in the world, with arrivals of a staggering 534,900 migrants in the year to March 2013.

It has long been a major international contributor to the resettlement of refugees through its humanitarian program.

Australia is also a substantial international aid contributor.

Could we do more?  Sure.

St John the Baptist told the crowd, "The man who has two coats must share with the man who has none; and the man who has food to eat, must do the like."

But we can't possibly accommodate everyone who wants to come here, even if we restricted access to those prepared to get on to potentially death trap boats to do so.  Sure the numbers coming now are small compared to those in the US or Europe.  All the evidence is though that they could quickly become very large indeed though.

Abbott rhetoric aside, there are no easy answers to this problem, as the utter failure of the Gillard Government's Expert Panel recommendations, aimed at stopping people getting on boats, to have an impact have shown.  And while some thoughtful commentators such as John Menadue have welcomed the latest attempt at developing a regional solution as a positive way forward, we've heard such proposals touted before, and each time nothing substantive has come out of it.

In that light, I'm not terribly convinced by the Pope's argument that Australians all have to share the responsibility for what is ultimately an individual decision.

Fix the problem at the source!

To the extent that someone is to blame, surely it is the corrupt, incompetent and repressive Governments of the countries that make people want to leave in the first place that the finger should be pointed at.  And the Governments of countries that prop up or positively those regimes - and yes, that includes the US and Australia.

The Economist recently published an article arguing that in fact world poverty has halved in the last twenty years, as a result of economic growth.  Now I agree with those who take issues with their methodology and suggest it presents far too rose-tinted a view of both what has happened and why.  But it does make an important point.

Though we should certainly reject the culture of comfort and globalization of indifference, redistributing the wealth of the West and opening our borders is not the only, or even best, solution to the problem of mass migration flows.

Yet instead of seriously trying to do that, the US President is wandering around the world giving African nations lectures on gay rights, and arming extremists.  Instead of trying to build alliances with others to seriously engage with China on issues like its repressive and demographic time-bomb of a one child policy, Australia keeps quiet, in the interests of trade.

This is surely where the real rethink is needed.


Maureen said...

Ambivalent; well, actually, no, not at all: Genuine refugees yes, in accordance with United Nations policy, but on the other hand it is hard to remain charitable when my own cousin and her family had to wait for years and years in the queue to be accepted from Zimbabwe. This, despite the fact that her husband, a school Principal, was arrested and detained no less than three times while they were on the waiting list.

Kate Edwards said...

I think the problem with the 'genuine refugees' argument is how they get to Australia - aren't they mostly safe in third countries, albeit in less than happy circumstances?

Those who are in the country concerned are in a different situation.