21 February, 2011

Monkey Swap Mayhem

When I was in primary school there was always a great emphasis placed on the daily ritual of lining up for class. While the simple activity of forming a queue was our teacher’s only means of achieving a modicum of structure among an otherwise rambunctious group of sixth graders, the apparent arrangement of the aforementioned queue also held a measure of significance for the students. You see, managing to get to the front of the line generally afforded an individual the advantage of being able to sit in their preferred seat. Though the benefit may appear inconsequential, many children perceived their relative position to both the chalkboard and their friends to be a serious matter and would thus devise ways of achieving their ideal location.

The most common tactic employed was referred to as the ‘monkey swap’. This maneuver allowed an individual to graciously let another person in front of them only to immediately have the favor returned. The result was a less than subtle exploit of the unwritten laws of Queuing Theory which managed to inconvenience everyone else waiting in line without troubling the individual who decided to allow their friend to cut in. Now to a group of young children who were consistently being taught the significance of sequential gathering this was never perceived as a fair transaction. Yet it was important for us to learn that our opinion of society isn’t the only one that matters.

The notion of a queue is a western invention that represents our opinion of civility and our desire to create order out of the perceived chaos of the natural world. It appeals to our noble, yet often misguided sense of fairness. In most parts of the world however, that vast portion of the globe that isn’t informed by Hellenistic philosophy, there is little understanding of what it means to “wait your turn.” This does not make these cultures primitive or less enlightened; it is simply a different way in which we might perceive and relate to the world around us.

Yet however we inevitably structure society, the concept of a queue does not accord with the reality of the asylum process.

There are currently an estimated 42 million people worldwide who have been forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution. This figure represents many different types of refugees, including those in protracted exile, stateless individuals, as well as internally displaced people. Yet as it stands, less than an approximate 900,000 refugees are actually registered with the United Nations as seeking asylum. It is clear therefore, that the number of asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR does not reflect the magnitude of individuals in need of resettlement.

Furthermore, asylum claims made to the UNHCR do not represent any order to those who face situations of displacement. To clarify, refugees who are currently registered with the United Nations are not necessarily those in the most danger, nor do they necessarily represent those who have been waiting for resettlement the longest. The only distinction between those who have lodged a claim for asylum and those who have not, is simply their ability to do so.

Take protracted refugees for example. These are individuals have been in exile for more than five years with limited hope of finding a solution in the near future. While they make up almost 25% of the worlds displaced people, a lack of administrative resources and the effects of considerable political instability means that very few are actually registered with the UNHCR. Meanwhile, almost 80,000 claims for asylum have been lodged in the past 24 months by refugees uprooted by conflict in the Middle East. Asylum claims are therefore no indication of who has been “waiting the longest.”

Further suggestions claim that Irregular Maritime Arrivals cause a delay in the resettlement of offshore refugees. Again this represents a flawed understanding of the asylum process. The administrations of onshore and offshore asylum claims are independent processes that rely on completely separate infrastructure. Therefore, Australia’s ability to manage internal applications for asylum has no effect on the administration of the UNHCR to refer asylum claims to signatory countries nor does it have any significant effect on the 80,000 resettlements each year.

It should also be noted that refugee’s do not in fact have the right to be resettled, nor is there any obligation by signatory countries to resettle asylum seekers, it is purely a voluntary process. However, according to international law every individual has the right to seek asylum and obtain protection. Refugee resettlement therefore compliments and is in no way a substitute for the provision of protection for people who apply to a signatory country for asylum under the United Nations Convention for the Status of Refugees.

While it becomes quite evident that the asylum process is not indicative of a queue, the most appropriate question we must ask ourselves is how might we respond to this issue as individuals who espouse a message of justice?

It is of course difficult to ignore the multitude of scripture that addresses the matter. For example, Leviticus tells us that “when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt.” This message is consistently reiterated through the ministry of Jesus who encourages us to "love your neighbor" and “offer shelter to the poor wanderer.” While these references are specific in nature, they represent the fundamental call of scripture; a call for justice. So it would seem our response must be two fold.

First to challenge a cultural ignorance toward oppression and to reshape societies flawed understanding of asylum seekers. An example we often face is that many people possess an irrational yet somewhat understandable fear that there will not be enough resources to support an increase in refugee intake. This is simply not true. If we as a nation are willing to wholly embrace those seeking asylum in our country then the adaptable nature of our social structure will inevitable integrate these individuals into our economy.

For example; If we have more people, we need to build more houses, grow more food, create more energy, and develop more infrastructure. However, for each of these processes we also need more workers: such as builders, farmers, engineers, teachers, doctors, etc. But wait a minute... we have more people! Those refugees that we let into our country, the ones who need the houses and the food and the energy and the infrastructure. And the beautiful thing is when they are employed they’ll pay the government more tax so we can build more houses, grow more food, create more energy and develop more infrastructure. Now I appreciate that our system of economics is significantly more complicated than just described, but as a very simple explanation this is how assimilation generally occurs.

Finally, we must look within ourselves and be challenged to set aside our shallow and often self-seeking understanding of justice to embrace the suffering of these people (and there’s the key word... people; as in real people) who approach our shores with nothing but the clothes on their back. We have to approach this situation not with a fear of those who are different but with love and compassion because we are inherently the same. And we need to get over our petty and often misunderstood notion that boat people are the inconsiderate brats of the class who choose to monkey swap their way to the front of the line with little concern for anyone else who might be pining for their preferred seat.

There is no such thing as a queue, only a terrible mess of hurting people.

Eli Koops

08 February, 2011

Hands that Reach for Justice

Over the past century the concept of Social Justice has done quite a bit of growing up.

Where it once stood as the ideological and counter-cultural child of a burgeoning Christian movement, contextualized by an age of enlightenment and industrialization, Social Justice now seeks a superfluous relevance among its liberal contemporaries. Born out of the biblical call to ‘love God, and love others’, this adolescent concept has been beaten into submission by the bullies of the global playground – capitalism, globalization, bureaucracy, politicization – and has learnt a valuable lesson about the consequences of upsetting the status quo. For that reason, Social Justice decided somewhere along the way to relegate itself to the fringes of the playground with the other misfits of a post-modern community. This would surely be the best way to avoid the lunch time swirly.

…and that’s where the high school metaphor begins to fall apart.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as a child is quick learn that it takes a lot more than imagination to become an astronaut, so too did the social justice movement learn that it takes more than good intentions to change the world. It would seem that in each case, the consequence of such a revelation was to simply give up trying. Don’t get me wrong, there are kids that grow up to be astronauts and others that grow up to transform society, but generally speaking most of us just talk about it.

But then, that’s precisely what distinguishes those extraordinary individuals, who manage to influence culture and reshape society, from those that don’t. Where the ‘generally speaking’ are content with mere discussion, the ‘grow up to be’ are compelled to activity. The difference, it would seem, is action. Many of us would prefer simply to argue about the plethora of social justice issues, but the great peacemakers of history lived lives that overflowed with justice. Not just in the grand political statements or the captivating stories of social change, but in the simplicity and routine of daily life.

An example.

Martin Luther King (Jr.) was a great speaker. In fact, he is probably most remembered for his evocative and passionate address at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington DC. Yet what would make this man great was not his articulate way with words but a prevailing desire for justice and the consistent choice to act upon it. During the Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, this reality eventually compelled Dr King to move himself and his family into a slum in the impoverished community of North Lawndale. The terrible living conditions caused his wife serious emotional stress and his children to constantly suffer from pneumonia. Though the cost may seem great, what it achieved was a personal understanding of the injustice faced by the poorest communities of America. Martin Luther King (Jr.) was no longer talking about justice as a distant and impartial spectator, because now he was personally acquainted with the suffering of the marginalized. It wasn’t a university education that qualified Dr King; it was his choice to challenge everything that society tells us is acceptable and to embrace the vulnerability of others as a means of overcoming injustice.

He chose to make the fight personal.

What Martin Luther King (Jr.) and the many remarkable individuals like him seemed to have understood was the significance of the Incarnation in their pursuit of justice. They recognized the revolutionary consequences of a God who was willing to clothe Himself in humanity; and further than that, they were prepared to do likewise. You see… our Creator was willing to walk in our shoes. He chose to enter our reality, engage in our brokenness, and embrace our suffering. Greater still, He was prepared to bear the consequence of our failure. Now try to comprehend that for just a moment; actually try and wrap the insufficiency of the human mind around the notion that you are so important to your Creator that He would make Himself vulnerable and take the role of a servant so that you might be made whole. If nothing else, this fact should highlight humanity’s inherent worth to God.

Retribution is not justice for it is born out of the pathology of human nature. True justice, that which is exemplified through the life and ministry of Jesus, seeks wholeness. This is the work to which we are called:

“… to loose the chains on injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke.
… to share your food with the hungry
and provide the poor wanderer with shelter;
when you see the naked, to cloth them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
(Isaiah 58:6-7)

Encapsulated in the incarnational ministry of Christ is the indelible understanding that true justice seeks to reconcile and restore.

Now that’s an encouraging thought.

Eli Koops

04 February, 2011

'The three little social classes'

I was reading ‘The Three Little Pigs’ to my son, and I realised how young we begin indoctrinating our children to associate poverty with foolishness. If you don’t remember the story, the basic crux is that the pigs using cheaper resources are considered ‘lazy’ and pay the price of their simplicity when the big bad wolf enters the story. The wolf destroys his home, and the impoverished pig enters into homelessness, and is forced to rely on the wiser and of course wealthier pig who had the capacity to make his home of bricks. Isn’t it interesting that we assume that those with wealth, and hence greater capacity to build security and independence are indeed wiser, whereas those with fewer resources are seen as foolish and lazy. Even more interesting is connection between dependence and laziness. It isn’t strange that we develop austere and residual welfare practices if our assumption is that poverty emerges from laziness. The antidote for laziness is of course hard work, and tough love from those with the capacity to live well.
In the end of the story, the wiser (though let’s say wealthier) pig has the opportunity to save the poorer pigs by opening his home and offering protection, no strings attached. Now this is an amazing social justice outcome, and one that I would encourage all with power to adopt. However too often the temptation is to punish those fleeing for their life. We detain them, force them to acknowledge and abide by a ‘wiser’ way of living upon receiving help, or enforce some kind of mutual obligation in return for their charity.
We must always remember that the three little pigs, no matter how different their paths looked in the end, were in fact brothers, and should therefore receive the same love and respect, regardless of their situation.
We must remember that wealth and opportunity has little to do with intellect or work ethic.
We must remember that to have the capacity to help others does not mean you have the power or right to laud it over those in need.
Let’s embrace those in need like the ‘wise little pigs’ we are.