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Finding shelter

THE FEDERAL Election Hot Issues flyers stated that in 2009 Australia received 6170 applications for asylum.

Not all of those applicants arrived by boat, but 90 per cent of those who came by boat were found to be refugees and were granted permanent protection visas.

Refugees and humanitarian entrants make up just 6.6 per cent of the places in Australia’s immigration program, the lowest it has been in 35 years.

What has happened in Australia to turn the tide against some of the most vulnerable people on the planet?

Asylum seekers are people who have left their country of origin, applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and are awaiting a decision on their application.

Some time ago I met Abraham who was originally from Sudan.

As I listened to his story I realised that it was through no fault of his own that members of his family were killed and he wound up spending his childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya.
His new start in Australia and the opportunity to study at university here would change the future for his wife (who also grew up in that refugee camp) and the relatives they were saving up to sponsor.

When Methodist minister Rev Albert Swarnaraj came to talk to members of the Queensland Synod placements committee he told us about his escape from Sri Lanka when his life was threatened because he reported the illegal activities of the local police.

I thought, “Golly, even ministers of the gospel can suddenly find themselves without a home or work and cut off from family and homeland”.

There are many examples in the Judeo-Christian scriptures of people fleeing an unsafe environment to an uncertain future.

Adam and Eve leave the security of life in the garden of abundance to a life of hard labour.

Then we meet Noah and his family, boat people fleeing a wicked generation, facing ridicule for their actions and trusting their lives to a vessel of untested seaworthiness.

Moses led the exodus from Egypt and later received criticism from the people because at least in Egypt they had meat to eat.

Through reading the prophets we hear about the exile: God’s people forced from their homes by invading armies.

They had time to pack little more than memories.

At Christmas we are reminded that the family of the infant Jesus fled from Palestine to Egypt to avoid the slaughter ordered by King Herod.

The hospitality customs of the Hebrew Scriptures required people to open their homes to strangers to provide food and a bed to the sojourners.

The Psalms remind us of God’s favour for the oppressed, widowed and the orphaned.

In Romans 12:13, Paul urges church members to share belongings with needy fellow Christians and open their homes to strangers.

So why do members of this nation find it so hard to welcome refugees and asylum seekers?

What is the fear that underlies the attitude our politicians have embraced?

It is not so long ago that tall ships arrived in this country—explorers, invaders, convicts, colonisers.

I wonder how our Indigenous brothers and sisters feel about the rhetoric of resistance to refugees and asylum seekers?

There are many active people in Australia who get involved in support and friendship for asylum seekers and refugees.

Some Christians have seen the opportunity to raise awareness for the plight of asylum seekers and get involved in the political process to influence public opinion and decisions made by politicians.

Some congregations have built friendships with families who have chosen, or were assigned, Australia as their place of refuge.

I know of groups and individuals who go out of their way to assist those people to settle here and have fruitful and productive lives.

It begins as hospitality to the stranger and becomes a sharing of culture and friendship.

It is not always easy to support people who have experienced trauma, violence and loss in their land of origin.

My work with soldiers who served in Vietnam and recent deployments has demonstrated that trauma leaves the mind scarred.

How sad that sometimes people become even more traumatised by being sent to detention centres for long periods of time before having their applications considered.

I also wonder how fair it is to consider locating detention centres in countries that are struggling with a host of challenges as they rebuild their own nation after conflict.

I think the verse of Eric Bogle’s song Shelter (Larrikin Music Publishing) would be my prayer in regard to asylum seekers:
“To the homeless and the hungry may we always open doors.
“May the restless and the weary find safe harbour on our shores.
“May she always be our dreamtime place, our spirit’s glad release.
“May she always be our shelter, may we always live in peace.”