What are the limits of our generosity?

A drawing by a detained child that was submitted to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014.

A drawing by a detained child that was submitted to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014.

“It seems to me that this instance of the moral turpitude of Australian political culture is based on the fact that a large number of Australians simply do not care what their governments do to asylum seekers, as long as they are prevented from arriving here by boat.”

Just before Christmas last year, the United States Senate Select Intelligence Committee released its report on the C.I.A.’s Detention and Interrogation Program, and its use of torture on detainees between 2002 and 2006. Among the report’s key findings was the fact that the brutality of the torture and the harshness of the detention regime went beyond what the C.I.A. had reported to policy-makers (in other words, the C.I.A. deliberately misled its Senate overseers); that the C.I.A.’s claims for the effectiveness of torture to obtain information that was vital for national security were inaccurate and unfounded; that the torture regime had damaged the standing of the United States, and resulted in significant costs, monetary and otherwise; that personnel were rarely reprimanded or held accountable for violations, inappropriate activities, and systematic and individual management failures.

The Intelligence Committee, while chaired by a Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, was bipartisan, and the report was endorsed by John McCain, the Republican Senator who was also the presidential candidate who lost against Barack Obama in 2008. Nevertheless, prominent Republicans attacked its findings, with present Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, characterising it as “ideologically motivated and distorted”. The Senate Republican Whip, John Cornyn, said that torture had saved American lives, and that “Senate Democrats should thank these brave men and women who worked to protect us – not vilify them”.

It was with a sense of déjà vu therefore that I heard the responses of the Australian government to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on children in immigration detention, The Forgotten Children. The findings of the Commission’s experts were stark and unequivocal: prolonged and mandatory detention of asylum seeker children in the last ten years, under both Labor and Coalition governments, has resulted in “significant mental and physical illness, and developmental delays, in breach of Australia’s international obligations”.

The Coalition government has not responded to the substance of the report. Instead it chose to attack the Commission and wholly reject the report. Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the report as “a transparent stitch-up”, and a “blatantly partisan politicised exercise”, and then suggested, in an eerie echo of Senator Cornyn’s remarks about C.I.A. torture, that instead of condemning the cruel treatment of children, the Commission “should be writing congratulating letters to the former minister for Immigration and Border Protection”. Meanwhile, Labor’s response was to defend offshore processing and the sending of asylum seekers children in Nauru.

How is it that the two main political parties can continue to defend a policy of mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seeker children, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the harm that this policy visits upon children? It seems to me that this instance of the moral turpitude of Australian political culture is based on the fact that a large number of Australians simply do not care what their governments do to asylum seekers, as long as they are prevented from arriving here by boat. In a functioning democracy, we get the government we deserve.

I have never trusted the argument that “stopping the boats”, however cruel the means, whatever the number of children harmed by being detained and sent to offshore centres, is justified because it “saves lives” by stopping people from drowning at sea. If we truly believe this, we would be creating alternative and safer ways for asylum seekers to come to this country: special visa arrangements in source countries, and higher settlement rates in transit countries, to name just the two more obvious pathways. Both the Coalition and Labor have used the “saving lives” argument as a cynical fig-leaf to cover the shameful truth: they do not want asylum seekers to come here in large numbers, whatever the need, however bad the humanitarian crisis.

Some weeks ago I received a letter from a supporter of JRS essentially accusing me of advocating for unlimited numbers of asylum seekers to come to Australia. Implicit in that accusation was the idea that there is a point at which we cannot financially sustain the support of asylum seekers and refugees; and that it makes clear economic and social sense to limit the numbers seeking to come, given the massive refugee crisis in the world today. It is an argument that underpins the indifference and antagonism towards boat arrivals that are now so pervasive in Australia.

The only riposte I have to that argument is an unapologetically Christian one: what are the limits on our generosity, and what are we willing to forego so that those more vulnerable than us may thrive? I write, as it happens, on Ash Wednesday, the start of our annual Lenten observance, when once again we are invited to reflect in prayer and re-enact in ritual the central mystery of the Christian story: that God’s love for us is so great that he became like us, as vulnerable as we are; and that he lived that vulnerability to the point of great suffering and death for our sake.

When it comes to asylum seekers, what would it mean for us in Australia to give until it hurts? If everything in the gospel tells us that we should not cling to our comforts and riches when others are in need, what then is God telling us to do when faced with asylum seekers coming to our shores?

Australia’s response should shame us. Its treatment of asylum seeker children demands a reckoning. If those in government who perpetrated these cruelties do not acknowledge the mistakes made, and if Australia allows those responsible to act with impunity, then this country puts itself in danger of losing its soul, just as so many in public office act and speak so as to appear already to have lost theirs. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world…?”

Aloysious Mowe SJ

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