Has the Church dropped the Refugee ball?

At our seminar on Refugees and Asylum Seekers last Wednesday, we were privileged to have PCNQ executive member, Ruth Delbridge gives us part of her story. Here is it is in more complete form.

In 1978 Rev Doug Kirkup asked me to be a member of the Synod Ecumenical Relationships Committee and also the Queensland Ecumenical Council, now (the Queensland Churches Together).  Little did he know what lay ahead for me when I accepted his request.

I regularly attended the biennial meetings of the Australian Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), and other related meetings of World Christian Action (now Act for Peace) and the Refugee Sub Committee.

This was in the years when the Australian Government and its policies were somewhat more generous in responding to those seeking refuge in Australia, unlike today when people come to Australia who are already traumatised, they are then further traumatised as they negotiate the inhumane policies of the Australian Government.

In 1978 Frank Galbally, a Criminal Lawyer from Melbourne, at the request of the government, produced a report which focused on ways of helping migrants settle into Australian life, of maintaining their cultures and of ensuring they had the same rights and access to services as other Australians.  He recommended the changing of the policy of assimilation to one of multiculturalism.  Out of that Galbally Report came the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS) which was introduced in October 1979.  This was in response to the Indochinese refugee crises, but later it included other ethnic groups and particularly Women at Risk.  It was to help take the pressure off government run migrant centres and hostels, and it allowed refugees to move directly into the community and be supported by community groups and individuals.  These groups were expected to assist the refugee for a minimum of 6 months.  Through this scheme over 30,000 were helped to successfully settle and integrate into the community.

I was a member of the CRSS scheme in Queensland for its two-year life.  It was chaired by Joe Rinaudo, a lawyer, who was described at his funeral as someone with an extraordinary sense of social justice.  His son Ray is now a District Court Judge in Queensland.

My local parish at Mt Gravatt helped to settle about fifteen families through this program.  Last week I met up with Adele Rice who had been the Principal of Milperra Special School for many years. She and I were invited to a meal to celebrate the day, 42 years ago, that one of the men we helped to resettle at Mt Gravatt had arrived in Australia.

In 1988 I visited refugee camps in Hong Kong and Thailand.  No documentary or story can convey the utter despair of seeing  people living in those conditions.  One of the Cambodian refugee families resettled by the Mt Gravatt Parish included a woman who lost two of her three children through starvation as she gradually made her way to the Thai border and a refugee camp.  Her husband been a government official and was killed very early in the conflict.  It took her almost twelve months before she trusted me enough and was comfortable to tell me this part of her story.

In the late eighties and early nineties there was a refugee advocacy presence within the Social Responsibility section of the Queensland Synod, but I see no evidence of that today.

In 1995 I was one of four Uniting Church in Australia delegates to the Christian Conference of Asia General Assembly in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  This was at the height of the civil war. The Tamils of Sri Lanka were alienated and discriminated against for many years, living largely in poverty, leading to much discontent, anger, war and terrorism.   After the conference, I took part in a pastoral visit to Tamil areas with Rev Gregor Henderson, who, at that time was the Assembly General Secretary, and Joy Balazo who was Associate Director – Peacemaking Program at Uniting World and Secretary for Human Rights, Uniting Church in Australia, and also Rev Christo Roberts, a minister of the Church of South India, Jaffna Diocese.

(Joy Balazo founded the Young Ambassadors for Peace, and worked closely with young people in the Solomon Islands and PNG.  In 1912 she was awarded the World Methodist Peace Award.  Later she was nominated for the Australian of the Year Award).  Joy had been a Catholic nun from The Philippines.  When she completed her time at The Uniting Church Assembly she returned to her home country to continue her work for peace).

Also travelling with us to Vavunia, which was the closest we could go to the Jaffna Peninsular, was  Bishop Jebanesan, who regularly had to undergo this long and difficult journey.    (He is the brother of Rev Mano – who had been the minister at Mt Gravatt in the early 1990s),  and also with us was a  mother whose daughter had been a member of a University Lecturer’s Human Rights Group and she had been killed because of her outspoken writings.

We witnessed two long lines of Tamils, one male, the other female, most of them quite elderly, in the dehumanizing situation of standing in the stifling heat and dust waiting to be searched in case they were carrying contraband goods, which included any form of battery and 48 other items including fuel to run generators to provide power.

We then travelled east to Batticaloa and witnessed the destruction of whole villages, beautiful teak forests that were destroyed and beaches deserted.  It was to understand something of the cost to the environment and the lack of freedom people experienced.  The beauty of their countryside had been taken from them.

We had many pauses in our travels – stopped at army and police check points, with razor wire across the road; semi-automatic rifles pointed as us by fifteen-year-old soldiers; our bags scrutinised, while our Tamil friends produced their identification passes which they had to carry at all times and Joy and I looked carefully where we stood in case of hidden land mines.

We saw holes in church roofs from shelling; experienced the self-imposed curfew at Batticaloa, knowing that the army would shoot at shadows after 6.30 p.m. and we were in the centre of Batticaloa on Sunday afternoon when the Independent Army unit roared through on powerful motorbikes, with faces covered with black hoods – it was to feel the fear and tension that people were living with twenty-four hours a day.

Along the way we visited refugee camps, people who were struggling for survival and their future was totally controlled by others.  They were looking for justice, peace and recognition of their human dignity.  Like the sea of faces I saw in camps in Hong Kong and Thailand, these people were individual human beings, with names of their own; not just a group of people who make up facts and figures, but real people who belong to real families and communities.  An overwhelming majority of them were women and children.  It is a challenge to us all to continue to listen to refugees, hear their needs, and be able, with love and caring concern, to walk with them as they journey onwards.  At the time of our visit there were 420,000 displaced Tamil families and they were living in 74 refugee camps.

I believe many Tamils still fear for their lives, and we have witnessed something of this recently with the treatment of the now successfully resettled Tamil Biloela family.

Committees can set agendas, goals and strategies, but it is individuals like you and I who can build loving relationships, helping to provide justice, which must include compassion and empathy.  Anyone who accepts this challenge can expect their life to be greatly enriched, as I can say mine has been.

Life for me has been a journey of discovery, from the crowded cities of Asia, to the depravation and isolation of a relocated mining community from the Rhonda Valley in Wales, to the remoteness of a hurting Aboriginal community on Mornington Island, meeting and interacting with people from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds – a journey where I have been encouraged to understand the structural and root causes of injustice,  and not just work to  mend the fences.

In 1989 I stood on the same platform at a seminar with Hang Ngor, the lead actor in the Killing Fields, the story of Cambodia and the Pol Pot era.  This had been organised by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and chaired by Rev John Mavor.  To prepare myself for this night I read Hang Ngor’s autobiography – not the Killing Fields story, but his own story.  I felt privileged and humble to be able to share in the intimate details of his thoughts, feelings and emotions as he lived through the Pol Pot years and gradually lost each member of his family including his wife.  He suffered torture three times, including being hung on a cross with a smouldering fire lit under his feet.  Reading his book gave me an even greater understanding of the human tragedy involved in being a refugee and further cemented by resolve to stand alongside those who are the victims of war.

That night Hang Ngor challenged us with a request which is just a relevant today as it was in 1989 –

before you go to sleep tonight, close your eyes and open your minds.

Ruth Delbridge,         October 2022




One thought on “Has the Church dropped the Refugee ball?

  1. Dr Brigid Limerick

    Thank you Ruth for this heart breaking account.
    I agree with you that the Uniting Church has dropped the ball where refugees are concerned.
    I gather we do not even have a social justice position anymore in our central office in Queensland.

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