26 January, 2011

You Know It Makes Sense

The cantankerous presence of Sam Kekovich on my television screen can only mean two things: that my sister’s incessant channel surfing has rendered yet another ad-break and that Australia Day is once again upon us. But for a date set aside to garnish our plates with lamb and our cheeks with temporary symbols of patriotism, the old anniversary of this nation’s federation cops a bit of flak. Some would prefer that we label this celebration Invasion Day, while others would choose not to observe its festivities at all. There are those who possess a most passionate retort to either of these suggestions and still some remain in quiet apathy, content to enjoy just another public holiday. Whatever your opinion on the matter, it seems that much of the rambunctious rhetoric that surrounds our national holiday involves issues of Indigenous Rights… I would contend that we need to get some things straight about this country.

For over two hundred years this nation has systemically subjugated an entire race of people. Guilty of cultural genocide, state sanctioned discrimination, and unspeakable human rights violations, the indigent population of Australia have suffered immeasurable oppression. However, the greatest injustice in which we participate today is that of silence. There seems to be some universal understanding that if we don’t talk about the skeletons in our closet, if we simply ignore the tragedy of our own history there will be no need to take responsibility for it. And so we tell ourselves with every measure of self deception that it wasn’t us, that it isn’t us. And yet injustice prevails. Even today, Aboriginal communities across the nation lack adequate healthcare, affordable housing, and equal opportunity to education and employment. This is the reality of a people dispossessed and subjugated to point of cultural extinction.

But what is our response to such a systemic issue?

Well some people declare that they were born in Australia and as such have just as much right to live here. To these individuals I would like to highlight that no one is asking you to leave. Others believe that Aboriginals are completely entitled to a degree of reconciliation so long as it does not inconvenience anyone. And there are those who would suggest that having apologized, Indigenous Australians simply need to construct some manner of proverbial viaduct that they might somehow “get over it.”

But the consequences of our collecting history would suggest that saying sorry simply isn’t enough. The victimization of Aboriginal Australia is generational; this would suggest the prevalence of such oppression is generational also. It seems then, that this nation needs to embrace a spirit of reconciliation. I don’t mean the practice of recognizing the original owners of this land to appease some sense of political correctness, and I’m not talking about flying both the Australian and Aboriginal flag (this distinction alone highlights my point) to avail those few bothersome voices that whine about equality. While these aren’t bad places to start, the reconciliation I speak of is a restorative justice that seeks to heal the wounds of our past.

It’s not enough to say sorry; we have to be sorry.

Reconciling this nation must be a collaborative activity. On the one hand, Indigenous Australia will need to come prepared to forgive the abhorrent injustices of the past. But on the other, (and most importantly of all) the rest of this country must come repentant and self-effacing, willing to embrace our fear of change and take responsibility for the past. When this begins to happen, not through hollow gesture but with humble hearts, then our two peoples might come together and forge a united future for this country

Maybe then we can celebrate a new Australia Day; one that commemorates the federation of all of Australia.

You know it makes sense!

Eli Koops

24 January, 2011

A Heart that Beats for Justice

Inscribed over a period of two thousand years, the greatest curiosity of the Bible lies not simply in its antiquity but in the notion that a library so perfectly cohesive could have been produced by such a variety of individuals, over a period of time which staggers the imagination. Composed in times of war and in days of peace – by kings, physicians, tax collectors, farmers, fishermen, singers, and shepherds – such diversity is only eclipsed by a single prevailing discourse.


Beginning with the creation of time and space the Bible is quick to declare that man is made in the image God; an assertion which is almost immediately followed by the fall. This magnificent juxtaposition isn’t simply a compelling narrative device but brilliantly highlights humanities two greatest inheritances. The first, that we are each a reflection of our creator, representing His glory and righteousness on earth. And the second, that we are each condemned to our fractured states as a consequence of sin. Put simply: when we peel back the layers of culture, class, religion, political affiliation, race, gender and football team we find that at the very core of our humanity, we are fundamentally the same. We are each special, yet depraved. When our theology is grounded in such an understanding of equality, the intrinsic message of the Bible becomes considerably simpler to comprehend. Love God, Love People.

Choosing not to wash His hands of that which He created God ever so faithfully invites humanity into relationship with Himself… again. He offers a covenant, first to the Patriarchs of Israel and then to the burgeoning nation itself. The terms of this divine contract were simple: immeasurable blessing in exchange for unwavering devotion. To help these fallen and fractured individuals hold up their end of the bargain God even graced them with a rulebook; the guide for living a good life. What Israel failed to understand however, is that the purpose of the Law was not legalism but compassion. God understood all too well the depth of humanities greatest flaws and thus sought not to oppress Israel with punitive regulation but to liberate His people with a message of justice. The fundamental theme of the Law was simple; Love God, Love People.

Israel however, missed the point completely. There were those who caged the Law in bureaucracy for fear of breaking a single command, while others would simply disregard its authority completely. As a consequence, this mighty nation eventually fell from power and was condemned to centuries without peace. Though even in the hands of foreign kings, God’s enduring fidelity did not abandon Israel. In the midst of war and exile, God poured out His spirit on remarkable individuals who would challenge culture and bring a gospel of hope. Their message was a simple reiteration of the Law; to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God. Over and over again, these incredible characters would sacrifice their reputations, their aspirations, and eventually their lives to reaffirm the very purpose of our existence; to love God, and love people.

It quickly became clear however, that humanity was incapable of maintaining the righteousness bestowed upon them by their covenant with God. The Creator would therefore wrap Himself in the fabric of His own creation and accomplish that which we could not. So over two thousand years ago, in the most humble yet precise of circumstances, Jesus was born into the world bearing a gospel of hope. This message was not prolific or innovative, it was present at the moment of creation, and yet it was so radically transforming that it literally tore history in two.

The message was simple: Love God, Love People.

The difference: Jesus lived it, perfectly and indelibly.

His remarkable existence and subsequent sacrifice, not only fulfilled the Law, but afforded all of humanity a personal and intimate relationship with God. No longer was our righteousness a product of deed or preservation, for it was now a gift of grace. All we have to do is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Hey, now that sounds familiar!)

The story of the Bible is shaped by a prevailing sense of justice; its pages are littered with two great loves. When we as God’s people can truly comprehend this extraordinary gospel, when we actually understand its implications and are prepared for the cost, when we then affirm it through our actions, then we begin to live as God intended. Because to truly love God and to truly love others… well now that’s justice.

"I can't stand your religious meetings.
I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That's what I want. That's all I want.”
Amos 5:21-24

04 January, 2011

Getting Some Facts Straight about Asylum Seekers

With the recent news about boat people in such places as the South Australian town of Woodside, one tends to come across misconceptions about asylum-seekers to Australia.

So it’s time to correct some of them.

But first, how does Australia compare to other countries in terms of how many refugees it takes? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2009 Global Trends report ranked Australia at 47th in the number of refugees under the UNHCR mandate hosted from 2005 to 2009. For the same time period, Australia ranked 68th on a per capita basis and 91st in regards to national wealth. According to the same report, for 2009 Australia ranked 33rd in the number of applications for asylum received, 41st on a per capita basis in 71st in regards to Gross Domestic Product.

Now, onto clearing up these misconceptions.

Firstly, it is sometimes claimed that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat do so illegally, when in fact this is not the case. According to Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is “a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” The UNHCR further defines an asylum-seeker as someone coming to a country claiming refugee status, whose claim is yet to be, or is in the process of being, verified. The term does not imply the validity or invalidity of the person’s refugee claim.

The Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, also reads, “Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.” Asylum-seekers who stop at transit countries en route to the country in which they seek asylum are also covered by Article 31, as the 1999 UNHCR Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers reads, “The expression “coming directly” in Article 31(1) [of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees], covers the situation of a person who enters the country in which asylum is sought directly from the country of origin, or from another country where his protection, safety and security could not be assured. It is understood that this term also covers a person who transits an intermediate country for a short period of time without having applied for, or received, asylum there.

No strict time limit can be applied to the concept “coming directly” and each case must be judged on its merits. Similarly, given the special situation of asylum-seekers, in particular the effects of trauma, language problems, lack of information, previous experiences which often result in a suspicion of those in authority, feelings of insecurity, and the fact that these and other circumstances may vary enormously from one asylum-seeker to another, there is no time limit which can be mechanically applied or associated with the expression “without delay”. The expression “good cause”, requires a consideration of the circumstances under which the asylum-seeker fled. The term “asylum-seeker” in these guidelines applies to those whose claims are being considered under an admissibility or pre-screening procedure as well as those who are being considered under refugee status determination procedures. It also includes those exercising their right to seek judicial and/or administrative review of their asylum request.”

The same Guidelines also say that detention of asylum-seekers is “inherently undesirable” and should only be done “in cases of necessity”. Detention of asylum-seekers “must comply not only with the applicable national law, but with Article 31 of the Convention and international law” and “must be exercised in a non-discriminatory manner and must be subject to judicial or administrative review to ensure that it continues to be necessary in the circumstances, with the possibility of release where no grounds for its continuation exist.” Alternatives to detention “should be applied first, unless there is evidence to suggest that such an alternative will not be effective in the individual case”.

It is sometimes claimed that asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia and then claim asylum are jumping the queue ahead of asylum-seekers who are waiting patiently in refugee camps overseas. This is also a misconception. Australia’s refugee intake is comprised of an “on-shore” component and an “off-shore” component. The “on-shore” component is comprised of people who travel to Australia, via such methods as aeroplane or boat, and claim asylum when they arrive. The “off-shore” component is comprised of people who wait in UNHCR refugee camps abroad to be chosen and settled in other countries.

It used to be the case that Australia’s off-shore and on-shore refugee intakes comprised two separate quota systems, with neither one affecting the other. Thus, hypothetically, if a refugee were able to access an UNHCR camp but instead chose to come to Australia and claim asylum, he/she would be easing the load on the UNHCR camp by not adding themselves to it. However, in 1996 the Australian Government, under Prime Minister John Howard, combined the on-shore and off-shore refugee intake quotas. This is not the fault of the asylum-seekers. Rather, it is the fault of the government.

Also, the off-shore refugee intake system does not work like a queue. It does not work on a first-come-first-served basis. Rather, it works more like applying for a job, or waiting in the waiting room of a hospital to be treated. Each year, Australia chooses whom it considers the most suitable for settlement into Australia out of those waiting in the UNHCR camps. Thus, a refugee who arrived later than another refugee may be the one chosen out of the two to be allowed to settle in Australia.

To be resettled in Australia via the off-shore program a refugee must either be referred by the UNHCR or sponsored by somebody already living in Australia.

According to Afghan refugee Abdul Karim Hekmat, “The so-called ''queue'' in which asylum seekers wait for an orderly process in a third country is a myth. “In Pakistan, where I spent some time as a refugee, the UNHCR accepted hardly any applications. Hekmat also writes that the reason why many people do not apply to Australian consulates is that, “Australian posts overseas do not accept direct applications from a refugee applicant.” Furthermore, “many with extended family members who tried to sponsor their families were not successful through the normal process. Some of those who came by boat have exhausted all other possibilities.”

To be referred by the UNHCR a refugee must be able to register with it. Unfortunately, for many this is too dangerous or is impossible. Some countries refuse to allow the UNHCR to register refugees. While in Indonesia in 2001, en route to Australia, Hekmat “heard stories of asylum-seekers who had stayed for years, in shelters provided by the International Organization for Migration, but their applications were not processed”.

Australia does not have many foreign posts near any of the regions of the world from where refugees flee, and many of those posts that do exist have problems of under-staffing, under-resourcing and bribery.

According to the UNHCR, in 2008 less than one per cent of all of the world’s refugees were resettled.

Amnesty International tells us that not all of the nations next to the ones from which the asylum-seekers are fleeing are signatories to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, some of the countries persecute the asylum-seekers, and some are unable to offer the protection required.

When asylum-seekers started to arrive in Australia by boat from Sri Lanka, some people asked why they did not just go to India. According to Amnesty International, there are several reasons why they go to Australia instead of India. Firstly, sailing to India from Sri Lanka would risk attack from the Sri Lankan navy under the pretence of fighting the Tamil Tigers. Secondly, while the government of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu provides registered adult Sri Lankan refugees with food and 800 rupees per month, the Indian government is unwilling to offer Sri Lankan refugees permanent residency or a long-term solution, and Tamil refugees in India have no rights or real chance of getting rights via citizenship. Thirdly, the refugee camps in India are extremely substandard. Finally, India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, and under Indian law the government has the right to force all foreigners to “reside in a particular place”, restrict their movements and penalise those trying to help them escape.

If an asylum-seeker arrives without identification documents it does not mean his/her asylum claim is invalid or that he/he is trying to hide criminal backgrounds. It can be too dangerous to apply for and/or have identifying documents. Having and/or applying for such identifiers as a passport or visa can put the asylum-seekers in danger of the very regimes they are fleeing.

In 2009, Opposition backbencher Wilson Tuckey claimed the chances of there being terrorists aboard asylum-seeker boats travelling to Australia was about “two or three to one”. Prime Minister of the time Kevin Rudd responded by describing Tuckey’s comments as “deeply divisive, disgusting remarks” that “do not belong in any mainstream political party” and called for the Opposition leader of the time, Malcolm Turnbull, to withdraw Tuckey’s preselection. Senior lecturer in international relations at Australian National University Dr Michael McKinley responded to Tuckey’s remarks by pointing out that all asylum-seekers in Australia undergo ASIO security checks and “that most of the terrorists are home-grown”. McKinley described the chances of terrorists arriving at Australia by boat was “infinitesimally small”.

Asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are also subjected to health checks. Under Australia’s migration program, visa applicants also must undergo health checks.

Asylum-seekers who travel to Australia by boat often pay people smugglers for the journey. It is often erroneously claimed that people smuggling is a crime. In fact, under international law, people smuggling per se is not a crime. Rather, people smuggling for profit is a crime.

Article 3a of the United Nations Protocol Against The Smuggling of Migrants By Land, Sea, and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime defines “smuggling of migrants” as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or permanent resident”. According to Savitri Taylor, senior lecturer at LaTrobe University’s School of Law, “the reference to a profit motive was included in order to ensure that those assisting migrants or asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds or on the basis of close family ties would not be caught by the Protocol’s provisions”.

By definition, Oskar Schindler, Dietrich Bonheoffer and the Underground Railroad were people-smugglers.

Under international law, hiring a people smuggler is not illegal. Article 5 of the United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air reads “Migrants shall not become liable to criminal prosecution under this Protocol for the fact of having been the object of for-profit people smuggling.” The Protocol calls on state parties to provide humane treatment to the migrants being smuggled, and also reinforces the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Hopefully this article will have cleared up any misconceptions readers may have had about asylum-seekers, and will equip them to clear up the same misconceptions that other people may have.

By Matt Buckley