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Refugee advocacy ‘moving underground’

Parts of the church have fallen asleep when it comes to advocacy for asylum-seekers and refugees, says Justin Whelan.

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Whelan, a co-founder of the Love Makes A Way movement, which seeks an end to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies through prayer and civil disobedience actions, says some churches have simply moved on from the mass protests and high-profile sit-ins and offers of sanctuary, to a more grassroots advocacy in their local communities. In a way, it’s also what Whelan himself has done. He is now working as a community organiser for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

“There might be less high-profile activism, marches and sit-ins, but there is more happening below the surface.”

“It’s from the community and local relationships that will help people navigate their way through difficult political questions. But different seasons call for different ways to respond and we need the right tactics and strategies for those times,” Whelan told Eternity. 

“There might be less high-profile activism, marches and sit-ins, but there is more happening below the surface. People are working at local and grassroots levels to engage their communities, to change the conversation and direct advocacy to MPs.”

He says he helped start the Love Makes A Way movement amid one of Australia’s “darkest moments” in its treatment of asylum-seekers.

“We were in a dark place as a nation. Children were being held [in detention] indefinitely. At that stage, the government had no interest in releasing children from detention, and churches were at the forefront of advocating for their release. And that was largely successful.”

“We’ve become used to our own brutality and it doesn’t make much news any more.”

Whelan says that, in 2014, Australian churches really “stepped up”, both from the pews and in the pulpits. Across the country, Christians participated in rallies and sit-ins in the offices of members of parliament, making headlines. Whelan believes that advocacy played a part in the government’s eventual decision to take children out of detention.

“I think Love Makes A Way arose at a time when it was much needed, where we needed non-violent, direct action to really wake up the church. And I think we did succeed in doing that.”

Yet, Whelan concedes parts of the church have switched from protesting against the government’s hard line on asylum-seekers to focus on other worthy issues such as domestic violence.

“All we can do is keep up that struggle and keep the light shining in the darkness.”

“It is true that a lot of people have shifted their focus. It’s partly because people feel despondent – the advocacy hasn’t been completely successful,” he says.

“But the most shocking and appalling part of the way we treat people seeking asylum is still how we detain people on Manus Island and Nauru. And the current government has made it clear they have no plan and are not forming a plan to deal with that.

“We just recently saw another man tragically take his life on Manus. And this is the reality of our detention policy. We are killing people. But we’ve become used to our own brutality and it doesn’t make much news any more. And that’s really hard.”

It’s this desensitisation to suffering that Whelan hopes to change through a Bible study series for Bible Society Australia’s Daily Bible email service in which he focuses on passages in Scripture that can reframe our attitudes towards asylum-seekers and refugees.

“If we go back to our Scriptures, and we know all about [the hard times]. We know about the hard years and the times where we can’t see justice or righteousness. And all we can do is keep up that struggle and keep the light shining in the darkness.”

In the lead-up to Refugee Week later this month (from 17-23 June), Whelan encourages people to move away from political events in favour of social ones that let them meet refugees, who have plenty of stories to tell.

“There is nothing more powerful than personal encounter. Their experience is so much more valuable than what we see in the news. And it can often help us deconstruct the politically toxic language we hear in the news.”

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