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Palm Sunday – reflection by Andy Hamilton SJ

ANDY HAMILTON SJ writes that nationwide Palm Sunday rallies offer a much needed opportunity to demonstrate the compassion and humanity that is often absent in Australia’s treatment of refugees.

In its original setting Palm Sunday was a day of transitory celebration at the beginning of a week that culminated in rejection, torture and death and the apparent end of a cause. Apparent, because of an unanticipated rising from death at the beginning of the following week.

In Australia it is the occasion for marches that honour and appeal for compassion for people who have sought protection from Australia. These, too, are moments of solidarity and celebration that punctuate the prevailing text of rejection, callousness and ignoring on which are written the lives of people who have sought asylum.

Occasionally, though, a little detail reveals the human reality of our refugee policy. Last week it was a phrase spoken by a woman in a routine snatch, detain and deport job by the Border Force.

Nadesalingam and Priya and their Australia-born daughters, nine-month-old Dharuniga and two-year-old Kopiga lived in the central Queensland town of Biloela. They were well liked by the local community among whom Priya worked. Originally from Sri Lanka and married in Australia, their appeal for protection as refugees had been rejected at every level.

At 5.00 a.m. the day after the expiry of her visa, officials from the Border Force and Serco accompanied by police called at the house and ordered the family to come with them, giving them ten minutes to pack. They were taken in vans to Gladstone, flown to Melbourne and put in a detention centre before their deportation to Sri Lanka.

On the way to the airport they were driven in separate vans. The children travelled with Priya but were not allowed to sit with her, despite their distress and her pleas.

She describes the scene: ‘I asked the guards, “If it were your children would you treat them this way, or is it only because we are refugees?” I was humiliated. I was made to feel worthless. I will never forget that experience’.

Priya’s words continue to hang in the air. Her question is also put to us as Australian citizens. It asks us whether we do believe such treatment is decent, and if not, why we would not intervene to prevent it.

Her words give a human face to people seeking asylum, reveal the inhuman face behind the flanelling words in which Australian treatment of people who seek protecton is shrouded.

Priya’s words also explain why the Palm Sunday Marches and similar demonstrations matter. The faces of those who take part – members of refugee communities and of activists, of older Australians and children, of churchgoers and atheists, of professional demonstrators and of the accompanying police – witness that the Australian community can wear a compassionate face.

More important this march and other gatherings offer is a whispered, inadequate answer to Priya’s question. ‘No, we would not treat our own children, or anyone else’s children, in this way. And, yes, we shall encourage one another to demand a better way’.

Critics tell us that the humane treatment of people who seek protection is a lost cause. So also must have seemed the cause of the man who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on the first Palm Sunday.