Yesterday the Anglican Dean of St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane announced that he would offer sanctuary in the cathedral to any asylum seekers and refugees in danger of being shipped to Nauru or Manus Island. Other cathedrals and churches around the country have made the same offer. Sanctuary is serious business. It has a long pedigree going back to the Old Testament era. If the offer is taken up it would see the church sheltering asylum seekers within the Cathedral and refusing to turn them over to the authorities. It is the type of action we have historically come to identify with Martin Luther King, Germans who hid Jews from the Nazis, and acts of civil disobedience during the apartheid regime in South Africa. It follows the civil disobedience of medical staff in Melbourne who recently refused to release children from their care back to detention.
That we have reached a point where doctors and clergy feel they have no option but to engage in acts of civil disobedience to protect the vulnerable from what they argue is a systemically abusive context should disturb us all. Acts of civil disobedience such as these are undertaken on the basis that the government, in a given area, has become an agent of oppression and that people of good conscience cannot submit to the law. It is not to suggest that our Prime Minister or the Minister for Border Protection are themselves people lacking in goodwill or good character. It is to suggest that the policies they are implementing are unacceptable and oppressive.
It seems to me unarguable that our detention policy represents a step away from the principles of liberty on which our democracy is founded. Those who are detained have committed no crime. Indeed, the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory confers on them the right to enter any country seeking asylum and obligates that country to provide protection. There has been ample testimony from medical staff who work in the detention centres that the mental and physical health of detainees is severely degraded by the experience of detention. Yet we detain people not because they have committed a crime, but in order to deter others from following in their footsteps. We are punishing the innocent in order to protect other others from engaging in a dangerous journey.
Imagine if we applied this approach more generally. We could lock up a small number of children and then tell other children that if they cross the road unaccompanied they will be locked up too. No doubt we would save lives. We could put a small group of smokers into a detention centre and warn people that if they try to smoke they too will be put into detention. This too would save lives. We don’t do it because it is morally repugnant to prevent harm to one person by punishing another. This is why offshore detention must be opposed. For no matter how effective it is in deterring others from making a dangerous boat trip, it does so at an unacceptable cost to justice and freedom. It may be more difficult and far more inconvenient for us, but there are other ways to prevent deaths at sea. We could intercept boats and transport the occupants safely to Australia. A more effective approach in the longer term would be to develop a regional agreement by which asylum seekers who make their way to our region are processed quickly and effectively and those found to be refugees resettled by the nations of our region on an agreed burden-sharing basis.
Tactically, I’m not sure we should all jump in and start offering sanctuary. Alongside those taking extreme measures such as these, we need those with whom the government will continue to dialogue. Either way, I hope that we will allow the strength of this action to shock us into seeing how pernicious and morally bereft our treatment of asylum seekers has become.