Refuge, detention and the failure of evangelical identity

21.05.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 010  



[F]alse claims about asylum seekers have been made over a number of years. They have created an uncharitable and harsh view of asylum seekers in the minds of many Australians. They have not been challenged, because the ALP has agreed with the policy. As more Australians understand the reality of what has happened, more will demand a change of policy.

[Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser. (For link, see ‘Sources’, below.)]

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) has released their report into detention called A Last Resort? The Commission acknowledges that Australia has a legitimate right to develop and maintain an immigration system. However, it has found that Australia's immigration detention laws, as administered by the Commonwealth and applied to unauthorised arrival children, create a detention system that is fundamentally inconsistent with the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which the Australian Government is a signatory. Detention is not being used as a measure of last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time, and subject to independent review; best interests of children are not a primary consideration in all actions concerning them; and children are not provided with an environment that assists their health, development and dignity in light of recent trauma. Instead, our centres were found to be cruel, inhumane, degrading and mentally harmful.

The HREOC recommends that children in immigration detention centres be released by June 10th 2004, into ‘home-based detention’ and by Ministerial grant of humanitarian visas and bridging visas. The Commission also recommends that Australia's immigration detention laws urgently be amended to comply with CRC, including a presumption against the detention of children for immigration purposes, and the establishment of an independent tribunal to deal with the fate of children within 72 hours of any initial detention. This framework should aim for detention of children to be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, with the best interests of the child and the preservation of family unity as primary considerations, and with special attention given to the ‘Pacific Solution’. Robert Manne summarises the report as follows:

The most important conclusion of A last resort? is that between 1999 and 2003 the Howard Government treated asylum-seeker children in “a cruel, inhuman and degrading way”. It is a radical conclusion from a conservative Human Rights Commission. By the time the conclusion is reached, the evidence that has been presented is simply so overwhelming that no balanced reader is likely to doubt its truth.

The arguments against mandatory detention, especially for children, are straightforward enough. They are laid out by Fraser, Manne, and the HREOC—none of whom can be considered especially left-wing. But perhaps the most puzzling aspect has been the relative absence of evangelical Christian comment. On the face of it, we would expect evangelical Christians to have been the natural enemy of these developments. After all, we value justice, enjoy children, and want people from all over the world to have a chance to hear the Christian gospel.

Of course, there have been some helpful comments. At his inaugural press conference, the then-new Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, made headline news when he said that “the Federal Government could improve its game in this area” and that we need to “ask ourselves how we are treating the alien and the stranger in our midst.” But on the whole, there has been no sustained evangelical commentary or campaign, and on the whole, the application of any real pressure upon the Government has been from secular people and organisations such as Manne, Fraser, the HREOC and the Children Out Of Detention (ChilOut) organisation. Fraser hopes that “As more Australians understand the reality of what has happened, more will demand a change of policy.” But will evangelical Christians be among them?

The purpose of this briefing is to ponder what might have prevented evangelical commentary and action. What makes it so difficult for us to object to our government's practises in this area? Our reactions are quicker and more focussed when it is proposed to ban Christian schooling, or to advance our own health using the corpses of the unborn, or to legislate for same-sex ‘marriages’. Why not so when children are locked in prison for several years? The following possibilities deserve our attention.

Some slight improvements have been made by the government (cf. Social Issues briefing #008). But recent Social Issues briefings have flagged the way the human heart corrupts us; and if the hearts of Americans corrupted them at Abu Ghraib, perhaps it is time to confess that as Australians, our hearts have corrupted us at Nauru, Baxter, Woomera, Villawood, Port Hedland, Christmas Island, Maribyrnong, and Port Augusta.

But thankfully, we are also those who know that even with the most grievous and heinous failures, God never hardens his heart against the cry of repentance. Jesus' unnerving story [Matt. 18:23-35] of the man who tried to get a piffling debt repaid to him might reflect the hard-hearted posture many of us seem to have taken toward genuine refugees and their children. But we can avoid that man's hardness of heart by drinking deep from the picture of the King's first encounter with the man:

The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.


Malcolm Fraser, The Age March 27 2002; available at

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report on children in detention:

Robert Manne, “The politics of suffering children,” The Age May 17th 2004; online at

Transcript from the Archbishop's first media conference in which he talks about refugees:

Further comments from Archbishop Peter Jensen about asylum seekers:


(Remember—posted letters are always better than email.)

An easy way to write to your MP:

Go to for a page that will help you write a letter to your local MP. You simply pick your MP or your electorate. (If you don't know either, there's a link to where you can find out.) You then choose from one of two form letters. Your letter is then formatted ready to print, but you are able to change the letter into your own words, which you SHOULD DEFINITELY do. (Use ideas from this briefing and from #008 if needs be, but do not use exact turns of phrase. Don't be afraid to say something like ‘I know a God who welcomes all who turn to him. Let's be like that, and welcome all who turn to us Australians.’) If you just want details about your electorate and your MP, simply go to

Write also to the senior leadership:

Minister for Immigration (Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone)
Suite MF 40
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600


Fax: (02) 6273 4144

Prime Minister (The Hon John Howard MP)

Minister for Foreign Affairs (The Hon Alexander Downer MP).

both at:

House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

PM's fax: (02) 6273 4100 and email:

Foreign Minister's fax: (02) 6273 4112 and email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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