Reflections on Christmas, 2016

Most other times I can momentarily leave politics to the side, but I can't bring myself to 'celebrate' Christmas with people that knowingly vote for refugee detention on our shores.

It says something that two Muslim friends, who don’t even believe in Christmas, have invited me to spend Christmas Day with their families in their homes because it pains them to know I will be alone on my holy day. By contrast, this Christian nation willfully supports the locking up of Muslim refugees to be tortured, raped and abused because ‘we’re full’ and ‘can’t afford' to shelter them.

It is somewhat ironic that the hypocrisy of this stance is most evident in the season to celebrate Christ’s birth. During Christmas, Australians are predicted to spend AUD$48.1 billion at retail stores. Of this, $19 billion will be spent on food and $8.8 billion on presents alone. By contrast, Australia has spent $9.6 billion between 2013 and 2016 to fund its deterrence policies against refugees.

It costs something like AUD$1 mill per year to house a single asylum seeker on Manus Island, and estimates of housing refugees in the community are between $12,000 and $40,000 per year to house them in the community on a bridging visa. Taking the more conservative costing, if we didn’t buy presents for each other to ‘celebrate’ Christ’s birth but rather enacted the lessons Christ gave us to help the destitute we could potentially house 220,000 refugees in Australia on a bridging visa each year. Alternatively, if we had used the money we already spent on draconian deterrence policies over the last 4 years we could have already housed 60,000 refugees to live in our community while their refugee status is being determined. This presumes they aren't working. If they had the right to work it would cost less. Instead, we have enacted a policy to forcibly incarcerate them where they are tortured, raped, physically assaulted and medically neglected. So how did we get here?

Christmas Island is the site where Australia's draconian refugee policy was born. The island was so named by Captain William Mynors in 1643 when he sailed past it on Christmas Day. In August 2001, when the Norwegian ship, MV Tampa, attempted to disembark 438 refugees on Christmas Island, it was forcibly stopped by Australian special forces under the orders of the then Prime Minister John Howard. As Suvendrini Perera brilliantly outlines, this led to an emergency cabinet meeting where the then Prime Minister Howard excised Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone so that they could not claim asylum. And so John Howard's Pacific Solution was born.

A few months later in October 2001, another boat carrying asylum seekers sunk off the coast of Christmas Island when it was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide. In order to malign the public against the refugees, the Howard government made public allegations, repeated by journalists, that the parents had threatened to throw, or had thrown, their own children overboard to save themselves, which were later proved to be false.

The 'children overboard scandal' was a propaganda masterstroke that exploited the public’s fears of a wave of immigrants for support in the upcoming election, while simultaneously silencing any sympathy for the refugees from the ‘bleeding hearts’ by portraying the refugees as themselves heartless. The children overboard claims could not be challenged without evidence that obviously had to wait until an investigation was possible well after the election.

Our willingness to lie about refugees for political gain, while severely punishing them for seeking refuge, continues throughout our subsequent refugee policies. Often touted as protecting a Christian Australia, they starkly reveal that we are only ever nominally Christian. Our impoverished version of Christianity is most evident in this clip of our ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott trying to explain how turning back refugees was consistent with the teachings of Christ: 

Notice the twists and turns the then Prime Minister Abbott performs in order to ignore the central teachings of the Second Testament. The Cleansing of the Temple that Abbott invokes was when Jesus drove the traders from the temple because they had made a house of worship into a house of trade, not because he believed things belonged in specific places. In various versions of the story in the Bible, Jesus refers to them as 'thieves' because they profited off the poor and the widowed. It is a condemnation of those that would use the temple to generate money, that would twist prayer into profiting off the downtrodden. In other words, the moral of the story is the complete opposite of Abbott's retelling, which he uses to justify turning away those in need.

We should remember that Abbott wanted to be a priest and so his misinterpretation must be understood as a willful attempt to mislead since it contradicts so much of the Second Testament. He ignores the circumstances of Christ’s birth, with Mary and Joseph seeking refuge from the Massacre of the Innocents according to the Gospel of Matthew. Gone is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) where Jesus answered the question ‘who is a neighbour?’. And it ignores the numerous injunctions in the Bible to help the poor and the needy, such as Matthew 25:45 where it warns that whatever we do or do not do for the least of our brethren (i.e. the most destitute, most poor, most downtrodden of humanity) we also do to, or do not do for, Christ.

In fact the Abbott government was so morally bankrupt that when refugee mothers were self-harming in the misguided hope that their children would be allowed to come to Australia, Tony Abbot’s response was to accuse them of ‘moral blackmail’. Any human being would have had at least a moment of sorrow, a bit of shame and possibly self-doubt. Not so for our then Prime Minister, who, unable to recognise his own conscience, projected the negative feelings generated by his conscience onto the victims to then accuse them of forcing him to feel sorry for them. Notice too that whereas the children overboard scandal under John Howard portrayed refugees as being heartless because they were willing to sacrifice their children for themselves, in this case the parent's own willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children is now portrayed as a form of 'blackmail'.

This is what comes of decades of allowing shock jocks and rightwingers to use ‘bleeding hearts’ as a pejorative to disparage attempts to centralise humanity and compassion at the core of good Australian 'Christian' citizenship. The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most well-known devotions of the Roman Catholic Church:

 Pompeo Batoni 1767  Sacred Heart of Jesus . This is a common image of the sacred heart. Variations are used extensively in Catholic imagery.

Pompeo Batoni 1767 Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is a common image of the sacred heart. Variations are used extensively in Catholic imagery.

 Catholic Card, circa 1880. Auguste Martin Collection, University of Dayton Libraries

Catholic Card, circa 1880. Auguste Martin Collection, University of Dayton Libraries

The physical heart of Jesus, sometimes represented as bleeding from an arrow, is taken as the manifestation of Christ’s love for humanity. It is also meant to be a reminder for us to practice the teachings of Christ, particularly his commandment to ‘love one another’. The Christian Right and increasingly the mainstream media have done everything possible to undermine this message. They openly mock people who have ‘bleeding hearts’ so that the average Australian now thinks it is a sign of weakness when individuals cannot abide the violence against asylum seekers. Their message has borne fruit. After years of forced, mandatory, mass incarceration of people fleeing persecution, the violence against those we detain has been extensively documented now in innumerable reports both national and international.

And so it was that we arrived this Christmas to wake up to the death of anther refugee in our detention system; this time from medical neglect. Faysal Ishak Ahmed, a 27 year old refugee from Sudan, detained in Manus for over 4 years despite his claims to refugee status being upheld by the Australian authorities, had suffered from seizures and blackouts for several months prior to his death. Despite seeking medical treatment from International Health and Medical Services, which manage the medical services in refugee detention, he was consistently told he had no problems. At one point IHMS actually banned him from returning because they claimed there was nothing wrong with him, which prompted 60 refugees to sign a petition to provide Ahmed with adequate medical assistance. The petition fell on deaf ears. Ahmed collapsed in detention on Thursday and was flown to Brisbane hospital where he died on Christmas eve.

 Refugee Banner on Manus Island, 2016 (source: Refugee Rights Action Network Western Australia,  https://www.facebook.com/rran.org/posts/738398296311738)

Refugee Banner on Manus Island, 2016 (source: Refugee Rights Action Network Western Australia, https://www.facebook.com/rran.org/posts/738398296311738)

Today, a ‘Christian’ nation will greet each other with 'Merry Christmas', stuffing their faces with more food than they need, as their children gleefully scratch open their $8.8bill worth of presents. While their children run into the backyard, squealing in delight, to play with whatever expensive bauble they’ve just received from Santa, asylum seekers are ‘celebrating’ Christmas getting beaten by the security guards and ignored by the medical personnel we hired to abuse them. I can already imagine the spin that the (nominally 'Christian') Right will pin on these events to paint the refugees and asylum seekers as 'ungrateful' and 'undeserving' so that we can go on with our Boxing Day shopping having convinced ourselves that it was 'their fault' all along.