Church Leaders Protest Australia’s Asylum Policies

by Carly Alvarez | July 10, 2014

Justin Whelan is led by police after taking part in a prayer vigil at Scott Morrison's office. Photograph: Kate Ausburn

Justin Whelan is led by police after taking part in a prayer vigil at Scott Morrison’s office. Photograph: Kate Ausburn

The Australian government is under international scrutiny for intercepting a group of 41 asylum seekers attempting to enter the country by boat, and returning them to Sri Lanka. The UN refugee agency, human rights activists, and legal experts accuse Australian officials of breaking international law and violating the refugee convention.

Several of the returned migrants reported abusive treatment during their controversially fast on-board processing, further bringing attention to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government as Australia temporarily holds an additional 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on an offshore vessel.

PM Abbott defended his notoriously harsh immigration policies and stated that asylum seekers would not face ethnic persecution upon their return, adding that Sri Lanka has been a “peaceful country” since the end of its civil war in 2009.

Under current Australian policy, asylum seekers who safely arrive by boat are sent to detention centers in in Papua New Guinea or Nauru; those who are approved as refugees cannot be resettled in Australia.

Poor living conditions and treatment inside the offshore detention centers have sparked nationwide debate and protests, many citing the recent surge in self-harm incidents from children detainees as evidence of unethical treatment.

Religious leaders Matt Anslow, Jarrod McKenna, and Justin Whelan are among the emerging faces of Australian resistance to the government’s asylum policies. Beginning in March, the group initiated a series of sit-ins and prayer vigils inside offices of high profile politicians to bring attention the country’s treatment of asylum seekers, specifically highlighting the long-term detention of children. As of last week, a total of 47 supporters of their movement had been arrested.

Their first sit-in took place in Sydney at the office of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, where activists were arrested and charged with trespassing. Roughly three weeks later, the group organized a similar protest in Perth at the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office. Unlike the first demonstration, the majority of those arrested in Perth were church leaders. On May 19, the group staged simultaneous sit-ins in Sydney and Melbourne, resulting in 21 arrests.

The group spoke with AEI’s research team regarding their activism.

As far as we know, the May 19th sit-ins were the largest Christian civil disobedience action ever held in our country, which gives you a sense of how little tradition we have of this compared to the United States.

Members of your group advocated asylum seeker rights through formal channels for over a decade. What caused you to change your approach?

In Australia, unfortunately, the cruel policies are actually bipartisan so our insistence is that getting a different party in power is not the core issue; in order to have a more constructive approach we need to change the way people see asylum seekers and refugees.

Specifically, it was a policy that reestablished what we now call concentration camps on Pacific islands, but it was also the idea that it was acceptable to punish certain asylum seekers in hopes of deterring future ones.

The idea that nonviolent action is a potentially powerful tool to use in contexts where formal channels have failed was something that we were all quite familiar with before we began our protests.

What is the role of religion in your protests?

In Australia, church leaders taking a moral stand has a lot of traction in a way that’s quite paradoxical given how secular we are as a country.

We see the movement diversifying and moving beyond Christian circles. Our last protest involved a prominent Rabbi who has been an extremely positive figure for the movement.

We have been contacted by Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon community leaders who want to stage similar protests.

How do you see the future of the movement?

We recently had an event with several politicians from the West Australian Labor Party and they have publicly supported our movement. Another senator invited us to meet in her office, with the stipulation that we will leave [without being escorted by police].

We’re really excited about the encouragement this has given the refugee rights movement and how very mainstream faith leaders are getting involved.

We plan for the campaign to continue and people are lining up in large numbers to go through our training and engage in similar action.