Asylum seekers highlight our poverty

by Roberta Kwan


I have to admit that I don’t cry as often as I should when I hear the news. But I did cry when, amid the torrent of pre-election verbiage, I heard Tony Abbott, our now-Prime Minister, re-affirm his party’s stance on asylum seekers and refugees: “The essential point is, this is our country and we determine who comes here.”

“We determine who comes here.” In other words, we (a short, abstract, yet powerful word — simultaneously inclusive and exclusive) are not beholden to the claims or even to the presence of those who are other than us. While noting the irony inherent in this statement, I was also filled with a deep sadness. I was saddened by the lack of compassion toward vulnerable, suffering people (a few of whom are personal friends) that it represents. And I was saddened by what it might imply about our nation’s receptivity to grace, especially God’s grace.

Mr Abbott is too politically astute to make such a comment unless he thought it would resonate with the majority of Australians, or more pointedly, the majority of voters. So what do his words suggest about our psyche, our hearts? Something we might deem offensive or outrageous if personally applied? I don’t think so. I wonder if the idea articulated that winter’s day (and not only then, but on many occasions by public figures of various political persuasions) points to a widely-held belief that it is right to judge the value of other human beings — and indeed ourselves — on the basis of merit and desert (although we are generally kinder to ourselves).

This worldview is echoed in the words of Scott Morrison, our current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, who asserted in 2011 that the focus of Australia’s immigration policy is on skilled migration because “people are invited to come into the country to make a contribution.”

“Making a contribution”, “merit”, “desert”. These concepts could easily form the basis of an Australian creed that governs so much of our thinking and behaviour. What happens when we apply it to asylum seekers? Measured economically, can every asylum seeker make a contribution to our country? Perhaps not, at least in the short term, given that many arrive on our shores destitute. Has every asylum seeker done enough to merit a visa? Probably not, compared with many others who would like to live in Australia. What do asylum seekers deserve from us, when we consider someone deserving (of reward or punishment) because of their prior actions? When framed by the familiar, comfortable language of reciprocity and worthiness, problematic questions are raised about asylum seekers and refugees; it’s not surprising that these people are often viewed unfavourably. 

“Contribution”, “merit”, “desert”. According to the Bible, these concepts are the antithesis of God’s grace. Grace is God’s bearing towards humanity, his undeserved and unmerited favour and love, given supremely in his offer of salvation. God’s grace was epitomized when Jesus, the perfect Son of God, willingly and at great cost, hung on a cross to effect that salvation. And as he did so, he answered the cry for mercy of another man, who knew that his own imminent death was the just desert for his deeds (Luke 23:41). “Truly I tell you”, Jesus promised the guilty thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This man, this criminal, received God’s grace. Undeserved, unmerited; he contributed nothing of his own worth to it. This is the grace of God: eternal salvation given freely to someone who was in no way entitled to it, who could not earn it, and yet who desperately needed it. And many consider this grace outrageous. 

Moreover, this outrageous grace becomes offensive grace when, from God’s perspective, the Bible situates each human being alongside the man dying on a cross — not the perfect man, but the iniquitous man, the one from whom I would have kept well-distant in the Palestinian marketplaces. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is uncomfortable, offensive language to apply to anyone. And it redefines Mr Abbott’s “we”. For the Bible situates “we” in Australia, “we” who may want to exert influence over who comes in and who stays out, alongside the rest of humanity, including asylum seekers. Together we constitute a universal “all”. We — Australians and asylum seekers alike — have all sinned; we are all spiritually destitute. We — Australians and asylum seekers alike — all need God’s grace; and in his mercy and love, he offers it freely to all of us. 

As I reflected on Mr Abbott’s comment that “we determine who comes here”, I realized that it makes complete sense — except for this offensive truth about who we are as humans and God’s outrageous response to us in his abundant grace. It makes sense to respond to others’ need on the basis of the creed of contribution, merit, and desert — except that ultimately, in God’s eyes, we are all united, and he has responded to all of us with his costly mercy and love.

My first reaction to what I heard was indignation against Mr Abbott and all those who may think similarly to him. But this was surprisingly overcome by sadness as I thought about how the public discourse about and treatment of needy (and quite possibly undeserving) asylum seekers and refugees betrays a distressing reality: an understanding of God’s grace and our need for it is far from the hearts of most of those whose voices we hear, and from their intended audiences. Our attention is often drawn to our financial difficulties (or their imminence — ironic, given how materially well-off we are on any global indicator), and this is sometimes linked with a response to asylum seekers and refugees. Meanwhile, our spiritual difficulties seem unnoticed and irrelevant. Sadly, I think this impoverishes us as individuals and as a nation. Our lesser Australian creed stifles our willingness to know and be shaped by the God of grace, and along with this the opportunity to experience the freedom and joy that comes from responding to others in accord with the outrageous and abundant grace that we have been given.1 May God have mercy on our nation.

Roberta Kwan has had the privilege of visiting asylum seekers in Villawood Detention Centre for the past two years, and the opportunity to both share the grace of God in Jesus with some people and learn more about this grace from others.

If you're based in Sydney, and you and your church are keen to serve asylum seekers and refugees, there are several churches that are already doing it. They need help in a variety of ways. The opportunities to serve in partnership with these churches include: ESL classes, homework help, befriending an asylum seeker or refugee, donating of household items and professional services and more. If you would like more information, please e-mail

Beyond Sydney, to find out more about how you and your church can serve asylum seekers and refugees, you could contact International Teams ( or Welcome to Australia (; see also this interview with the founder). The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre ( and the Refugee Council of Australia ( also provide information on volunteering among asylum seekers and refugees.

1. Of course, Christians have received God’s grace, given to us freely in the costly death of his Son; we do know him and are being re-moulded by his grace. Yet if you are like me, comprehending the magnitude of God’s grace and responding to others on the basis of his love and mercy toward me can at times be a struggle: the powerful influence of the creed of our culture can sway my heart and mind. And while receiving grace is free, giving it is costly. I’ve certainly struggled with the implications of having God’s grace shape my response to asylum seekers and refugees, while also experiencing significant joy as he’s given me opportunities to get to know a few needy people who have come to our country seeking grace. The implications of God’s grace are overwhelming and frightening, liberating and life-giving.