Church Moves For Sanctuary Will Harm Those They Seek To Help


This week a number of churches have made public announcements stating their intention to offer sanctuary within church walls for asylum seekers. While this offer is largely motivated by compassion (and just enough self-righteousness to make them inclined to publicise plans that would have been more effective if done quietly), it is practically unfeasible, comes worryingly close to using people in need as emotive pawns to help protesters critique the government, ignores the many thousands who could be assisted through regular channels & saddest of all, if implemented, would almost certainly result in those asylum seekers participating never being able to resettle in Australia.

Church moves to offer sanctuary could lead to a new flood of boat arrivals, risking further deaths at sea and the horrors of human trafficking.
Church moves to offer sanctuary could lead to a new flood of boat arrivals, risking further deaths at sea and the horrors of human trafficking.

Making a public show about offering ‘sanctuary’ might feel good but it pushes the government into a spot where they must restate their commitment to be strong on migration – otherwise we risk increasing deaths at sea again as occurred after labor dismantled the pacific solution in 2008.

Moreover, concerned churches would most likely have had more chance of success if they had instead quietly approached the government and proposed something like a special application of the family migration program (i.e. Allowing community groups to sponsor asylum seekers in a similar way to how relatives can sponsor family members for migration) – churches could then offer to take on the financial & social obligations of resettling these asylum seekers while the government maintains their much-needed strong border policies.

Such an approach (following the Christian injunctions to treat others as ourselves and to welcome all to our Christian family) could potentially function in a similar way to policies under the Howard government which resulted in the vast majority of those detained off-shore eventually quietly making it to Australia, while maintaining a tough public line on refugee arrivals, which minimized human casualties (not just deaths at sea, but also cutting the value out of people smuggling operations that also perpetrate human trafficking for slavery & the illegal sex trade).

And, as noted above, asylum seekers who actually decided to refuse to follow their requirements & tried to get to a participating church would basically kill off any chance they had off ever coming here legally.

Another nail in the ‘sanctuary’ coffin, is that sanctuary didn’t apply outside the church’s walls – and pragmatically speaking, there’s no chance they could keep these people effectively prisoner for a potentially indefinite amount of time. Children especially would need to leave to attend school – Again what these churches should really talking about is migration sponsorship.

You may have seen some of the drawings and pictures that these children have (been told to?) make. One person on my Facebook feed yesterday put up pictures of thirty Nauru-based asylum seekers. These kids’ faces & futures are being used to advertise Australians’ views on off-shore detention, when we really should just be working for those kids’ best outcomes. It’s a nice little emotive move but what about the thousands of faceless children who are born into the terrible conditions of refugee camps around the world? Who’s standing up for them?

One may agree that we have a role to play in welcoming refugees, and still have deep concerns about church moves to offer 'sanctuary' to Nauru-based asylum seekers.
One may agree that we have a role to play in welcoming refugees, while rejecting the idea that the immigration should be indiscriminate, and while deeply disagreeing with some churches’ moves to offer ‘sanctuary’ to Nauru-based asylum seekers.

This is where this issue gets real ethically speaking – How much money are you going to throw at these particular asylum seekers when you would be able to help many more refugees if funds were instead utilised to pull people currently waiting in refugee camps?

Because for all the funds we throw at the few asylum seekers on Nauru (not that there aren’t some genuine issues here) there are thousands who have been waiting their whole lives to come here legally, and we could help many more of them with the same amount of money and resources. One specific measure would be to sponsor the training of and funding for a team (or two?) of UN migration officers to speed the processing of refugees in UN camps around the world who spend years waiting for their applications to be processed. Churches could then petition the federal government to further raise immigration levels, which would be resourced and supported by community & church funding of the resettlement (a pragmatic, long-term, and far more cost-effective solution).

Current funding would stretch even further if those teams could prioritise refugee communities who are known to resettle well into Australian culture. By choosing communities that settle comfortably into Australian communities and promptly become financially self-supporting, we will maximize the benefits and mitigate the dangers of immigration, and refugee funding can then be redistributed to helping more refugees immigrate here sooner.

In conclusion, church announcements to offer Sanctuary uses children as pawns in our public debate on off-shore detention, would be practically damaging to the asylum seekers participating, and funnels much-needed attention & funds away from standard refugee programs – impeding our ability to more effectively assist the many thousands of people who are waiting decades for UN refugee resettlement.

Photo by John Englart (Takver)