Illegals and their salad bowls

By Fr Maurizio Pettena

This article was first published in CathBlog, a daily service of CathNews

Our public conversation about refugees and asylum seekers seems to be degenerating once again into political statements and rhetoric.

Yesterday, in a commercial for the Today Tonight program, statistics flashed across the TV screen proclaiming: “illegal boat people with the destination Sydney – you’ll be shocked at the numbers!”A counter appeared on the screen and rapidly increased into large numbers, suggesting that tens of thousands of “illegal” boat people are flooding to Australia each year.

Allow me just to put this in perspective.

The term “illegal” when applied to the flow of asylum seekers to Australia is plainly incorrect.

Australia is signatory to the refugee convention (unlike some countries we propose sending people back to) and recognises that “refugees have a right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.

The Convention stipulates that what would usually be considered as illegal actions (e.g. entering a country without a visa) should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum.

According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, in the last 34 years – from 1st January 1976 to 30th April 2010 – we have had a total of 23,024 people come by boat to Australia seeking asylum. That’s an overall average of 677.1 asylum seekers a year. By saying this, it would take 149 years to fill the MCG once with asylum seekers coming by boat.

UNHCR’s Global Trends reports that Australia is not even in the top 20 countries in terms of the number of refugees and asylum seekers it welcomes each year. In fact, the list of host countries is mostly made up of places with not nearly the resources we have here – countries like Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Kenya, Chad. Pakistan currently accepts more than 20 times the number of refugees as Australia each year.

Myths which are fuelled by the media are problematic for us, particularly when they do not lead to questions about the ethics of such a situation.

It is here that we need to get some perspective, and at times even we need some light relief, the Australian way of helping us to get to the bones of the issue.

Just a couple of months ago, there was a good example of this. As my staff and I poured over the two-page spread about the “cost of community detention”, we had to laugh. We looked down the list of items that the government is providing to small numbers of families to help them settle into Australia, a list which included household items, basic electronics and furnishings.

One of my staff suddenly stopped at one item, and shook his head. “Wow, the government is paying for a salad bowl! What an outrage!!!??”

The listing of this item was just a small example of how sensationalised the issue of asylum seekers has become, even now.

That a national newspaper would firstly, allow an article like this to be published, and that people would then go on to use it as a basis for their prejudice is far more outrageous than a $5 salad bowl being given to a desperate family trying to rebuild their lives.

As always, I go back to the Gospels to inform my conscience, and maybe those of others on this issue.

One of the best known, Matthew 25:35 speaks of the Gospel mandate for this particular situation better than most. “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.”

Can we not consider a little how we might respond to this exhortation from Christ when we think of those so-called  “illegals