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Responding to Asylum Seekers with Hospitality

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As worldwide conflict proliferates, the flow of asylum seekers to Australia and other nations around the world is not predicted to ease in the foreseeable future.
There are some important facts to consider when evaluating the current debates about asylum.

First, it is not illegal to seek asylum in another country.

All recognized refugees are asylum seekers before they have their status as refugees verified.

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. As such, we agree to offer a place of safety to a limited number of people escaping persecution in their own country.

Second, Australia, like most nations, is not being overwhelmed with asylum seekers.

The 2013 United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) report revealed that 81 percent of all refugees turn to developing nations for sanctuary.

Australia saw a 54 percent increase in asylum applications from 2012 to 2013, while the U.S. and Canada saw an 8 percent increase. Even so, none of these nations were in the top 10 host countries for refugees.

Pakistan hosted the highest number of refugees (1.6 million) in 2013, followed by Iran (868,200) and Germany (589,700).

The argument advanced by the UNHCR is that the West is taking far from its fair share of refugees on a worldwide scale.

The UNHCR also asserts that while the refugee problem is an overwhelmingly humanitarian one, its solution is political.

The prevention of conflict in the first place and efforts to resolve established conflict are the only sure means to stem the worldwide flow of refugees.

“War remains the dominant cause. A full 55 percent of all refugees listed in UNHCR’s report come from just five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan,” the 2013 UNHCR report noted.

Our politicians deserve our support in whatever means they engage in to resolve international conflict.

Third, refugees represent a net gain to the community.

Within a very short time, many become significant contributors to our economy and are often characterized as hard workers and high achievers.

Despite widespread support for the cause of human rights, there are aspects of the asylum seeker issue that are cause for concern.

Politicians regularly point to the activity of people smugglers as contributing to the flow of asylum seekers to our shores.

Unscrupulous operators who load people onto unseaworthy vessels have certainly been the cause of untold loss of life at sea, as the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea have made clear.

Apart from the legal and political aspects of this issue, the moral dimensions of the argument also require attention.

The Christian Scriptures articulate a consistent call to hospitality, generosity and kindness to the stranger in our midst.

Persecution and suspicion of the foreigner are low points in the story of God’s people.

As Baptists, we value our heavenly citizenship over nationalism. Australian Baptists have passed assembly motions calling for the compassionate treatment of asylum seekers waiting processing for refugee status and calling on the Australian government to “reduce the rate of asylum claims” by addressing human rights violations in countries of origin and disempowering people smugglers.

The story of the shipwreck of the apostle Paul on the island of Malta offers some compelling parallels with the modern-day asylum seeker story. Both events involve a dangerous journey with risks apparent from the outset.

The modern-day human traffickers have their villainous counterparts as the sailors on board Paul’s boat who were ready to jettison the ship and kill all the prisoners to look after their own interests.

The near catastrophic end of Paul’s journey is vividly described in Acts 27.

Sadly, such scenes do not only reside in our imaginations or historical texts. Many Australians watched the scenes of the shipwreck at Christmas Island in 2010 with horror, and we continue to witness many perilous rescues of asylum seekers at sea.

Luke tells us in Acts 28 that the natives of the small island of Malta rescued Paul and his fellow passengers and treated them with great kindness and hospitality.

There was suspicion and misunderstanding, but Paul was able to serve the community to the extent that when they left, they were honored and their departure was lamented.

To this day the Maltese community describes itself as the people who rescued and showed hospitality to Paul.

What kind of people do we want to be known as? An enduring story is one that illustrates values that transcend place.

A community that describes itself as one that shows generosity and compassion remains strong because there is no situation where those values are redundant.

Baptists and people of faith in Australia and around the world have an opportunity to articulate the values of compassion and justice as a way to make our community stronger in our response to asylum seekers.

Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia. Kristine Morrison is a midwife and social justice advocate based in Sydney, who is affiliated with the Association of Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT. A version of this article first appeared in Together Magazine, a publication of the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT. It is used with permission. You can follow Benson on Twitter @ozbap, @reaustralia and @rodsyd.