By Peter Bugden
THE scarred face of a man he met in the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, in Western Australia, is one Bishop Christopher Saunders will never forget.
The image of that man came back to Bishop Saunders on the day (May 8) the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement calling for the end of the “institutionalised cruelty” of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.
In the statement, the bishops said some of them “have seen the faces (of asylum seekers); we know the names; we have heard the stories. That is why we say now, ‘Enough of this institutionalised cruelty’”.
Bishop Saunders, who chairs the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council and whose diocese of Broome covers the Kimberley region where the Curtin detention centre is situated, is one who has “seen the faces”.
The man whose face he most vividly recalls had been separated from his family for 12 months.
“He hadn’t heard from his wife and children (but) he heard about the disappearance of neighbours and others,” Bishop Saunders said.
“He was so absolutely beside himself that he’d attempted self-harm.
“He had cuts all over his head and arms – it was the most extreme of anguish and despair.
“He was so scarred by it all that my mind went to the Garden of Gethsemane (and the agony of Jesus).”
For Bishop Saunders, the face of the man in the detention centre is the image of a man “separated from his wife and family – he has lost everything”.
“He doesn’t appear to have a future – kept in captivity in the most remote detention centre in Australia – lacking services and support … a man whose life is torn apart by violence …”
Bishop Saunders said the ACBC hoped it could influence a change of government policy by persuading Australians to think of the humanity of the people being detained.
“The fact that government – this and the previous (Federal) government – can do what they want is because people allow them to,” he said.
“We’re appealing to people to be able to think about the whole issue of boat people and asylum seekers in such a way that we realise they are human beings just as we are, and that our silence and ambivalence allows government to do what they want to do.”
Bishop Saunders said the ACBC statement was timely because “of the recent UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) condemnation of the Australian Government and its lack of care and responsibility for those boat people incarcerated in Papua New Guinea”.
Bishop Saunders said the UNHCR’s condemnation “brings to light what all fair-minded Australians know – that Manus is a punitive response to the needs of human beings who are miserable in their homelessness and completely defenceless”.
“These are a people in need of a safe home away from the sort of violence that caused them to flee their motherlands in the first place,” he said.
“We Australians are a civilised people who have to preserve at all costs our moral worth and our obligations to our fellow human beings in charity and justice.
“The Australian Catholic bishops in solidarity with the bishops of PNG regard the incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island as a totally inappropriate response to those displaced persons who are seeking safety and a new beginning in life.”