“You can stay, but you will have to sit in the corner and not say anything, or record anything that goes on. Understood?” I nodded and sat on the chair in the corner of the room, like a naughty child. It was an interview room in the Department of Immigration and I was there to support two asylum seekers who had been ordered to attend a meeting. What followed was harrowing. I felt powerless in the presence of two cold, efficient officials who accused the asylum seekers of attempting to conceal their true identities.
It was true that they had fled Iran, where they had been involved in anti-government protests. As it turned out, they had concealed their identities to protect family members back in Iran. The investigation had been thorough and without any compassion. They had been spied upon and had been betrayed. Officially, my friends were just numbers in a government database, and eventually, after failed attempts to be recognised as refugees, non-citizens in the “lucky country.”
For the past ten years, asylum seekers who have come by boat have been treated unjustly. Referred to as “illegal maritime arrivals,” they have been subjected to mandatory offshore detention and most have been denied refugee status. And during the same period, the number of asylum seeker and refugee advocacy groups has increased significantly, signalling a call for compassion for people seeking asylum in Australia. The lacklustre approach of government agencies in response to this call is unjust. It is un-Australian.
In his first lecture in the 1950 Godinne Lectures, Fr Joseph Cardijn urges us to “… believe in the personal value of every human being, in the personal dignity, the personal mission, the personal vocation and the eternal vocation of every human being.” The principle espoused by Cardijn is the dignity and equality of every human being as children of God, the very principle under attack in our culture on so many fronts, including the unjust treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
The Gospel reading for today, Saturday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time (Year 1) is the story of the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13). Peter, James and John have a foretaste of heaven as Jesus is transfigured before them. The story is part of the journey they make to Jerusalem and represents Jesus’ triumph over the evil of his crucifixion. Mark recounted his Gospel to the Gentile Christians in Rome to urge them to place their hope in Christ in the face of persecution by Roman authorities. Just as they were denied the freedom to live and worship God in peace, so, too, are many who seek asylum in Australia denied the right to live in peace in the community and to call Australia their new home.
So, how do we bring about change in our society, so that asylum seekers and refugees can be members of our society? There are attempts made in federal parliament to have the government change its policies and to act with compassion. There are also attempts made by community groups and organisations to convince the government of the need to clean up the bureaucratic mess enshrined in laws passed by successive governments to control who can be members of our society. If we accept Cardijn’s view of the human person, and if the transfiguration of Christ is to have any meaning for us, then we have to find a voice to speak on behalf of those who are powerless to speak.
Fr Joseph Cardijn: The Person, Family and Education – the 1950 Godinne series of lectures: Lecture 1: The Human Person.