Ebony Birchall, lawyer and member of our Justice for People Seeking Asylum team, calls us to raise our voices for the humane treatment of people seeking safety this #RefugeeWeek.
When refugee families are settled in Australian communities, one of the challenges they face is finding accommodation without any rental history.
Back in 2012, a bunch of Christians from Perth came up with a creative way to make the love of Jesus practical in addressing this challenge. They called it the First Home Project. Their vision was to crowdfund their mortgage for a home with refugee families in the suburbs of Perth, to share a common life as they settle into Australia, helping them develop a rental history while being welcomed and accepted by the local community.
When news broke last week that nearly 100 men and women would be losing their income support and accommodation after seeking asylum in Australia and being allowed to live in Australian communities, we spoke to Jarrod McKenna from First Home Project about how we as Christians can respond.
Jarrod, how has First Home Project responded to this news?
First Home Project – like many in the sector – feel that this move exposes what we already know, that the Australian Government is engaging in a bizarre level of cruelty to punish people seeking safety on our shores. This has consistently been their strategy for ending people seeking asylum in Australia.
What is First Home Project looking to do in response?
In each state there are key groups working with those who are exposed by this welfare cut. In WA we are working with CARAD (Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees) and have accommodation to some of those affected (you can find out who is working in your state by looking here). Every organisation will need extra financial support to help respond to offer the care and help that will be needed. We are in conversations and will wait to see what First Home Project can do to help.
What do you imagine will happen from here?
I think we need to prepare for the government to not back down. We need to immediately consider how the Australian community can support these people. Many organisations and churches have already offered care. Further to that, it might be that we will need to protect these refugees from deportation should the government make moves to forcibly remove these people. And that’s why I think the ‘Sanctuary’ movement is so important.
Tell us about Sanctuary?
Sanctuary is an ancient practice in the church that provides a refuge for people needing safety. If activated, offering Sanctuary would protect someone against the immediate prospect of deportation back to Nauru or Manus, a place where previous abuse and harm has occurred.
Last year when this group were threatened with deportation, many churches invoked the concept of sanctuary and it had a profound effect, highlighting that the Australian community was not in full agreement with the government’s plans. Similarly Doctors at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital also refused to release one baby due for deportation to Nauru until the government allowed her family to live in the the Australian community. Five State Premiers also spoke out calling for the group to be given permission to stay in Australia. As a result the Australian Government backed down on its plan to deport the entire cohort to Nauru.
Sanctuary is a prophetic sign. It highlights that there are Australians who want no part in this cruelty and who can imagine a more compassionate society that welcomes those in need of safety. First Home Project is built on the vision of offering the compassion of Christ and showing there are alternatives to the cruelty of offshore detention. Similarly, Sanctuary is another way of making visible, of embodying God’s new world. How will people know another way is possible if we don’t show it?
What can people do in response?
As Dorothy Day says, “No one has the right to sit around feeling powerless, there is too much work to do.” I was deeply moved by seeing a man on Manus island, himself a refugee, giving the little he had to help those who have had all safety nets removed. First Home Project came about because enough people wanted to back our vision of a living alternative to the cruelty, God’s love made practical and concrete for friends who are refugees. Most people are learning now that what is happening on Manus & Nauru is horrific, as is the cutting off all support for our friends who need compassion. There are a number of ways to help:
- we can donate to those showing hospitality,
- we can offer employment opportunities (this is a huge need),
- we can train and organise to join the sanctuary movement, getting our church involved,
- and we can engage our political representatives and say ‘bring them here’, ‘end offshore detention’ and ‘let’s be a place that shows welcome’. So far over 500 Common Grace members have written to their MPs, I’d encourage you to do that too here.
Cruelty cannot sustain itself. The current strategy of offshore detention cannot continue forever. Not if, but when it falls, we must be ready with humane alternatives, that reflect the dignity of all people, to be adopted. It’s time for Australia to again be a leader in compassion, instead of a leader cruelty. Our response to those seeking asylum on our shores should reflect the true character of what we want to be as a nation and the church’s witness today must be a prophetic sign to that compassionate future.