Very few Vatican documents on world events are exciting. Most are broad, stress continuities, offer a detached, almost bloodless, view of the state of the world and give the Catholic Church a central and serene role in it. But these qualities can be helpful when local response to these events is febrile and anxious.
So the Vatican guidelines on ministry to forcibly displaced persons provide a helpful mirror to reflect the public Australian response to asylum seekers. It offers a long view of Catholic reflection on refugees and a broad perspective on the human reality of having to seek protection.
The consistent core of Catholic teaching has been the insistence that people who are forced to leave their homes are human beings who matter. For that reason the document brings together categories of people whose are usually artificially separated: those persecuted both within and outside their own nations, those trafficked for sex and work, those in the refugee camps and cities in neighbouring countries, and those living in developed nations. All are seen as human beings who make a claim on other human beings by their precarious plight.
The political reality of forced migration is also described in broad terms.
Most people who flee their own nations remain in adjacent countries, hoping to be able to return home. These countries carry by far the greatest burden of supporting refugees and are usually the least equipped to do so. But in the host country they are also often forced to live precarious lives in fear of violence and extortion.
Those who do find their way to developed nations also find increasing hostility and lack of acceptance. These attitudes are often rooted in xenophobic and racist attitudes that are encouraged by politicians.
Against this background the document sets the way we as individuals and societies should respond to people forced to flee their own nations. The principles guiding the response are that each human being matters and that their human dignity should be respected. 'The first point of reference should not be the interests of the State or national security but the human person.'
Central to this is 'the need to live in community, a basic requirement of the very nature of human beings.' Human beings are linked by their shared humanity, and our solidarity means that as individuals and as societies we are responsible to each other and particularly to those in need. It is not right to exclude and to treat brutally those who claim our protection.
These principles are grounded in the biblical tradition of hospitality to those in need embodied in the best Christian practice through history.
The document provides a simple and striking description of what protection of refugees entails. 'Families should enjoy personal and family privacy, and the possibility for family reunification in the country of asylum; earn a dignified livelihood with a just wage, live in dwellings fit for human beings; while their children should receive adequate education as well as health care.'
The guidelines for the Catholic care of refugees and asylum seekers in receiving nations present a calm and accepting way of dealing with difference. Church communities should welcome them, respect their culture and language and where possible coordinate their care with the churches in the nations from which they have come.
Overall the document presents a clear and humane approach to people who seek protection from persecution. Its significance does not lie in its political appeal or its immediate practicality but in its internal consistency. A habit of seeing refugees as people, not as problems lies at its core.
This is reflected in the priority given to people and their needs within policy, and so in the way in which they are received. This respect for humanity controls the care taken to adjudicate the claims of those who make a claim on us and in their humane treatment. It is also reflected in the ways in which they are spoken of.
For all its limitations this is a humane document. It provides a mirror in which we can see reflected variously the anxious, narrow, self-preoccupied and brutal faces of the Australian treatment of people who come to us seeking protection. It pleads silently for a better way to our more generous selves.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
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John Francis Collins
05 June 2014
Thank you Andrew for another insightful article. Does anyone really believe the distorted logic of Australia’s current asylum seeker policy in relation to maritime arrivals?
The notion of justifying the "turn back the boasts" policy as a compassionate gesture to save vulnerable people from people smugglers and from the possibility of drowning lacks authenticity and integrity. It is a justification not a reason .Even those who sprout these words do not believe them. It is embarrassing to watch the gradual erosion of personal moral integrity in those who sprout these lines.
There is a relationship between free market economics and the flow of asylum seekers into Australia. If it is good to abolish tariff barriers and encourage free trade between nations why are there restrictions on the free movement of people? Those who argue a libertarian line should be advocates for taking down barriers to free movement of people between nations. If freedom and opportunity are goods things in themselves then all people have a right to them, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. A consistent libertarian line would promote the idea that “all people have a right to pursue opportunity in the country of their choice.”
05 June 2014
I don't believe that very few other Vatican documents are worth a pinch of salt. In matters of social justice, several of the recent Pontiffs have come out with very satisfying statements indeed.
05 June 2014
A reasonable question, JFC. Most libertarian-type parties I know of support in principle the free movement of peoples across borders: see, eg, the platform of the US Libertarian party. But libertarians also recognize the existence of the typically large modern welfare state, and that this crucially complicates the issue in a way that free trade in goods and services does not, with the result that there is debate as to how the fundamental principle of free movement of peoples applies in the current circumstances. Unlike the traffic in material goods such as cars or computers, the movement into a country of peoples, especially those who will be welfare dependants for a considerable period of time, has, via coercive instruments such as taxation or the printing of fiat money, economic consequences for the producers of that country’s wealth. Thus, under current political circumstances, from the point of view of the taxpayer or the victim of inflation, our state-controlled immigration of welfare dependants is by no means “free”: it is better viewed as a form of forced integration. Libertarians look back fondly to the decades before World War I, when passports or visas were non-existent across Europe and the U.S. Then the welfare state was tiny, immigration was free in a much richer sense of the word, and the poor from the less developed regions of Europe (eg southern Italy) were welcomed in the centres of advanced capitalism and rapid upward mobility such as the US. None of this is to suggest that libertarians oppose humanitarian-oriented immigration. Rather, it is a question of making individuals and communities, who want to welcome immigrants, take responsibility themselves as much as possible and not have others who may not agree with their choice for whatever reason forced to bear any negative consequences. The anarcho-capitalist Hans Hoppe thus argues that “the authority to admit or exclude should be stripped from the hands of the central government and re-assigned to states, provinces, cities, towns, villages, residential districts, and ultimately to private property owners and their voluntary associations”. It being a complex issue, there is debate among libertarians as to whether Hoppe’s suggestion is a valid this-world application of the fundamental libertarian principle of free movement of people across borders. Obviously similar discussions as to what is or not the authentic libertarian approach surround the closely-related asylum seeker/boat people issue.