One of the political debates that comes back again and again is the issue of the “boat people”. From the reports we hear, it can at times seem as if we are overwhelmed by people trying to get to Australia illegally on boats.
So, let's get some things into perspective. Yes, we actually illegal immigrants coming into Australia. They usually come legally by plane, and then overstay their visas. Very few actually risk their lives coming by unseaworthy craft. Of the few who do come to Australia on these ramshackle vessels, most are eventually found to be genuine refugees, and allowed to remain in Australia.
So what are the issues about “boat people” that we need to be aware of?
Firstly, that the boat people, are usually fleeing some genuine life-threatening situation, and have risked their lives and paid everything they have to escape.
Secondly, is the issue of “people trafficking” - sometimes this means “slavery”. In the 21st century, we like to believe that slavery is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it still exists in the world. Many women and children are traded across national borders for prostitution, and men and children for forced labour. Whenever anyone comes into this country, however they get here, it is important that there is some way to establish that they are here voluntarily. (It should be noted, however, that refugee boats would not be a popular way to transport slaves – slavery is a business and unseaworthy boats risk too much of the product being lost.)
Thirdly, again, sometimes known as “people trafficking” or “people smuggling” - someone, somewhere is getting very rich out of exploiting people in severe need and desperation. The reason people can pay everything they own to get passage on one of these illegal, unsafe, boats, is that someone supplies boats, and crews, to get them here. The boats, the crew, all have to be “disposable”. Apart from the actual businessmen at the top of this business, everyone else is victimised – people desperate enough to make the voyage, and people poor enough to be willing to crew such vessels.
When the government says it is trying to break the people smugglers' business model, the argument is that sending people somewhere other than Australia to be processed, will mean people are less likely to get on the boats, driving down the demand and therefore the profitability of the business. It is an attempt to try to protect people from becoming the victims of this terrible system. There are, however, enough wars, famines, and oppressive political regimes, in the world to keep people desperate to flee, so there will always be business for people offering any kind of way to escape. The people who suffer most in the off-shore processing of the refugees, are refugees.
So is there a solution? Both sides of politics have been working for years to find one. So far, neither one has found it. All that has been achieved has been to increase the suffering on the same group of people who were already victims. The only perfect solution would be to have a world where everyone was safe to live wherever they were. That would be a world without refugees at all. This side of eternity, that's unlikely to happen.
A just solution would be to prosecute the people who exploit vulnerable people, while working to protect them. Unfortunately, the nature of the places refugees are trying to escape from, means that the people who profit from their efforts to escape aren't going to be subject to the forces of law and order. Justice for the criminals who are making money in this situation is unlikely to be coming any time soon.
That being the case, surely our nation's response to the situation ought to be primarily one of compassion for those who were victims, firstly of the things that made them flee their homes, secondly of those who exploited them for financial gain as they fled.
For Christians, then, what do we pray? We need to be praying for our political leaders, from both sides of politics, for them to have wisdom, and compassion. We need to pray for God's protection of the refugees on the boats, for compassionate treatment in their assessment, and for their eventual settlement somewhere safe, where they can have hope for their future.
Grace and peace,