How the next Australian government can balance security and compassion for asylum seekers



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Crossbenchers Kerryn Phelps, Julia Banks and Rebekah Sharkie celebrate the passing of the “Medivac” law through the House of Representatives.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Alex Reilly, University of Adelaide

This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.


With a rapidly changing climate and increased instability in the world order, patterns of people movement are likely to change dramatically in the future. It is not a tenable response to isolate Australia from the shocks of these changes.

Sadly, the politicisation of refugee policy since the Tampa crisis of 2001 indicates that our major political parties are incapable of the kind of honest and open decision-making that is required in this complex and vexed policy space. However, the passing of the Kerryn Phelps-led amendments to the Migration Act to facilitate medical evacuations from Manus Island and Nauru may point to a shift in the nation’s mood on the issue.

In the second half of the 20th century, Australia transformed the idea of itself into a multicultural nation. An important part of this story has been Australia’s contribution to the resettlement of refugees.

Australia was the first country outside Europe to accede to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Australia was also an early adopter of the 1967 protocol that extended the convention beyond Europe. Australia’s generous resettlement of refugees under the convention has reinforced its identity as a nation built on migrants.

Australia’s acceptance of refugees remained uncontroversial while the numbers of refugees could be strictly controlled through its immigration program. The first serious challenge to control was the arrival of boatloads of Vietnamese refugees in 1976. However, the Fraser Coalition government maintained control through an arrangement with South East Asian countries that Australia would resettle a high number of Vietnamese refugees if those countries stopped redirecting boats that arrived on their shores back out to sea.

How the Tampa changed Australian asylum-seeker policy

When boats began arriving in larger numbers from 1999 to 2001, the struggling Howard Coalition government used the rescue of 438 asylum seekers by the MV Tampa as an opportunity to implement a more restrictive policy. This included boat turn-backs, offshore processing and detention, and issuing temporary protection visas for people arriving by boat whose applications for asylum were accepted. The boats stopped arriving within months.




Read more:
Australian politics explainer: the MV Tampa and the transformation of asylum-seeker policy


In 2007, the Labor government dismantled these policy settings. Asylum seekers arriving by boat were rescued at sea and processed on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. If they were found to be refugees, they were granted permanent protection visas. This policy was premised on boat arrivals being at similar levels to those experienced previously. But this proved mistaken.

The Norwegian cargo ship Tampa collected 438 stranded asylum seekers and changed Australian policy on the issue.
AAP/Wallenius Wilhelmsen

By 2013, refugee policy was in disarray. In 2012, 17,204 people arrived by boat, rising to 20,587 in 2013. This far outnumbered the planned refugee intake of 13,750 and reinforced the fear that Australia was in danger of being “swamped” by asylum seekers.

Prior to this rapid rise in boat arrivals, the Labor government had attempted to introduce a novel policy response, the Australia-Malaysia asylum-seeker transfer agreement. The Malaysian government agreed to the return to Malaysia of asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia by boat via Indonesia. Malaysia guaranteed housing, education and work rights for these asylum seekers, but also that they would receive no advantage in resolving their application for refugee resettlement.

This arrangement removed the incentive to take a risky boat journey to Australia.
We will never know if it would have stopped the boats, as the High Court held the government did not have the power to implement the arrangement, and the Coalition and the Greens blocked an attempt by the government to amend the Migration Act to provide it with the requisite power.

In mid-2013, the Labor government changed direction radically. It committed to offshore processing for the first time, stating categorically that no asylum seeker reaching Australia by boat would ever be resettled here.

When it was returned to government in 2013, the Abbott Coalition government readily adopted Labor’s policy and added a policy of aggressive boat turn-backs covered in a veil of operational secrecy. It also reintroduced temporary protection visas for the 30,000 asylum seekers who had entered Australia during the six years of Labor government. Within a few months, boat arrivals had ceased completely.

Asylum-seeker policy becomes a national security issue

The current Coalition government has successfully cast refugee policy as an issue of border security. The ministers for immigration, first Scott Morrison and then Peter Dutton, have spun a narrative that any softening of the government’s stance on resettlement would risk relaunching a flotilla of boats.

The line they have drawn is breathtaking in its strictness. The government has been unwilling even to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees a year from offshore detention for fear they will then have backdoor entry to Australia. It has also made it very difficult for asylum seekers to get emergency medical treatment in Australia.

The government’s narrative of border protection does not acknowledge the human cost of long-term offshore detention. Since detention centres on Nauru and Manus were opened in 2014, 3,127 people have been transferred there. As of early February 2019, as a result of third-country resettlements and voluntary returns, about 1,000 remain. The last children on Nauru were resettled in the US in February 2019.




Read more:
As children are airlifted from Nauru, a cruel and inhumane policy may finally be ending


Despite strictly controlling access to information from Nauru and Manus, the government has not been able to prevent courageous medical officials bearing witness to the human suffering of refugees. This includes suicides and self-harm, and children simply giving up. It has not been able to prevent Behrouz Boochani using mobile phone messages to write an award-winning book bearing witness to the official strategies used to break the spirit of refugees on Manus Island.

Asylum seeker and journalist Behrouz Boochani wrote the award-winning book No Friend but the Mountains.
Amnesty International handout

Finding a more humane way forward

As on so many policy issues facing Australia, we need an honest discussion on refugees. On the one hand, it needs to be acknowledged that refugees are victims of regimes intent on persecuting them and are deserving (and entitled) to our protection.

As a nation, we continue to have a policy of high levels of immigration, and refugees can be a significant part of our strategy for future prosperity. We have a responsibility not to contribute further to people’s suffering, and thus long-term detention of refugees is untenable.

On the other hand, Australians believe they are entitled to determine who is provided access to the benefit of membership in the Australian state. This being the case, refugee policy must be able to control the number of people who are accepted for resettlement. The most effective mechanism of control is to prevent onshore arrivals by boat and plane, and to use planned resettlement from refugee camps in consultation with the UNHCR.

The unprecedented number of boat arrivals in 2012-13 tilted the equation towards control over compassion. However, there is a sensible middle ground more in line with Australian values.

First, it is possible to resettle all the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus in Australia expeditiously, without triggering large numbers of boat arrivals. This resettlement must be the immediate priority of a new government. It was never envisaged that refugees would spend up to six years in offshore detention.

Retaining the architecture of offshore detention and processing for the future and the possibility of boat turn-backs is more than adequate deterrent to prevent people risking the perilous journey to Australia by boat. The Coalition governments in 2001 and 2013 demonstrated that if this proves to be wrong, introducing a hard-line policy can stop the boats very quickly.

Second, all those refugees on Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas in Australia need to be offered permanent protection. Temporary visas create a huge psychological and social burden on refugees in Australia, with no benefits.

Third, the movement of refugees, particularly from the Middle East, through South East Asia to Australia is a regional problem. The Australian government needs to resume discussions with Indonesia and Malaysia about a more nuanced solution.

With the Coalition cutting through with its narrative of fear of invasion and Labor still spooked by policy failure during its previous term in government, it has taken independent MPs to begin to push Australian refugee policy to a sensible middle ground.

Kerryn Phelps’ amendment to the Migration Act, supported by Labor and the Greens, provides for the evacuation of asylum seekers and refugees to Australia if two doctors assess that they require medical treatment not available on Nauru or Manus Island. The minister for home affairs retains the power to reject a transfer on security grounds. The law is also limited in its application to refugees already on Nauru and Manus Island.

In parliament, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten framed their positions on the “Medivac” law as a test of character. Morrison focused on the importance of “mettle” and “holding the line”. Shorten focused on “compassion” and “balance”.

The passing of the law ensures refugee policy will be a key election issue once again. The Australian people will determine what version of character prevails.The Conversation

Alex Reilly, Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Australian Politics: 19 July 2013


Compassion seems to have been lost in the asylum seeker debate in Australia, with the Kevin Rudd led Labor government taking a massive shift to a hardline position in refugee policy. The links below are to articles reporting on the new stance.

For more visit:
http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/breaking-news/rudd-surprises-with-hardline-boat-plan/story-fni0xqi4-1226682198196
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/19/christine-milne-day-of-shame



Leadership tensions developing in the Liberal Party perhaps?

Australian Politics: 17 July 2013


The asylum seeker controversy in Australia is deepening, with four more deaths after another tragedy at sea last night. There is yet another boat in distress right now as well. Compassion would seem to be much in need from where I sit, yet most Australians seem to have very little when it comes to the plight of refugees and/or asylum seekers.

Still, an election can’t be too far away as the various parties begin the usual pledges to spend money on this and that – certainly infrastructure needs are great in this country.

Meanwhile Kevin Rudd has held a community cabinet meeting overnight.

Australia: Detention Centres Are a Disgrace


The link below is to an article reporting on the recent 4 Corners program and the Australian detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. I have seen the program and it has confirmed my view that our asylum detention centres are a disgrace and should be shut down. We as a country need to reconnect with the principles of compassion and humanitarianism. 

For more visit:
http://www.islandsbusiness.com/news/australia/1021/ashamed-to-be-australian-doctor-slams-manus-island/

Plinky Prompt: What Non Profit Organizations Do You Support? Would You Ever Start Your Own?


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I don’t have any non profit organizations that I support on a regular basis. I do support various non profit organizations from time to time, but it tends to be a bit all over the shop.

I have supported such environmental organizations as Bush Heritage Australia and WWF, among others. I have also supported Compassion and other similar organizations from time to time, such as when the appeal went out for assistance during the tsunami crisis on Boxing Day a few years ago.

I do have an interest, should I have access to any money, to start a foundation-type organization for diabetes research and support. The reason for this interest is that a dear friend died a few years ago who suffered badly from diabetes.

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ALP Retain Government in Australia


Minority Government to be Formed with Greens and Independent Support

As an ALP supporter I have to admit to being over the moon with the return of Labor Government, all be it with a minority government being supported by the Greens and Independents. I think the result has the potential to be good for Australia – which is what I thought when Kevin Rudd and Labor defeated the Liberal and National Coalition in the previous election. Hopefully this time round we won’t be disappointed with a Labor government and some real governing and leadership will be realised. I for one would love to see some one willing to lead in this country, governing with the national interest at heart, tempered with compassion and decency for all.

My thoughts this morning was that Bob Katter would back the Coalition and that Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott would back the ALP – not that I was 100% confident in that viewpoint. Never-the-less, that is how the Independents have lined up, giving the ALP 76 seats and the Coalition 74 seats. It would appear that the ALP Broadband policy won over the two Independents, which was what I thought would win it for Labor should the Independents support the ALP. I was never convinced that Bob Katter would go for it, though I still believed that if he should support the ALP it would have been the Broadband policy that won him. In short, it is a looking to the future and a modern Australia that has won out.

Pakistan Militants Continue the Terror in Midst of Flooding Disaster


With their country in the midst of a terrible disaster, Islamic militants are continuing to terrorise the nation, revealing to all reasonable people just what type of ‘leadership’ they are seeking to impose on the people of Pakistan and the society they wish to bring about. From all appearances they are seeking to impose an oppressive rule that lacks compassion and justice. Below is a video report on the latest Taliban attack in Pakistan.

ABOVE: Reports on the floods in Pakistan

‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea


Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.

SIDEBAR

The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

25 years later, the Karen refugee crisis continues unabated


In 1984, the first wave of Myanmarese refugees fleeing from conflict began flooding across the border into Thailand, reports MNN.

25 years later, the crisis continues. Patrick Klein with Vision Beyond Borders says, "There are currently over 150,000 refugees that have come into Thailand from Burma. There are still more flooding across the border."

The persecution and violence seems to have government support. Many of the refugees are of the minority Karen people, who are among the most discriminated against in Burma. "One of the generals said, "By the year 2010, there will be no Karen people left. We’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth."

Is the campaign ethnic or faith-based? Klein says it’s a bit both. Many of the Karen are Christians. However, according to Voice of the Martyrs Canada, Buddhism is strongly entrenched in the Myanmarese majority; only about five percent of Christians in Burma are converts from Buddhism.

VOMC has more grim news. These Christians have been raped, tortured and murdered. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country in early May 2008, Burmese authorities reportedly denied relief aid to several Christians.

The harassment is growing more blatant. In his last visit, Klein said he visited with a group of orphaned refugees. Myanmar junta soldiers had threatened to kill all of the children in the home, so the group fled in the middle of the night. All 86 children took refuge 150 yards away in Thailand.

Vision Beyond Borders works with several church partners and at least six orphanage programs in Myanmar. Many of these sprang to life as the result of the deadly Cyclone Nargis last year. Klein says, "Because of the compassion of the Christians reaching out to these refugees coming in, even the Buddhists now are coming to faith in Jesus Christ, so the Gospel is increasing."

Persecution will follow. "It seems like they’re trying to stamp out the church," explains Klein, adding, "They know that the number of Christians is growing. But it seems like whenever there’s real persecution, the church seems to grow."

Report from the Christian Telegraph