Australia has played maritime billiards with these human beings, potting them into holes where, the government hopes, they will be out of Australia’s sight, and out of Australia’s mind.
This past week I have been looking at photograph after photograph of Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people, most of them looking desperate, emaciated, ill. Some have made it to shore in Malaysia and been taken to detention centres. Thousands more remain at sea, abandoned by the smugglers who were crewing the ships, and refused permission to disembark by the three countries within immediate proximity: Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has accused these countries of playing “maritime ping-pong with human beings”.
Meanwhile, Australia has admitted to turning boats back to Indonesia, and has placed itself at risk of violating international norms by recently returning Vietnamese and Sri Lankan asylum seekers to the countries where they claim to be suffering persecution, without giving these people due process. Asylum seekers who made it here before turn-backs began continue to languish in offshore processing centres, with no hope of being settled in Australia. Australia has played maritime billiards with these human beings, potting them into holes where, the government hopes, they will be out of Australia’s sight, and out of Australia’s mind.
JRS is prone to saying that our key way of working with asylum seekers and refugees is that of accompaniment. What this expresses is solidarity, that central idea of Catholic Social Teaching that is rooted in the belief that God so loved humanity that the Divine became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. The least, the last, and the littlest in the reckoning of society are nevertheless bound to God by this irrevocable act of solidarity. If we refuse to regard asylum seekers as our brothers and sisters, we refuse also to be part of God’s family. Pope Francis repeatedly laments “the profound lack of fraternity” and “the absence of a culture of solidarity” in the world today. Our selfishness condemns others to death; but it also condemns us to a more devastating annihilation, from which there may be no return.
Our supporters and volunteers were extraordinarily generous in 2014, partly I think because you wanted to say unambiguously that the Australian government’s cruel and inhumane policies do not represent how you feel about asylum seekers. As the year ended, and JRS prepared to find better ways to accompany a greater number of asylum seekers through our new centre in Parramatta, Arrupe Place, I could not help thinking that our solidarity with asylum seekers was a kind of graceful dance, hand holding hand, step matching step, leading us into closer fraternity with one another, and with the God who is the Lord of the Dance.
Aloysious Mowe SJ, Director JRS Australia