Refugees and Belonging in Destination Australia!

July 04, 2018

Refugees and Belonging in Destination Australia!

Image: M. Bennett


Mark Bennett


The magnitude and complexity of issues facing by displaced people around the globe can be overwhelming. Drawing on the Bible and his many years working among refugees in Africa, Mark Bennet shares his own experiences, looking at the current state of affairs with particular focus on Australia, and lays out the most important considerations for improving the situation in the future.


In January 1995, my wife Annette and I set off to work amongst refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan (now South Sudan), Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, who were living in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt had no system to recognise asylum seekers or evaluate refugee claims. Many lived in the city without legal status, and so without access to health, education for their children or employment. We were privileged to spend 10 years with this community working with the Episcopal Church.

While working in Egypt, it was clear people loved their home countries—even countries with devastating economic conditions, even with insecurity. They belonged. Relaxing with spicy sweet chai in Cairo, my colleagues would tell me about the mangos in South Sudan, about sitting by the Nile river near Juba the capital, about the wealth of their cattle and land. They longed to go back to their food, their language, their community customs, the place they felt at home, where they could dance their traditions. But now they were in Egypt. Walking down Cairo streets they stood out. Tall, ebony skinned, mocked, abused and spat upon as they walked along. They spoke a form of Arabic, but one not well understood in Egypt. Their children had no school. There was no healthcare, no formal employment opportunities, and when in informal jobs they were accused of taking work from the locals. They knew they were hated in Egypt and longed to go home, but could not.

At the same time, there was a constant fear of being deported home. They yearned for peace and well-being for their children. They had heard of asylum options in Australia, Canada and the USA. The stories and images on the TV and internet made it seem like heaven. How could they get there?

When I first took up the role of managing the program in Cairo for asylum seekers and refugees, the practice was to keep the gate of the Cathedral compound closed in the morning; too many refugees came crowding in seeking help. They needed food, clothing, financial assistance for rent and medical care. We had limited resources and could not help them all. The gate was kept closed until, at the nominated time, it was opened for a few minutes. Those who could push their way to the front made it in. First in first served. They were able to make their application to our team who determined what they could offer these people. Those left outside waited for a while to see if there was a chance, then moved off, disappointed. Women with children, older people, and those who came late for whatever reason didn’t get a chance.

We decided we needed to do things differently. We would open the gates and leave them open. We would make the church compound a place of welcome and refuge. We re-named our program- ‘Refuge Egypt’, and all who came crowding in were registered for an interview and evaluation. We listened to their stories and heard their struggles. As a team of staff (a few expatriates, Egyptians and mostly South Sudanese), we set priorities based on family make up and tried to determine the seriousness of need. Single mothers with children were at the top of the list; single men alone in Cairo at the bottom. The first weeks registering people were hard work. We distributed the assistance that we had to those in the most critical need. After a month or two, the numbers who came each morning reduced as it became clear how we prioritised our assistance, and some people recognised they were unlikely to be supported. However during the day, many people came to sit in a place where they felt secure and welcome. We ran a ‘café’, selling tea and light refreshments cheaply. People came to sit with their community and belong.

A member of our team, Reverend Peter Ayor, expressed how hard it was for the Sudanese in Cairo: ‘There is no place for us to dance!’ He explained that in their community when there is a marriage, a birth or any reason for their community to celebrate and enjoy one another’s company, they would dance. To have no place for them to celebrate their culture and each other made Cairo a very dark place for them. Egyptian culture was not a dancing culture. The Egyptian Coptic and evangelical churches found dancing to be frivolous and worldly. So we determined that once a year we would hold a celebration of culture. We would sponsor each section of the community to showcase their culture, food and handcrafts, and to dance. What a fabulous event it became each year. The Church compound became a place welcoming people to celebrate their identity at any time. They felt some sense of belonging. A small oasis.

I now work in South Sudan, a country that remains gripped by food insecurity and conflict, with almost 2 million of its people in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Uganda. Yet South Sudan itself is also a place of refuge to more than 250 000 people from Sudan—the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions that remain in conflict with the Khartoum government. I am currently the Country Director of Samaritan’s Purse, and we work with the UNHCR and the World Food Program to provide food, water, sanitation and health services to refugees. Their fears and longings mirror those of the refugees we worked with in Egypt, two decades earlier.

What the Bible says

The Old Testament is very clear on how the community is to view the alien, foreigner and stranger who is with you. Exodus 23:9 reminds the Israelites of their own history and experience: ‘Do not oppress the foreigner; you yourself know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt’. Leviticus 19:34 takes a further step: ‘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.’ Similarly, Numbers 15:15-16 states that the same principles, privileges and laws that apply to the Israelite also apply to the resident foreigner—you are the same before the Lord. Other passages remind us that foreigners are vulnerable like orphans and widows. We are to protect and care for them. If we do not, we are not behaving as God’s people (Dt 26:12, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6).

A scholarly fellow talking to Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 knew it was God’s command to love his neighbour as himself, but wanted more clarity from Jesus. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ he asked. Jesus told the story of a Samaritan man who helped someone he found beaten and dying by the side of the road. Who is your neighbour? Who you are to love? The answer is anyone who needs your love and care, even someone from a race that hates you. Anyone who is made in the image of God our Father. All people qualify.

Later in the New Testament we read that we are citizens of another place (Eph 2). The current world is out of step with God. His kingdom has different values and that’s where our citizenship lies. We are to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, only holding on loosely to things here that are of less importance.

Hebrews 11 speaks of the longing for a place promised. A place where God is with His people. Abraham left his home and followed God’s leading. He wandered as an alien and stranger, longing for the place promised to him. Abraham’s offspring did not enjoy a place of their own, they remained foreigners and outsiders… they saw it from a distance and longed for it (vv13f). We are all aliens and strangers, longing to be in the place he made us to enjoy with Him, where we belong.

This needs to guide our perspective in a world with so many outcast, displaced, marginalised people—people who have been forced from their homes, whose beloved country is insecure, or whose leaders rob them of peace and even basic economic opportunities. Are we citizens first of God’s Kingdom and so ready to welcome the ‘neighbour’? Or do we wish to preserve our way of life and living standards by keeping out the millions who wish to come and enjoy them with us? How many should we welcome to join us in this privileged place? Would we be happy to have less so that more could have some?

The poor with you always

There are 22 million refugees worldwide.[1] In 2016 there were 189 300 asylum seekers resettled to third countries, under 1% of the total of 2.8 million. Those not yet resettled have sought safety across an international border and are in refugee camp settings, seeking assistance through the UNHCR and agencies that implement the available services.

Of the 145 States Parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, only about 30 participate in the UNHCR resettlement program and accept quotas of refugees on an annual basis. The UNHCR estimates there are currently approximately 80 000 resettlement places offered by resettlement countries around the world, but that there are currently in excess of a million convention refugees in need of resettlement.[2]

The 1951 Refugee Convention[3] defines a ‘refugee’ as:

  • a person who is outside his country of nationality or habitual residence,
  • has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, and
  • is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.

Not all those in a refugee camp meet this definition of a ‘convention refugee’. The vast majority remain in camps because of insecurity in their home area, but they do not have an individual asylum claim based on the points mentioned above. This accounts for the difference between the number of ‘refugees’ and those who are identified as needing resettlement.

The UNHCR publishes information about the number of refugees resettled by different countries (with their assistance). In 2015, the USA resettled the highest number of persons (52 583), followed by Canada (10 236) and Australia (5 211). Altogether, 81 893 refugees were resettled.[4] The 5 211 resettled in Australia were those granted a Refugee Visa (Subclass 200). They may have brought other family members with them, so Australia’s number may have been closer to 6000. This class of refugees does not include those who arrived onshore in Australia and claimed asylum. Clearly the overall number is small compared to those seeking a place.

Australian Humanitarian Programme figures[5]

 Humanitarian Programme grants by category 2011–12 to 2015–16













Special Humanitarian Programme


















1Offshore statistics for 2015-16 include visas granted towards the Annual Humanitarian Programme and the Additional 12,000 places for Syrians and Iraqis
2Includes protection visas and onshore humanitarian visa grants that are countable under the Humanitarian Programme.
3 Data in this table is revised as at the end of the 2015-16 programme year, and may differ from previously published figures.

The Australian offshore resettlement component comprises two categories of permanent visas. These are:

  • Refugee—for people who are subject to persecution in their home country, who are typically outside their home country, and are in need of resettlement. The majority of applicants who are considered under this category are identified and referred by UNHCR to Australia for resettlement. The Refugee category includes the Refugee, In-country Special Humanitarian, Emergency Rescue and Woman at Risk visa subclasses.
  • Special Humanitarian Programme (SHP)—for people outside their home country who are subject to substantial discrimination amounting to gross violation of human rights in their home country, and immediate family of persons who have been granted protection in Australia. Applications for entry under the SHP must be supported by a proposer who is an Australian citizen, permanent resident or eligible New Zealand citizen, or an organisation that is based in Australia.

In view of these overwhelming numbers, how should the Australian people respond to this crisis in our world? What is a Christian perspective in the light of the biblical view about caring for the alien and the foreigner and loving our neighbour?

Working against oppression and corruption

The best option is that people can live in safety in their home country and culture, with hope that with employment they can offer their children reasonable education and opportunities to meet their daily needs. But this is not the experience of so many in our world. Aside from the vast numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, there are even greater numbers seeking migration opportunities due to the poor economic outlook in their home country. Even though they would prefer to live where they ‘belong’, they seek a better future for their children. Who can blame them? Western Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia are the destinations.

The Arab Spring of 2010-11 was set in motion by the desperate act of self-immolation of a man in Tunisia who was so frustrated at being locked out of any opportunity or hope for improving his economic well-being. His act was replicated by more than 60 others across the region.[6] Such incredible frustration and hopelessness drives desperate migration also.

In Australia we enjoy governance under the control of a broad section of the population, rule of law to prevent more serious monopolistic behaviour of a ruling elite, and secure property rights that enable many in our community to leverage assets to enable them to grow their economic opportunities.[7] This is not the context in much of the world. One of our first priorities must be to engage with governments to work towards this and a more just world for people who live in oppressive environments.

Deciding numbers first

It’s difficult for us in a country like Australia to recognise any difference between the economic hardship that is the everyday reality of so many people and a claim to be a refugee. From our perspective, the poor governance and repressive nature of many governments in poor countries seems like justification for seeing people as ‘refugees’ on compassionate grounds.

But there is an enormous human tide that this represents. How could or should we respond? What adjustments to our own quality of life are we willing to make? Determining how many people our country can welcome each year and how to determine who to choose from the vast number is the challenge.

We must make the decision about numbers first, before we consider who and from where. How many people should be in our immigration program and how many of them should come under a humanitarian program or refugee intake? Allowing people to just turn up on boats and leave it at that, in some ways, is easy. It absolves us of doing the hard work of reviewing the need and evaluating how we can make a meaningful contribution. It is a bit like the experience I described when I first arrived in Egypt: open the gate for a short time and whoever comes in gets assistance.

While I was in Egypt up until 2004, I was very proud to be an Australian. We were one of only three countries, along with the USA and Canada, who had an ‘offshore refugee program’. This meant that Australia allocated a number of refugee places and then sought out needy people in various parts of the world to welcome to Australia. Australia wanted to assist those in most need. I worked closely with the Australian, Canadian and US Embassies to advocate for those in the community who should be a priority. Because our program, Refuge Egypt, interviewed and assessed the needs of people in the community, we had a good understanding of the troubles that people faced, so we could refer people in particular need to be reviewed for such opportunities. The numbers who were accepted by Australia however, fluctuated based on how many people arrived by boat ‘onshore’ in Australia. For me this was heartbreaking.

Until late 2013, nationals of some potential asylum countries could arrive in Indonesia on an international flight and obtain a visa on arrival. This enabled them to then seek out people smugglers to assist in passage to Australia. The Australian government requested that Indonesia close this opening. Some say that now, paying a bribe at the airport can still make this possible, but the number seeking to come to Australia this way has reduced considerably. Australia has also indicated that those who arrived in Indonesia prior to July 2014 will not be eligible for resettlement to Australia, in an attempt to further frustrate those seeking a way to Australia outside of Australia’s offshore refugee program.

Migration has been good for our economy. During the global economic crisis, Australia managed to stay afloat in a better way than most other nations. One part of the picture was our significant migration policy. Malcolm Turnbull has called Australia one of the most successful multicultural countries on the planet. That may be true, but do we welcome people to our country simply because it is good for the economy? Should we be more deliberate in our selection of those we welcome? How would we do that? What could we afford as a nation? A resettlement program has a significant cost, as do detention centres. How could we do this better?

Regional options and the priority of safety

Ideally those who need protection should cross a border and claim asylum in the region close to their country where the local political climate is well known and the culture, language and conditions likely to be similar. However this is not always possible. Sometimes the neighbouring countries are not welcoming and do not have structures in place to manage asylum seekers. Australia needs to engage with other nations to make this a more viable option, and support the UNHCR to provide for refugees in camps when there are large numbers of people. We could assist host countries to carry out assessments for claims of asylum efficiently so that if resettlement is the right option, this can be done in a timely way, not leaving people in limbo for a long time.

The ‘Dublin Regulation’[8] aims to streamline asylum management in Europe by only allowing an asylum application to be processed by one country—normally the country where the person first arrives in Europe. It seeks to avoid ‘asylum shopping’, where a person applies for protection in one country after being rejected by another.[9] This principle is not accepted by some who are concerned about people being returned to a location where their safety could be compromised. Those who leave their country due to fear of persecution in their homeland have a primary need for safety and security, but millions seek more than this—they want a new future. Considering the huge numbers of people who are refugees/ asylum seekers and the even larger number who are seeking to escape the economic corruption and hopeless environment in their home country, it is important to keep in perspective that if people cross borders due to well-founded fear of persecution, their primary need is a place where they are free from that persecution. There are millions of others who would also love to choose Western Europe, Australia, Canada or the USA as their destination. However, safety from fear of persecution must be the primary objective. This can often be found in a country nearer to their home country. The services for nationals of that country may not be similar to those in Australia, but they are likely to be better than in the country they came from. It is not a human right for all people to enjoy the standard of living we do in Australia. It’s an aspiration.

2015–16 offshore visa grants by top ten countries of birth[10]


Number of visas granted





Burma (Myanmar)




Congo (DRC)
















Improve processing efficiency

There is concern that many who come to Indonesia and claim asylum have to wait too long to find a resettlement option, and this drives them onto boats. However, there are many in refugee camps around the world who have lived there for upwards of 10 years, with no option for their future. Some of those I worked with in Cairo between 1995 and 2004 are still there, with no way to leave. The question remains, how many and who should be offered a place in Australia’s humanitarian and refugee resettlement program? On what basis should we prioritise those in need among so many?

Our offshore refugee program could be strengthened and expanded. We already take people from locations around the world where there are serious problems. Note the table below that shows the countries of origin of people granted visas for Australia in 2015/16.

Those listed here included refugee visa class and other humanitarian classes, which could include bringing other family members and sponsorship by community groups. This is often from groups already engaged in assisting refugee arrivals.  

Our overall immigration numbers are much higher. The total permanent migration programme to Australia for 2015–16 was 189 770 places. The major source countries in the migration programme were India (21.2 %), China (15.3 %) and the UK (10.0 %).

Within the managed migration programme the breakdown was:

  • Skill Stream – 128 550 places
  • Family Stream – 57 400 places
  • Special Eligibility – 308 places[11]

We could re-evaluate these numbers and consider taking more vulnerable people who are in difficult locations and have no other options in their region and no funds to seek other alternatives.

Churches could be more active in participation through the program options that the government makes available. There is a cost associated with bringing people from vulnerable locations to Australia who may have limited language skills, whose qualifications—if they have them—may not be recognised, and who may have health needs. It will take time for them to adjust to life in Australia and they would benefit from a welcoming community. The Special Humanitarian Program that Australia has in place provides this opportunity. Are we committed as members of God’s Kingdom to welcome the stranger, the alien, the foreigner? Can we contribute not just funds, but time and love?

Compassion to the alien

The biblical principle outlined in the Old Testament and strengthened in the New drives us to a compassionate response. Those who are in the system need to be treated with care. We need to do all we can to ensure that our policies make it clear what our priorities are for humanitarian migration to Australia. We must state clearly how people can access those opportunities and who we will make a priority for those limited places.

We need to do this so that there is no incentive to take dangerous journeys, and also to reduce opportunities for those who take advantage of desperate people. Having posts around the world to receive applications and prioritise those in need is a good principle, but a challenge to administer due to the huge numbers in need, but we must! Working with the UNHCR and other local agencies, strengthening first asylum countries to humanely support those who come, is important. Australia is more able to manage immigration than other nations due to our distance and being ‘..girt by sea’. We should therefore be deliberate in seeking out the most vulnerable and offering a place for them, through a clear, well defined process that can be managed efficiently. The largest challenge will always be how many are we willing to welcome?

Not heaven here!

Working now in South Sudan, hearing the life story of any person you stopped in the street or met in a village would compel a response of compassion. But that story is not unusual: millions struggle, suffer loss, and live with no security for tomorrow’s food and uncertainty about their children’s safety.

But Australia is not heaven either! Refugees often lack a sense of belonging—not necessarily the fault of the host country, but a fact of their heritage and being different. I feel it myself, living and working in South Sudan. In some ways I don’t belong here. I misunderstand things people say. I look different and people stare at me and wrongly assume things about me. I don’t like the food, or understand the language well. Good will and a friend to stand in the gap can make a difference.

South Sudanese boys in Melbourne have recently been in the media for being involved in gangs and crime. The challenge for those families coming to Australia has been enormous. Many had an image of Australia that was about as realistic as the yellow brick road to the land of Oz. If they could just get here, everything would be fine: a car, house, healthcare, education—you could have it all. Reality is so different. For educated South Sudanese men, the chance of employment in a role they feel qualified for is remote and they have to study again. They are accustomed to living in community with the men together and the women and children separate, each knowing their role and belonging. But in Australia, the whole family is in a small apartment. The women, with little education or English, rarely go out. The children go to school and learn English quickly, but feel their parents come from another planet compared to the one they are getting to know. With no employment, in a community he cannot easily engage with, the man may become depressed and drink too much. Many men leave Australia and go back to South Sudan to find a way to reconnect and belong. The wife, with the least resources to cope, struggles to care for the children who are absorbed in the new culture and language but with little guidance from their lost parents on how to navigate in this new setting.

In bringing people to our shores we need to recognise the challenges that people face, but it is not always evident how significant these might be. Our understanding of where people have come from and what unreasonable hopes and expectations they may have and how to assist them is limited. If we welcome people, we need to take on the biblical call to love them as our native born, to come alongside them and help them navigate our language, culture, social values and laws. We need to assist people to ‘belong’ here, until we go to the place we all really belong.


[1] This includes 5.3 million Palestinians.



[4] UNHCR, ‘UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2017’, UNHCR, p57.

[5] ‘Fact sheet - Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian programme’, Australian Government Department of Home Affairs. Accessed May 2018. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia licence

[6] Hernando De Soto, ‘How we can end the war on terror’. World Economic Forum article. January 2016.

[7] Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Why nations fail: The origins or power prosperity and poverty (Crown Publishing Group, 2012).



[10] ‘Fact sheet - Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian programme’, op. cit.

[11] 2015–16 Migration Programme Report, Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

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