This month marked Refugee Week and we should continue to reflect on how we treat refugees—and what that says about us.
From the very beginning, the Bible is full of stories of refugees. Abraham, the father of both Judaism and Christianity, was forced by famine to take refuge in Egypt. Later, Israelites would be made slaves in Egypt, and led by Moses to eventual freedom in a new country after years of wandering in the wilderness.
The laws of Israel emphasised the need to treat refugees with justice and dignity, and made a point of commanding that they be extended the same rights and freedoms as everyone else—often reminding the Israelites that they too had once been strangers in the land, and not to forget what that was like when it came to their treatment of others.
Many of us are familiar with the Christmas story, and know that Jesus was born away from home due to his parents needing to travel to participate in the census that the Romans had called, but this was only the beginning. Jesus and his family were forced to flee their home to avoid King Herod’s brutality, becoming refugees in Egypt and living there until it was safe to return.
Australian history is full of refugee stories, too, with everyone except our First Nations peoples having our recent origins somewhere else. Aside from the convicts who had no choice, all of these new arrivals came here seeking a new life. For some it was simply about a better opportunity, but many were fleeing war or poverty, hoping to find a place where they could raise their families in safety.
Over the past few decades, for many, there has been a hardening of attitudes towards refugees. The War on Terror has created an environment of fear and distrust, and refugees are an easy target for our suspicions. Some politicians believe that there are votes to be had in stoking our fears, and sections of the media have discovered it means more ratings.
We are encouraged to see refugees as one faceless group, rather than as real people with real stories of their own. When we see them as families, as parents trying to find a safe home for their children, children just like our own, it changes our perceptions. New laws like the ones that seek to restrict doctors and aid workers from talking about what is happening in places like Manus Island are an attempt to control the way we see our treatment of refugees, and limit our accountability.
But, just like the laws in the Bible reminded the Israelites that they had once been foreigners in a strange land, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of refugees and ask how we would like to be treated in their place, if it was us uprooted from our homes and having to make a new life somewhere far away. Would we be willing to accept this treatment of refugees if it was our mother or father, or our brother and sister, left in limbo for years at a time?
Australia is meant to be a country where everyone gets a fair go, a land of opportunity that welcomes anyone who wants to embrace our values and beliefs. But how are refugees meant to do that if they are never given a chance to be part of it? Would any of our parents or grandparents have been able to build the lives we now take for granted if they came here today? What would have happened if Jesus and his family fled to the Australia of today instead of the Egypt of 2000 years ago?
We need to decide what stories will be told about us in days to come. Do we want to be remembered as a country that welcomed those in need, or one that turned them away? Future generations will ask us to explain why we turned a blind eye to children being locked up in camps, and condoned the mistreatment of the vulnerable. What will we say?
“What would have happened if Jesus and his family fled to the Australia of today instead of the Egypt of 2000 years ago?”
Across Australia, organisations like The Salvation Army are working with refugees to help them make a new home here. Most of them just want a chance to build a new life, find a job, and become part of the Australian dream that we take for granted. Some of them have experienced terrible hardship and persecution, and are already traumatised and fearful. It’s vital that when they arrive this is not compounded by unfeeling bureaucracy or cruel disdain.
It’s up to each of us to contribute our view regarding what sort of country this will be. We need to decide how we think refugees should be treated, and if we believe they are being treated unjustly we can keep contacting political parties to ensure that this changes. What is done in our name reflects on us, and we can’t abdicate our responsibilities and pretend that it is nothing to do with us.
And, instead of buying into the negativity that some of the media portray regarding refugees, we need to learn their stories for ourselves and engage with them as individuals, not as stereotypes.
The work of The Salvation Army is built on the belief that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. This doesn’t change depending on their position in society, or where they come from. The Salvos are committed to fighting against injustice wherever it is found, and ensuring that the most vulnerable amongst us are given a voice.
We will continue to speak up for refugees, and make sure that they are given the same rights and protections as everyone else. This may sometimes mean coming into conflict with those in power, but that will not stop us.
As we continue to work to make this a country that gives everyone a fair go, we hope that you will join us. Your support will help us transform lives, and ensure that those who come to Australia seeking a new life will have the chance to find it.