The parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible (Luke, chapter 10) has become common place and almost clichéd in Christian conversations about the current Australian Government’s increasingly cold-hearted and abusive responses to asylum seekers. Christian conversations in the public space about this issue matter because the Minister for Immigration has made much of his Christian faith over the years (his first speech to the Parliament is worth a read). The Samaritan, of course, stopped to help a Jewish man (a traditional enemy) who was robbed, beaten and left by the side of the road to die. Two Jewish priests had already crossed the road to avoid the beaten man. We can confidently assume that the priests crossed the road because they deemed it not in their interest to stop and help. It was a foreigner, an outsider, who provided the care that was needed.
Last week, the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, in a flagrant move to circumvent the rule of law, announced that he would personally be assessing every request for permanent protection by an asylum seeker or refugee and make his decision against ‘a national interest test’. This test is set negatively, that is, the conditions describe what will not be deemed in the national interest. Those conditions include not doing anything that would: send a signal to people smugglers that they can still advertise potentially good results from the use of their services; negatively affect our relationships with our partners in the region; undermine the confidence we all have in the Government’s resolve to force ‘an orderly’ system into being and protect our borders; or been seen to reward people who don’t follow the rules.
It is disheartening to say the least, that in the context of our humanitarian program and our obligations under the Refugees Convention to protect people regardless of their mode of arrival, there is nothing positively framed in this ‘national interest’ test.
I’ve been working as a refugee advocate on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia for over 12 years. In terms of public policy reform, it has been consistently frustrating and all too often demoralising. I have watched the progressive demonisation of asylum seekers who come by boat by both the Liberal and Labor parties for the purpose of base political gain and seen how the political rhetoric of ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and border security have hardened the hearts of so many Australians. The militarisation of our response to what is a humanitarian problem has proved incredibly popular. It is unlikely that this latest move will raise a ripple among most voters. It must be said, however, that this explication of the ‘national interest’ is profoundly impoverished at best and at worst morally bankrupt.
I don’t agree with, but I understand the classic neoliberal economic ideology that underpins the Abbott’s Government’s approach to every area of public policy. I do not understand what continues to drive Mr Morrison to increasingly creatively cruel responses to asylum seekers who come by boat; and I do not understand how the tests for permanent protection he is now relying on can possibly be in the national interest.
It is not in the national interest to create a society in which people’s hearts are so hardened to the needs of those (relatively few by global standards) who come to us seeking care and protection. A robust, fair, efficient and transparent refugee status determination system, open to independent and judicial review, would identify those who do not have these needs. An approach which recognised the reality of the situations from which people are fleeing could inspire the growth of an outward-looking nation, making seriously hard-working and positive contributions to the development of peace in our world. Surely that would be in the national interest!
It is not in the national interest for a country’s citizens to be supportive of policies deliberately designed to punish and break people. These policies are causing life-long harm to vulnerable, powerless people. There are too many ways for asylum seekers fleeing torture and persecution to die, including the tragedy of dying on a leaky boat but this Government can no longer claim that it is primarily concerned about saving people. Sending Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka without proper consideration of their protection claim risks their lives in just as real ways as people smugglers do. For asylum seekers kept captive in our detention centres and especially the horrendously harsh prison camps of Manus Island and Nauru, the slow, agonising torture they are suffering will, for many of them, affect the rest of their lives. And we have already seen the violent death of one man and the critical and permanent injuries done to others as a direct result of the abusive conditions of entirely unsuitable locations. Surely it would be in the national interest to be a society which responded with generosity and hospitality to those who knock on our door, especially the needy uninvited.
It is not in the national interest for Australia to be regarded in the region as a bully who can buy its way out of the international and moral responsibilities it has, shifting what is a small ‘problem’ for us, onto the poorest, most insecure countries around us. Australia’s international relationships have already been damaged. What would be in Australia’s national interest would be to start turning this around with a show of good faith such as dramatically increasing (not reducing) our refugee resettlement intake from the region and working cooperatively with other countries to find long-term durable solutions that focus on protection and uphold people’s human rights rather than abusing them.
It is also not in the national interest for such secrecy on the part of a democratically elected Government about how it’s implementing its policies. It is in the national interest for our governments to be open, transparent and accountable to the people they are elected to serve.
Quite some time ago, I stopped expecting that our asylum seeker policies couldn’t get any worse but with the potential deliberate refoulement of Tamil asylum seekers and this new definition of the national interest surely we must be close to hitting rock bottom.
Elenie Poulos is the National Director of Uniting Justice Australia, the national policy and advocacy unit of the Uniting Church. She is an ordained minister of the Uniting Church.