The news that almost 200 of the asylum seekers who inspired the #LetThemStay movement had been granted community detention was initially welcomed as a hopeful sign by advocates, but was then quickly tempered by the revelation that 90 children were still being returned to offshore detention.
A lively public debate began in February this year, when a ruling by Australia’s High Court reinforced the legality of the offshore regime, and paved the way for the reimprisonment of a large group of asylum seekers who had been brought to Australia for medical treatment. The ruling raised questions for many people about the relationship between law, justice, and compassion.
Concerned about further exacerbating the trauma already experienced by this vulnerable group of people, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce has been gathering momentum around rediscovering the notion of sanctuary, offering shelter, food, clothing, and support to asylum seekers in defiance of what is seen to be an unjust system. More than 100 churches across the country have joined this sanctuary movement, risking criminal sanctions to protect our vulnerable neighbours.
The Salvation Army’s media release on the sanctuary movement noted that the “safety, dignity, and respect of people seeking asylum must be of the highest importance”, and that a moral response “does not allow for people seeking asylum, including children and families, to be held in detention”. The move by churches to act against the law may come as a surprise to many, but actually draws upon an ancient principle.
In the Jewish Torah, both Exodus and Leviticus contain requirements to treat the stranger well, on the basis that the Israelites were once strangers in Egypt. This included injunctions to love them as yourselves, as well as specific rules ensuring sufficient food for them to survive in the community. Giving shelter to someone who is being pursued by powerful forces is also a frequent biblical theme, seen in the stories of Rahab hiding the Israelite spies, Jonathon protecting David against Saul, and, in the New Testament, Jason giving refuge to Paul in the book of Acts.
Taking sanctuary from arrest in a church was a right recognised by English law from the fourth to the 17th century. The Underground Railroad was a form of sanctuary in the 19th century for those fleeing slavery in the USA. In the 1960s, churches offered sanctuary to draft resisters and Vietnam War deserters, and in the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of refugees fled north from civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, more than 400 churches defied the US Government’s rejection of their refugee status to offer sanctuary to thousands of individuals and families.
Despite this long and significant history, these traditions have no legal standing in Australia, and there are real risks involved for those stepping outside the law. Such steps are not to be taken lightly, for no religion holds an unchecked claim to the high moral ground, and those who seek it can expect vigorous public scrutiny. Perhaps, though, we should not be surprised that a movement whose saviour was condemned to death as a criminal might find themselves standing against oppressive powers on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, and the vulnerable.
Captain Jason Davies-Kildae is Director of the Victorian Social Policy Unit, The Salvation Army