Refugee Week is an annual call to action. For our nation, sadly, it also confronts us with shame. At our College Assembly this week, I shared the following with the boys:
I always enjoy our College Assemblies. But I feel a certain dispiritedness here today at this Refugee Week Assembly. Do you know why that might be? In the seven years I have been speaking at such assemblies, the national sin of our treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers is unchanged and is still before us. Still scarring us. Still shaming us.
Monash University, in Melbourne, maintains what is called the Australian Border Deaths Data Base. It records all known deaths associated with Australia’s borders since the year 2000. Leaving aside the almost 2,000 individual asylum-seekers who have died at sea, the database records those who have died in our so-called care, in offshore detention in Nauru or on Manus Island, or onshore detention centres in Australia, or in the community awaiting slow uncertain futures on temporary protection visas, or awaiting/experiencing extradition. They died non-accidental deaths. They died of infections or diseases or conditions that they shouldn’t have – sometimes deprived of very simple and standard medical procedures. Or they took their lives in desperation. There are thirty-seven such deaths. The youngest was only nineteen. The last one happened only two weeks ago. In addition, Monash records that fourteen men, women and children were documented as tortured and killed after forced return from our care to their country of origin, to Afghanistan, Iran and China, from which they had fled. All together, thirty-three lives lost. Thirty-three. Who would ever have thought our nation would come to this? And why has it come to this?
In the years following 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam war’s end, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled their homeland, setting out in overcrowded and inadequate boats into the South China Sea, most becoming victims of storms and/or marauding pirates. One third of them drowned, starved, or were murdered at sea.
Those were the years when Australia had a heart. When we could sing those words of our national anthem, “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share” – like we do at our Assemblies – and really mean it. When politicians of all political parties and persuasions welcomed tens and tens of thousands of refugees – gave them a new hope, a new start, a new life.
Today let me invite you to consider another line in that same anthem: “with courage let us all combine to advance Australia fair”. Yes, we do need courage these troubling days. Moral courage. We need some daring (as our school motto asks of us). And we need to make Australia fair. A just nation. A people of decency and humanity. So let’s dare to stand up for what Australians have always known as “a fair go”. Dare to look beyond the scare-mongering and self-interest of public opinion. Dare to challenge those voices of creeping nationalism. God knows we need to.
I offer you two gospel images. Two ways of responding by two different characters: Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Remember when Jesus, innocent, was dragged before Pilate, how Pilate washed his hands of responsibility when public opinion moved against him, when he shirked his principles, when he cowered. Then remember how Jesus had earlier washed the feet of his friends, showing what real care and leadership was all about. Right now, and then beyond this current refugee crisis, life will present us the option of serving and responding to others inclusively, or looking only to ourselves and excluding others. So, will it be “me, myself and I” – or “my brother’s keeper”. This is the choice. The choice between washing another’s feet, or washing our hands of someone else’s troubles. Whom do we want to live as? Whom do we want to be remembered as? Will we be a Jesus or a Pilate to the other?
A respected French Jesuit educator last century, Fr François Charmot, observed that Jesuit education is about the development of conscience and character and this is inevitably about the critique of culture. The critique of culture. Always testing and challenging the prevailing culture to promote what St Ignatius identifies as “the Good Spirit”. In terms of the political expediency of our present asylum-seeker policy, we are living in a dark and death-dealing culture. So let’s recognize it for what it is – it is what Ignatius labels “the Bad Spirit”. Let’s be daring enough to critique it. And let’s be resolved enough to change it.
It is time to shed ourselves of our shame.