Love them as yourself - a journey amongst Iranian asylum seekers

Over the past eight years, I have been involved in caring for Emmanuel Iranian Church, a congregation of Iranian asylum seekers in Melbourne, most of whom are recent converts from Islam to Christianity. It has been an exciting – and at times, exhilarating – ride. We have seen many miracles of God’s grace, in answered prayers, changed lives, and people following Jesus with a passion that would leave many Australian Christians in the dust.

For me, this journey has also come with considerable pain, due to my growing understanding of the way Australia has been treating these people.

Our Unsettled Maritime Arrivals

The Iranians I work with are almost all ‘maritime arrivals’: they came to Australia by sea from Indonesia. These maritime arrivals were coming to our shores in a flood, guided – and fleeced – by people smugglers after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the end of offshore processing. Thousands of the arrivals were Iranian.

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The asylum seekers launched out in leaky fishing boats, sourced at minimal cost to the people smugglers, with no regard for safety. As they set out, their hope was that the Australian Navy might find them on the high seas. Some did not make it, and others barely made it. One of our members lost nine family members, drowned somewhere in the ocean between Indonesia and Australia. The ordained Iranian pastor couple who now lead Emmanuel, the church I have been serving, spent fifteen days on a fishing boat with no food. She was four months pregnant. They were despairing of life itself by the time the Australian Navy emerged from the early dawn gloom to rescue them. I have met hundreds of maritime arrivals, but I have yet to meet single one who believes that the people smugglers should be permitted to continue their trade.

To stop the flow of boats from Indonesia, the Australian government reintroduced offshore processing and legislated a suite of disincentives for boat arrivals. The government vowed that anyone who arrived by boat after a certain date in 2012 – which was made retrospective – would never be allowed to ‘settle’ here. What this meant, in essence, was that even if someone’s claim to asylum was accepted as genuine, the best that they and their family could hope for was a three-year or five-year protection visa, which had to be renewed time after time. It was said that they would have to reapply for protection again and again. In effect, we made a decision to do them slowly: making them hurt and making the pain endure.

Today there are tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Australia who, a decade later, are still trapped in the asylum-seeking machine. Their misery deserves to be precisely understood. They fall into five categories.

The Early Birds

Some, who arrived before the guillotine fell on maritime arrivals, were accepted as permanent residents, on track to becoming citizens.

Accepted but Unwelcome

Others, who arrived later, were eventually assessed as genuine asylum seekers, and they are on rolling three-year or five-year visas. These people pay their share of income tax and GST but are not allowed to access many benefits, such as Austudy.

The world is very different from the way it was a decade ago. Our nation’s needs are different. We have been through hard times, and told ourselves, ‘We’re all in this together.’ Yet some are underneath, denied and rejected.

These non-settlers are also not allowed to own property in Australia – which is ironic, because an Iranian ayatollah can buy an Australian home, but someone fleeing the Islamic Republic of Iran who came here by boat cannot own a piece of Australian soil. These people also must reapply for Centrelink and Medicare benefits every year in a complicated and difficult process, resubmitting documents they had already provided in all the previous years.

Sometimes the government is slow to renew a temporary visa after the three or five years. One family with three children, all born in Australia, was left without a visa for months, despite repeatedly warning the Department in advance that their visa was due to expire. When the whole family got seriously ill with the flu, they were caught in the gap between visas, and, without a visa, there was no Medicare coverage for doctors’ fees or pharmaceuticals. This cost them thousands. Eventually, the government got around to renewing the visas, and they could yet again begin the laborious process of reapplying for Medicare.

It is particularly grim for the children of these families. If they wish to access tertiary education after making their way through an Australian secondary school, they must pay international students’ fees, which for most is an impossible dream.

These people on “permanent temporary” visas are kept in the shadows, forever unwelcome, fighting their way through obstacle after obstacle. They cannot travel overseas. The government happily takes their income tax, and taxes their consumption through the GST, but grants them limited access to benefits. Heaven help them if they get seriously ill while falling through the deliberately torn ‘safety net’ engineered for them by the authorities.

Still Waiting

A third category comprises those who are still waiting, after almost a decade, for an initial hearing of their asylum claims. These are on temporary bridging visas, and they face all the same difficulties as the people awarded temporary protection, with the added burden of uncertainty. After they have waited for years, eventually a day suddenly arrives when they are told, with short notice, that their case will be heard. Their initial or subsequent claims for asylum are scrutinised and assessed.

I have sat in on a number of these interviews and listened to recordings of others, all cases of people who are claiming asylum because of their Christian faith. The interview normally includes an interrogation of the asylum seeker’s knowledge of Christianity to test the genuineness of their conversion. This can be a lottery of a process: strange and disturbing things can take place in these interviews.

One man’s claim for his family was rejected, and one of the reasons given was that he stated in his interview that Pentecost was a Jewish festival. And so it is – but the Minister’s Delegate “knew better.”

Another Iranian asylum seeker was grilled using the question ‘What was Jesus’ job?’ It seems that the Delegate was after the word “carpenter.” The asylum seeker answered that Jesus’ job was to preach the gospel and give sight to the blind.

Dissatisfied, the Minister’s Delegate pressed him again. “Did he earn any money?” The Iranian replied, “He was not working for money.” From this, the Delegate concluded, in his rejection of the asylum seeker’s claim, that he did not ‘know the basics of Jesus the carpenter and his life and death.’

It was a sleight of hand to pull the death of Christ into this summary: the asylum seeker had given the Delegate no reason whatsoever to conclude that he was unfamiliar with Jesus’ death.

But what about the fact that he had not given the presumably expected answer of ‘carpenter’?

In 20 years of preaching more than one thousand sermons, I have never preached on “Jesus the carpenter.” Why? Only one verse in the Bible calls Jesus a ‘carpenter’ (Mark 6:3). Furthermore, the apostles’ letters in the New Testament say nothing about this, no doubt because this information was irrelevant to the spiritual needs of the Christian converts to whom they were writing.

More than this, the asylum seeker’s answers actually agrees with what Jesus himself said when he described healing the sick on the Sabbath as his “work” (John 5:17). They are also confirmed by a report that Jesus was supported financially, not by making furniture, but by a few wealthy women (Luke 8:3). Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere in the Bible of Jesus making any money from carpentry. Finally, although the Greek word tekton, used of Jesus in Mark 6:3 and of his father Joseph (Matthew 13:55), has been rendered in Western cultural tradition as ‘carpenter’, depicted in paintings, poetry and songs, the word actually had the more general meaning of ‘artisan’ or ‘builder’. Jesus could well have been a builder’s labourer.

In this instance, the asylum seeker’s answers actually reflected an understanding of the life of Christ that was superior to that of the Minister’s Delegate who interviewed him. The asylum seeker had a genuine disciple’s knowledge of the life of Jesus of the Gospels: he knew that Jesus had no money and dedicated himself to preaching the gospel and healing the sick. In contrast, the Delegate knew the Jesus of religious iconography, which romantically places the young Jesus in his father Joseph’s carpentry workshop. Yet the Delegate found, and the Reviewer reiterated, that ‘the applicant had very little factual knowledge of Christianity, including the background of Jesus Christ.’

Another Iranian asylum seeker I have met came from a family that was at odds with the authorities. She had been incarcerated in the notorious Evin prison, where she was repeatedly and severely assaulted. She became badly damaged psychologically as a result. One of the legacies of her trauma in Iran is that she can experience episodes when she relives past assaults, and these episodes can seem as real to her as if she were being assaulted all over again. Later she can remember these as fresh assaults. In her case, the Minister’s Delegate concluded that since such reports of continued assaults and harassment were not credible, her claim to asylum also could not be trusted.

Because of her damaged state, it was very difficult for this woman even to ask for the kind of help she needed to mount a legal case. Somehow, she continues on, with no safety net, no Medicare, a significant trauma-induced psychiatric condition requiring medical treatment, no means of support, and mounting legal costs for her appeal, which only happened because a compassionate person, seeing her need, advocated for her.

On such considerations as these, whole futures are decided.

Under Appeal

A fourth category of seekers is those who have been rejected but have chosen to appeal their case in an Australian court. Twenty or thirty thousand dollars in legal fees later, they might get satisfaction, but it will take years for their cases even to reach the courts. Formerly, they could have appealed through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), but part of the guillotine that came down on the heads of the maritime arrivals is that their cases are processed without the option of a proper hearing before the AAT. A rapid, automatic ‘Fast Track Review’ takes place after each rejection.

While someone is waiting for their court case to be heard, they may or may not be granted a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV), which can allow them to work and access some limited benefits. However, someone waiting for a court hearing can apply for a TPV only if the Minister himself grants them leave to do so. If they are not granted leave to apply, they must find a means to live and raise funds for their legal case as an illegal resident.

A particularly excruciating part of the asylum seeker process for maritime arrivals has been the slow-drip system of processing applications. The reason the Australian government is taking up to a decade to process applications, locking people in limbo for a significant portion of their lifespan, seems to be that the branch of the public service that processes these applications is under-resourced, apparently deliberately. This engineered bottleneck will not be helped by the arrival of thousands of new Afghan asylum seekers.

The Terminally Rejected

Our fifth, final and most miserable category of asylum seekers is those who have been rejected, and either they are not appealing, or their final appeal to the courts has failed. They are truly in an endless limbo. Thousands of them live among us, with no benefits. It is illegal for them to earn a living. Their only option is to take cash jobs, where they are readily exploited.

One couple in this category had a pregnancy but the baby was stillborn at seven months. With no medical coverage, the couple had overwhelming medical bills. However, as they had previously been working in good jobs while on a bridging visa and waiting for their interview, the woman applied to her superannuation fund for a release of funds on the basis of their desperate need. This request was rejected: she was told that as someone without residency rights, she could not access her own super funds. She turned to Centrelink to see whether she could access a stillborn baby grant, but the officer she spoke to threw her papers back at her, telling her she was not eligible.

Shadow People

There are thousands of ‘shadow people’ in the categories described above. They are told again and again, in many, many ways, that they are not welcome here. But here they are, brought onto our shores by our own Navy. They are living among us, marrying and giving birth, raising children, trying to get by. Their worst nightmare is to get sick, or even worse, for their children to get sick. Another disaster is losing their jobs, with no unemployment benefits to fall back on. Before 2020, their lives were already precarious, but now COVID lockdowns have cost many of them their jobs, and this is decimating them emotionally and financially.

Many in these categories cannot access proper, permanent employment, even if they are eligible and have the skills to work. Some employers, fully aware of their vulnerability, prefer to keep them as casual employees so they can sack them whenever they like without legal consequences. Such workers are the first to lose their jobs in a downturn. Even worse, some asylum seekers in cash jobs have been robbed of wages by their employers, because the employers know that the asylum seekers are in such a precarious situation, with so many disadvantages compared with permanent residents, that they are in no position to initiate legal action to get justice. The asylum seekers just have to suck it up and look for yet another job.

These shadow people were ruled ineligible for JobKeeper. Although some were paid from JobKeeper receipts by their employers, the employers were later chased down by the ATO and told to return the money. In this way, the government has discriminated both against asylum seekers and against their employers.

So many of these shadow people suffer from psychological trauma, not only from the situations they have escaped but also from running the gauntlet of being an asylum seeker in Australia. However, many have no money to pay psychologist or psychiatrist bills.

One couple arrived in Australia as asylum seekers. They now have no visa or Medicare, and no Centrelink benefits. Both were working, he as a mechanic and she as a hairdresser, but they both lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. They had to leave their rental accommodation because they had no money for rent, but they couldn’t even afford the cost of moving.

Some might ask why the government doesn’t send the people whose claims have been rejected back to Iran or whichever other country they have come from. However, during the COVID crisis, no one is being repatriated anywhere. In any case, there appears to be no plan to repatriate either the ‘accepted-but-unsettled’ asylum seekers who are on “permanent temporary” visas or those who have been rejected.

A Painful Burden

The fledgling church I have been involved with, Emmanuel Iranian Church, is bearing the burden of caring for these people. This is a heavy burden. Is this also part of the government’s plan? These people not only need money for medicine and food: they need pastoral care, encouragement and hope. Our over-burdened team does what it can. It is the case of the rejected caring for the rejected.

In what I have written here I have focused on Iranian converts to Christianity because these are the people I know, who have shared their lives and stories with me.  However, I am equally concerned for all asylum seekers, not just Christians.

As an Australian, I find it deeply challenging that our government has been so systematically cruel to people whose crime was to come to Australia by boat. I say this as someone who has strongly supported stopping the people smugglers: it was a national shame that this dark trade in human beings was allowed to restart through a lapse of vigilance by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. However, there must be a better way to deal with the tens of thousands now stuck in Australia because they had the misfortune to arrive by boat after a certain date. We are creating a permanent underclass of non-citizens out of these people and their children.

Good Stories and Bad Stories

There have been some good stories. One family arrived in Australia so late that they should have been shipped to Manus Island with other late arrivals. But this was a mother with three children, so they were allowed to stay. For months, they were shifted from camp to camp until they were finally released. After two years of high school – and that was all the education in English he had received – one of the three children won a scholarship to study Engineering. This was one of a small number of scholarship places provided by universities to asylum seekers, who would otherwise miss out on a tertiary education. This bright young man went on to complete his degree and has found employment as an engineer, despite his lack of a permanent visa.

This was a good story, made possible through an act of compassion by a university, but I can think of another bright young man who arrived here by boat as a teenager eight years ago with his family. He spoke excellent English, and ought to have finished a tertiary qualification by now. Instead, he is working in a laundry, his future washing away. Although his asylum case was accepted, he is now one of our “permanent temporaries.” He will almost certainly be in Australia for the rest of his life, his once bright prospects squandered.

I am a Christian, and as I process these reflections through a Biblical grid, I keep reflecting on Leviticus 19:34, which warns the Israelites that ‘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.’

‘Love them as yourself!’ We Australians are not coming within a bull’s roar of heeding this injunction. Instead, our declared intention, enshrined in legislation and enacted by officials, is to ensure that these people never ‘settle’. They should, we insist, remain forever restless, without prospects, caught in limbo, lost. Whatever we do, we have vowed never to “love them as ourselves.”

Time for a Change

It is time for a change. The world is very different from the way it was a decade ago. Our nation’s needs are different. We have been through hard times, and told ourselves, ‘We’re all in this together.’ Yet some are underneath, denied and rejected.

We have no plans to fix this. We force thousands to remain stuck forever in no man’s land. They are the can that keeps getting kicked further and further down the road.

Surely it is time for a change. There is much that could be done. Greater resources should be allocated to processing the backlog of cases. The right to a Tribunal hearing needs to be restored, because the taking away of this right was a punitive act designed to discourage and hurt those affected. People we have no intention of deporting can be given better safety net support. We can stop damaging the lives of children, including many born in Australia.

It is time to begin moving the maritime arrivals into permanency. These people have much to offer us. They want to work. They need no lessons in resilience and self-reliance. They are diligent and able to work hard. There is a labour shortage. It is time to end this policy of deliberate extended cruelty.

Mark Durie is Director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Senior Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre of the Melbourne School of Theology, and a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum. 

Pray

Some prayer points to help

Pray for justice for these asylum seekers and for those who support them, and the Tribunal members and others making decisions about them.