This #RefugeeWeek I have been in Toronto, Canada, for the North American Refugee Health Conference. This has been an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the challenges refugees face globally, and to be inspired by the strength and resilience of people from refugee backgrounds.
We heard from the Honourable Bob Rae, Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar. He explained that the displacement of populations, and the way a country responds to an inflow of displaced people, have deep roots in the politics of a country. This is a reminder for us of how important it is to raise our voices to influence the politics of our nation. We have the power and ability to love our neighbour by engaging with politics to help shape the way Australia treats people seeking safety.
Mr Rae asked a Rohingyan man what message he should take back to his Prime Minister. This man’s reply: ‘Tell them we’re human’. This chilling statement is a call to action for all of us. The dehumanisation of people seeking safety, through years of damaging rhetoric and cruel policy, has distorted and hidden the image of God and the dignity of people forced from their homes in search of safety. Together, let’s answer the call to ‘tell them we’re human’ and raise our voices for the humane treatment of people seeking safety.
We listened to a mother’s story of how her and her children were held captive by ISIS for over two years. They were eventually freed and found refuge in Canada, but sadly she does not know the fate of her husband. When asked what kept her hope alive during those excruciating years of daily violence and oppression, she answered, ‘I will do anything to save my children.’
People seeking safety are extremely vulnerable, not only within the home country they are fleeing but during their journeys to find safety. During the conference, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) reported on their work in Central America. They explained that sexual violence against women seeking safety is so prevalent that their staff are being asked for contraceptives, as a way for these women to regain even the slightest sense of control over their circumstances. Foreigners or sojourners have faced extreme vulnerability at the whim of their new country since biblical times. It is no surprise that God includes foreigners in what is sometimes referred to as ‘the quartet of the vulnerable’; people groups which God warns us against oppressing:
This is what the Lord Almighty said:
"Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other." Zechariah 7:9-10
Following the conference, I visited a local church, where the service emphasised that God is good and Jesus offers all people good news. This was a message I needed to hear after a few days discussing the injustices faced by people seeking safety.
Throughout the conference I felt a deep sense of shame to be Australian. Repeatedly, as I introduced myself as Australian, my new North American friends would exclaim, ‘Oh! Your treatment of refugees is even worse than ours!’ I heard one North American presenter confess as a physician, he has treated a patient who was detained on Manus Island, who now suffers from PTSD and ongoing nightmares, because of the treatment he received in the care of Australia. A friend made a comment that unfortunately this man is not alone; many of those who have experienced our offshore policies continue to suffer significant mental distress and anger because of Australia’s oppressive policies. I feel deep sadness that Australia’s treatment of our refugee neighbours cannot be said to be good, in the way that our God is good. We oppress the foreigner despite God’s clear warnings. I am forced to reflect on what I personally can do, to mirror to my neighbours a God who offers love, good news and the invitation for all to come and drink from the water of life without price.
This #RefugeeWeek we at Common Grace want to love our neighbours by raising our voice. Please add your voice to our call for our newly elected Government to evacuate immediately Manus Island and Nauru, and to safely resettle all people held under offshore processing policy. If you would like to learn more about Australia’s policies please check out our resources here.
Ebony Birchall is a lawyer who specialises in complex public interest litigation. She was part of the team who represented the people detained on Manus Island in what became Australia’s largest human rights class action. She is in the final year of her Ph.D. in human rights law, and is a member of Common Grace’s Justice for People Seeking Asylum team.