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Wilson on the role of religions in global asylum and protection

07 June 2013

(c) Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics page

What it means to value life: The role of religions in global asylum and protection

The recent passage of legislation to excise the entire Australian mainland from the migration zone is unprecedented in many respects.


To begin with, it is the first time that a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention has excised its territory. In practical terms, the legislation means that an asylum seeker who arrives on any part of Australian territory by boat will be moved to detention in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, and the processing of their claims will be frozen for an unknown period under Australia's "no advantage' principle. It sets a dangerous precedent among signatories to the Refugee Convention and legal experts fear that if other countries follow Australia's example, the international asylum system could fall apart.

While the legislation to excise the mainland was only recently passed, the "no advantage" principle effectively has been in operation since last August, when the Houston Report recommendations were released. The Houston Report was the culmination of the work of an expert panel providing advice to the Labor government on "the best way forward for Australia to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia." This is a second way in which the excision of the mainland is unprecedented: it has been justified through the preservation of life. While the Liberal-National Coalition used discourses of illegality, exclusion and "queue jumping" to legislate the excision of Australia's islands in 2001 and 2005, the Labor Party has introduced the argument that this policy move is necessary to save lives.

Former Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen originally opposed the plan to excise the mainland by the Howard government in 2006, stating it would be a "stain on our national character." However, he since changed his mind about the policy, because it would "save lives" and the government is prepared to do "what it takes to save lives". Senator Matt Thistlethwaite makes the same argument: "Fifty innocent women and children drowned in shocking circumstances before the eyes of this nation on the rocks at Christmas Island. We simply cannot allow, as a nation with a heart, those circumstances to continue."

In essence, the argument the government is making is that by preventing people from being able to claim asylum if they arrive by boat, they will think twice before paying a people smuggler and undertaking a life-threatening sea voyage. On the surface, this language appears consistent with liberal cosmopolitan perspectives about responsibilities to preserve the lives of others. However, there are problems with this logic.

That they may have life ... but where and what kind?

To begin with, it assumes that, whatever situation an asylum seeker is facing in their country of origin or country of transit, it is not as bad as either being incarcerated indefinitely in an Australian immigration detention centre, or potentially dying at sea. Recent statistics show, however, that over 90% of recent asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees. This is not a recent turn of events either.

It has consistently been shown that 70-97% of all boat arrivals have been found to meet the international criteria for refugee status. If the majority of people arriving in Australia by boat are refugees, this means that they are fleeing persecution and are in fear of their lives. Discouraging them from undertaking a life-threatening sea voyage, and instead to remain in a life-threatening situation in their country of origin, or undertake a life-threatening journey elsewhere, in the long run does little to actually "save lives." All it may do is prevent people from dying in a place where we can see them. This is a revealing part of Senator Thistlethwaite's argument: "before the eyes of this nation." Perhaps what the government is really keen to do is to avoid loss of life that we can see. This suggests that it is the sensibilities of the Australian public that the government is concerned about, not the actual lives of the asylum seekers themselves.

This brings me to a further problem with the government's stated determination to save lives: the recent changes to the foreign aid budget, changes made in order to fund the increased need for immigration detention as a result of the new "no advantage principle." In August last year, the Labor government announced that it would divert $3 billion over four years from its foreign aid budget to fund the reopening of offshore detention centres for asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island. This move makes Australia the third largest recipient of its own foreign aid.

The need for the detention centres is a problem that stems from the distinction that successive governments have chosen to make between asylum seekers who arrive by plane and asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Asylum seekers that arrive by plane are placed in community care while the claim is processed - a much more humane and cost-effective approach - while those that arrive by boat are placed in immigration detention. Yet detention centres are costly, both in economic and human terms, with devastating physical and psychological impacts for the asylum seekers detained there. This raises serious questions about the kind of "life" that we are preserving through the no advantage policy.

Foreign aid is a critical component of combating poverty, disease and state failure that can lead to violent conflict and persecution, just a few of the circumstances that create the need to seek asylum to begin with. A key component of campaigns such as Make Poverty History, the Micah Challenge and the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015 has been to encourage developed countries to raise their foreign aid to 0.7% of gross national income. Australia's current commitment level is just 0.37%. If we were truly to believe the government's intention to save lives, regardless of where those lives happened to be and whether we could see them or not, then it would seem more reasonable to increase foreign aid spending, utilize community care rather than immigration detention for asylum seekers and thereby reduce the need for detention centres, given how economically inefficient they are and the detrimental impacts they have on the health and well-being of asylum seekers.

While Australia may be the first signatory to the UN Refugee Convention to excise its entire territory from its migration zone, it is not alone in its harsh stance on asylum policy. Most developed nations in recent times - including the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands - have implemented immigration policies that significantly restrict the rights and freedoms of asylum seekers, especially failed asylum seekers, within their borders. What is interesting is that "life" has played a key role in campaigns for asylum seekers in these contexts. In the Netherlands, for example, members of De Vluchtkerk campaign have adopted the slogans "We are here" and "I want a normal life" (Ik wil een normaal leven).

What these examples suggest is that there is a need to rethink how governments value "life" in their policies, and perhaps also how our understanding of life determines who belongs and who does not, who is worthy of assistance and who is not. And it at this point that I think adopting a post-secular perspective and incorporating the views and experiences of the world's religions can contribute considerably to the task of rethinking how we approach asylum and protection in contemporary global politics.

Sanctuary in a secular state: The role of religion

Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism all have proud histories of offering sanctuary, asylum and protection to the vulnerable stranger. Given the current state of asylum politics and governance, there is arguably a need for these religions to promote these traditions more visibly in the public sphere and challenge the right of the state to define what constitutes a life and which lives matter more than others.

Jesus said he came that they may have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10), yet that is not the kind of life that is currently offered by dominant approaches to asylum by sovereign states. By this suggestion I am not ignoring the role that religions have played in exclusion and violence against vulnerable others. At the same time, however, alongside these violent and exclusionary histories, there are also strong traditions of compassion, protection, peace and justice. What I am suggesting is that religious perspectives have something to contribute to rethinking how we offer protection, that a conversation among religious and secular perspectives on the value of life and our responsibilities to one another can contribute to the development of more creative and compassionate alternatives to dominant asylum policies.

The secular state as the prevailing mode of political belonging is the foundation of the current international asylum and human rights systems (for the two are inextricably connected). In large part, owing to the dominance of realist International Relations theory, the logic of the secular state focuses on shortages and competition, "defending the national interest" against threats, known and unknown, to its survival. Consequently, the lives of those who belong to the nation-state become more valuable than the lives of those who do not.

This may be acceptable when every person is a member of one nation-state or another and when that nation-state upholds its duty to defend and protect the rights of its citizens. But when the state is unable or unwilling to provide that protection, or when a person does not belong to any state, the ethical shortcomings of secular state-based logic become painfully apparent. In this formulation, a life is only valuable when it is tied to a state. Outside of the nation-state, a life has no value, or at least, no state is prepared to claim responsibility for a life that does not belong.

As Hannah Arendt demonstrated in her Origins of Totalitarianism, this reality suggests that the secular notion of natural, innate, universal human rights accorded to every human being purely by virtue of being human is a fallacy. "Equality ... is not given to us," she wrote, "but is the result of human organization ... We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights."

The introduction of international law, especially human rights and refugee law, has done much to foster this mutual agreement beyond the state, promoting a sense of global cosmopolitan citizenship and responsibility - in particular, the idea that life has value simply by virtue of membership of humanity. Yet the daily realities of asylum politics, as most recently demonstrated by the Australian case, is that state-based exclusionary logic still dominates. If anything, the state has become, or is endeavouring to become, stronger. Life still only has value if it is tied to a state. If people do not belong and we cannot see them, then their lives do not matter. It is as though they do not exist.

The religious foundations of hospitality

The issue of asylum and protection is incredibly complex and there are numerous domestic and geo-political factors that factor in to who is offered protection, when and why. States and those that govern them must balance the needs and priorities of their population (especially in democratic states) with their international responsibilities, the demands of geo-strategic alliances in trade and security, along with a myriad of other factors. As such, the capacity of the state to offer asylum and protection and the manner in which this is done is invariably hampered by both material and ideological factors.

There are few institutions or organisations that have the capacity or authority to intervene against the power of the state on behalf of individuals and vulnerable communities in contemporary politics. Yet, as I've argued elsewhere, the moral authority which many religions possess, particularly the Christian churches in many developed countries, their nominal independence from political authorities, coupled with their commitment to faithful hospitality to the stranger, at least opens up the possibility that religious actors can in some way offset the harsh responses of states, provide greater protection and welcome to stateless persons and asylum seekers and even generate proposals for alternative forms of governance that bridge the gap between the state and the stateless.

There are numerous examples of religious organisations doing just that. Churches in the United States during the 1980s directly violated American immigration law by providing sanctuary to asylum seekers from El Salvador and Guatemala deemed to be illegal immigrants by United States authorities. Numerous churches in the UK have worked with 14 communities to declare their cities - including London, Oxford, Nottingham, Sheffield and Bradford - "cities of sanctuary" for asylum seekers, with similar initiatives being undertaken by churches in Switzerland. Baptcare and the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, among others, offer similar asylum and sanctuary services in Australia.

Another older, famous example is the Huguenot community in Le Chambon, France, who sheltered Jewish refugees during World War II. In Germany, the Asyl in der Kirche (Asylum in the church) network emerged unofficially in the early 1980s in response to German government attempts to deport Kurdish and Lebanese asylum seekers, despite the unrest that existed in their respective homelands, with individual parishes offering asylum. As more parishes developed church asylum policies and procedures, a formal organisation was established in the early 1990s, around the same time as the right to asylum in Germany became significantly reduced. The movement has continued to grow and expand, with a now European-wide sanctuary movement.

There are two key theological arguments that often underpin the work of organisations offering hospitality to asylum seekers. The first is God's love for the whole of humanity. As Timothy Keller has recently argued, it is the transformative power of God's grace that should inspire Christians to pursue justice on behalf of the poor, oppressed and vulnerable. The second is the sacredness of the human being - the belief that every human is marked with the image of God, establishing a fundamental dignity that cannot be removed or undermined.

Elie Wiesel emphasises the same belief within the Jewish tradition: "Any human being is a sanctuary. Every human being is the dwelling of God - man or woman or child, Christian or Jewish or Buddhist. Any person, by virtue of being a son or daughter of humanity, is a living sanctuary whom nobody has the right to invade." Muddathir 'Abd al-Rahim likewise highlights a long tradition of hospitality towards asylum seekers and refugees in Islam coming directly out of the belief that all human beings have been transformed by God's love and grace and thus possess dignity that makes them worthy of compassion and respect.

These views provide grounding for the universality of human rights that goes beyond the immanent frame of nation-states and is embedded in more transcendental, eternal perspectives. But they also offer additional reasons why religious believers should agree to accord one another dignity and equality - because of their belief in the eternal consequences of such actions, that the lives we live now matter for the future, in both the immanent and the transcendent realms.


While we must remember that religions have often been used as tools to justify the persecution and exclusion of certain groups of people, religions also contain powerful conceptions of what it means to be human, the value that is inherent to every human life as a result of its connection with the divine, not simply because it is legally attached to a particular group or territory governed by a particular authority.

The world's religions remind us that every human life has value, regardless of where it is and whether or not we can see it. Their rich traditions of hospitality to the stranger and alternative modes of belonging have much to contribute to the urgent task of rethinking global governance structures of asylum and protection and the value of life inherent in those structures.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. She is the author of After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics and Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

Last modified:07 September 2023 12.24 p.m.

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