Theological Imaginings: Mercy and the Displacement of Persons
Margaret Hinchey rsm (Parramatta)
Mallacoota, Victoria. Photo: Justin McManus. Sydney Morning Herald, Jan 3, 2020. Used with permission

The New Year headline was stark: Australia’s First Climate Refugees. (SMH: Jan 3, 2020)

Australia began its 2020 summer watching unprecedented bushfires, fuelled by climate change and drought, consume millions of hectares of vegetation, untold numbers of native wildlife, homes and properties, animals and human lives. We watched TV in horror as towering clouds generated by the fires obliterated the sun and turned the sky an eerie orange and then pitch black by mid-morning. 

Thousands of residents and holiday-makers grabbed their families, pets and whatever they had time to gather and fled from this advancing enemy to the beaches where they huddled and waited for rescue. There was no way out other than by sea. Some locals took to the water in small boats, others waited, anxious and desperate for the army to take them to safety – asylum seekers in their own nation. Eventually all were rescued. 

What followed was an outpouring of compassion, support and generosity from people all over the nation and overseas. The bravery of the fire-fighters, the tireless volunteers providing food, drink and clothing to those left without, offers of accommodation, the donations that rolled in from home and abroad, showed the best of our humanity.

As I watched the boats arrive to take people to safety I had an image of other boats in Australian waters. These carried asylum-seekers, also fleeing danger through war, torture, persecution and hunger. Their numbers were relatively small considering the more than 70 million displaced persons around the world. They sought asylum from us, a wealthy peaceful nation that formerly was known internationally for its generous humanity. 

Australian Immigration Department Poster, 2008.
Used with permission of the Department of Home Affairs

Over the past 30 years that has changed. Successive Australian Governments crafted a uniquely cruel asylum seeker policy. Those who arrive by boat to our shores face harsh deterrence measures – mandatory and indefinite detention, sometimes for years, in offshore detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island, out of sight and contact so that we do not observe their anguish and despair. Even those found to be refugees receive temporary protection visas and are not allowed ever to settle in Australia. We then expect other countries to deal with our responsibilities by agreeing to our requests for placements. The Navy turns back any boats found to be on the way to Australia. A poll taken in 2014 showed 70% of Australians approved of these policies. Our indifference to this tragedy is unacceptable in any human let alone Christian sense.

Why such different responses to these two scenarios? Australians generally are not cruel and vindictive people. Perhaps we saw the bushfire victims as ‘us’ while the boat people are ‘other'. In the latter’s case we have failed to look deeply into their eyes and hear their stories and imagine the simple human reality of suffering. Their dignity as human beings is the same as ours.

There is a story in Scripture that may offer some insight into this reality and that paradoxically may offer us challenge and consolation. It is the account in the gospel of Matthew of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking a cure for her ill daughter...

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Spanish translation using DeepL Translator. Traducción al español con DeepL Translator

Margaret is a member of the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta Congregation. Her ministry has been in teaching and principalship in the Sydney Archdiocese, Consultant for Catholic Education and National Coordinator of the Mission and Justice Adult Education Program. After returning from CTU Chicago, Margaret set up a process called Lifequest that invites groups to engage in exploration and discussion on the mission of Jesus, social justice, cosmology and how these concepts connect with contemporary interpretations of scripture and theology.

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