Coinciding with World Refugee Day on June 20, Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission executive officer PETER ARNDT issued this strongly worded comment piece on Australia’s asylum-seeker policies
IN the debate on Australia’s policy on the treatment of asylum seekers, it is imperative that Christians be active in promoting respect for the dignity of every human being who flees persecution and violence and seeks asylum in our country.
There is little evidence that respect for the human dignity of asylum seekers is at the heart of either the Government’s or the Opposition’s policies.
Both sides support prolonged, mandatory detention of asylum seekers in isolated centres on mainland Australia and in off-shore facilities; both sides have been responsible in government for locking up many children seeking asylum; and both sides are willing to “export” asylum seekers to other countries where they are deprived of basic rights and subjected to further danger or harm.
These approaches can only add to the trauma, anxiety and deprivation suffered by asylum seekers.
They demonstrate a deplorable lack of compassion and are grossly unjust.
It is also apparent that the willingness of major political parties to adopt harsh policies which subject asylum seekers to trauma, humiliation and indignity is, in part, fuelled by hostile attitudes among some in the Australian community towards people of different races, ethnicities and religions.
Such intolerance and discrimination should not shape Australia’s policies on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees nor should they be accepted by Christians or condoned by their silence.
In his Message for World Migrant and Refugee Day 2011, Pope Benedict XVI stressed the responsibility of Christians to be a sign of union with God and of the unity of the human family.
He said it was imperative for us to welcome refugees as our sisters and brothers:
“… In the case of those who are forced to migrate, solidarity is nourished by the ‘reserve’ of love that is born from considering ourselves a single human family and, for the Catholic faithful, members of the Mystical Body of Christ: in fact we find ourselves depending on each other, all responsible for our brothers and sisters in humanity and, for those who believe, in the faith. As I have already had the opportunity to say, ‘Welcoming refugees and giving them hospitality is for everyone an imperative gesture of human solidarity, so that they may not feel isolated because of intolerance and disinterest’.”
The Pope goes on to explain what welcoming our sisters and brothers seeking asylum entails:
“This means that those who are forced to leave their homes or their country will be helped to find a place where they may live in peace and safety, where they may work and take on the rights and duties that exist in the country that welcomes them, contributing to the common good and without forgetting the religious dimension of life.”
While the Pope acknowledges that governments have a responsibility to regulate the flow of migrants and to defend their borders, he insists that, whatever they do in this regard, they must always guarantee “the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person”.
The Federal Government’s proposed agreement with Malaysia clearly fails to guarantee respect for the human dignity of asylum seekers.
It proposes to engage in people trading which is unconscionable and morally wrong under any circumstances, even if it achieved its aim of “stopping the boats”.
It cannot guarantee that those sent to Malaysia prompt and transparent processing of their claims for protection; it cannot guarantee that they will have access to work, education, health care or welfare; and it cannot guarantee their physical safety while awaiting a determination.
The Federal Opposition’s proposal to resurrect “the Pacific solution” with the co-operation of the Government of Nauru fails the same human-dignity test.
When this measure was employed by the Howard Government, it resulted in asylum seekers languishing on Nauru for years awaiting a determination and, when that determination was finally made, the vast majority of asylum seekers were found to be bona fide refugees who were resettled in Australia.
Many needed immediate and substantial medical treatment for the psychological traumatisation caused by their prolonged detention.
Off-shore processing of refugee claims, whether in Malaysia, Nauru or Papua New Guinea has been instigated by successive Australian governments as a means of thwarting so-called people smugglers.
There is no doubt that the exploitation of the misery and desperation of asylum seekers by people smugglers is abominable, but subjecting asylum seekers to harsh and inhumane treatment as a means of countering people smuggling is reprehensible as it only compounds the suffering and injustice asylum seekers endure.
While the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat in recent years is higher than in the past, they are still very small compared with those seeking asylum in other countries.
As a wealthy nation and as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Australia has the capacity and the responsibility to process and resettle the number of asylum seekers currently arriving on our shores.
It is appalling that our political leaders would rather enlist developing nations which already have many asylum seekers within their borders to deal with those who come to our shores than to directly process their claims here in Australia as is our obligation under the Refugee Convention.
It is also deplorable that we insist on detaining asylum seekers in remote facilities for long periods at enormous financial expense to the country and at great expense to the mental and physical welfare of asylum seekers.
It is time that both major parties adopted other less harmful and expensive means of processing claims for protection promptly in Australia.
There are hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in our region. Most of them wait for many years in pitiful conditions for their refugee claims to be determined and to be resettled.
Our political leaders should devote much more of their energy to working with all the countries in our region with large numbers of asylum seekers, countries which re-settle refugees, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and non-government organisations working in the region to improve the standard of accommodation and support for asylum seekers, to improve and expedite the processing of refugee claims and to re-settle refugees more efficiently and promptly.
Such a regional focus will offer hope to the large numbers of people seeking protection in the Asia/Pacific region.
At the same time, it will offer Australia a framework within which it can seek assistance to deal with specifically Australian refugee issues without resorting to inhumane approaches.
Australia must fulfil its obligations in full as a signatory to the Refugee Convention; it should only do deals with countries which are signatories to the convention; and it should actively work for a genuine regional framework for the processing of refugee claims and the resettlement of refugees.
Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission will make our concerns known to the Federal Government and the Opposition, to all the Members of Parliament in our archdiocese and to all Queensland’s senators.
The commission urges Catholics, our Christian sisters and brothers and all people who support the values informing the Refugee Convention to join with us in rejecting the crass and unseemly politicking which worsens the pain and injustice endured by asylum seekers and refugees and the racial and religious intolerance to which it panders.