Towards the end of 2017 Micah’s Executive Director, Tim Costello, travelled to Manus Island to spend time with the men in the centre there. Tim tells the story of Karam, a Kurdish Iranian who was forced to flee the persecution he faced for publishing poetry in Kurdish. At the time he fled, his wife was pregnant.
Tim recounts; “He had not seen his four-year-old son and was intermittently in tears about his loss. He said when he Skypes his family, he breaks down, thinking that he should be there to protect them. I asked him why he wouldn’t settle in Papua New Guinea and at least tell his son and wife they would soon be reunited. He said, apart from the few prospects and volatility of PNG, it would be another eight-year wait to reunite the family.”
During 2018, Micah will be formulating specific policy goals and strategic campaigns, to help equip Australian Christians to advocate for justice for the poor and vulnerable in our world. But, beyond our particular political focus at any given time, we will continually seek to equip Australian Christians to understand and engage with the pressing global issues of injustice today.
What’s happening to the men on Manus Island is one such issue. It is an issue that demands us, as followers of Christ, to have a well-informed perspective, founded in the clear heart and instruction of God about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
In a recent interview, Pastor and Co-Founder of the First Home Project, Jarrod McKenna simply put it like this
“If your thing’s following Jesus, there is no asterisk next to love your neighbour, and these are our neighbours…”
So what is happening just over the fence, and across the sea, to our neighbours?
Recent Events on Manus Island
On 31 October 2017, Manus Island processing centre which had held about 600 asylum seekers and refugees, some for up to 5 years, was officially closed by the Australian government. About 90% had been found to be genuine refugees. Water and electricity were cut off, and food and medical supplies were no longer sent to the camp. The men were meant to be transferred to new centres, spread throughout Papua New Guinea. However, these areas were known to have issues with violence, and construction of the sites had not yet been completed. In an exercise of agency, the men remained inside the centre, and resisted the transfer.
After 23 days, the men were forced out by police and transferred to three different centres across the country, none of which had yet been complete. Writing from one of the centres, journalist, and detainee, Behrouz Boochani, explains that while the men were able walk into the local villages during the day, fostering local connections, tensions between the communities have resulted in violent attacks on the refugees. As Boochani writes “The political, social and cultural realities here are very complex, but the many pressure points can at any time threaten the life and safety of refugees.” Conditions in these centres have not improved greatly, as Boochani writes, “It has now been three months since some refugees were forced to set up makeshift beds in a number of classrooms. They face ongoing issues with more difficult access to toilets and showers. They sleep in rooms as a group with no privacy.”
Without any clear prospect of resettlement or reunion with their family in a place of safety, our neighbours are left without any sense of home. Tim recalls;
“Most of the refugees I spoke to had been drained of hope. They have a heaviness of spirit about them. Their struggle is existential: they are told that Australian public opinion is against them, detained, ignored, sent the message that they are somehow outside the scope of ordinary human kindness, out of sight and out of mind.”
So, what does the Bible say about how we are to respond, as Gods people seeking justice, mercy and humility in our world today?
Knowing God’s Heart and His Commands
Hope and home.
Two simple words that speak of the heart, and character, of God. We see it throughout the Bible in the way God designed, set apart, rescued and restored His people. We see it in Genesis 1:27, Psalm 46, Isaiah 43, Luke 15:1-32 and 1 John 3:1.
We know the importance of these words in our own lives after an experience of dislocation leaves us feeling vulnerable, hurt and helpless. They are two words that can bring healing, joy, and security in the midst of dislocation from identity, purpose, family, or community, through the love of Christ.
Yet for our neighbours on Manus Island, these are two words that have perhaps become distant concepts. It is not just one aspect of life that has been displaced; it is the whole of life. It is a loss of identity, purpose, family, community and safety; hope and home.
Perhaps this is the reason God’s heart overflows to very specific and clear commands throughout the Bible to love, care for and protect the ‘foreigner’, the refugee; Exodus 23:9, Numbers 15:15, Hebrews 13:2. As Deuteronomy 10:17-18 says “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords… He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” And Leviticus 19:34
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
So, how do we respond? How do we seek the home and hope of our Father for our neighbours on Manus? Jarrod McKenna encourages us to;
“Get creative, stay humble, stay informed, find 2 or 3 other people that you can do something with…”
But importantly, in partnering with God in seeking His kingdom and expressing His love for our neighbours, let’s continue to remember to come to Him in constant prayer, offering up our grief, our cries, our hopes and our praises.
We come to you who once was a refugee,
To plead the cause of those who today are refugees.
We come to you as the One who hears the cry of the poor & oppressed,
And call you to hear the cry of… the despairing on Manus Island...
In the depths of their despair,
May they find a flicker of hope.
In the grip of their fear,
May they find Papuans who will be their shelter.