Australia treats murderers better than we treat asylum seekers. Despite repeated appeals and protests from churches and other Australians, our government persists in detaining asylum seekers behind barbed wire on remote islands, even in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, possibly for many years. Taxpayers were billed $1.2 billion in 2014 for these offshore detention centres.
The asylum seekers fled to us for protection against persecution. Instead, we have transported them to very harsh climates, and often appalling living conditions, without adequate sanitation, water, or accommodation.
Both Labor and Coalition governments have argued that such detention policies were needed to ‘stop the boats’, thus preventing many seaborne people drowning at sea.
But it is clearly immoral to inflict such cruel treatment on asylum seekers in order to deter others from hazarding a dangerous boat journey. The end does not justify the means.
Such deliberate cruelty makes a mockery of our reputation as a land of the ‘fair go’. It violates our tradition of providing a new life for millions of immigrants to Australia, including 750,000 refugees since Federation. What would Australia be today without them?
Our detention policies mock one of our core Christian beliefs, shared so widely in our community, that God is intensely concerned about the fate of vulnerable people, the Bible’s ‘widows, orphans, and strangers in your midst’, who clearly include refugees.
Jesus highlights this in the Last Judgment scene from Matthew 25; Jesus identifies very personally with those in distress, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and prisoners. He is not fooled by empty piety or religiosity – that counts for nothing in his eyes – while ignoring the plight of people in deep trouble.
Note the shocked surprise of those in the story: “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, a stranger…?”. The Son of Man replies: “Whenever you saw one of the least of my brethren, that was me you saw”. Jesus depicts this as the decisive criterion when we come to stand before God. He reiterates the message with his very severe judgement of those who ignore the poor and the destitute.
Punishing asylum seekers
We have heard many accounts and expert reports on the considerable harm inflicted on 742 asylum seekers on Nauru, including 126 women and 107 children, and over 1000 male asylum seekers on Manus Island. More than 130 children are in immigration detention in Australia, and over 1500 are in community detention (figures from 28 February). Nearly 2,500 children are living in the community, but their parents have no work rights and very limited access to government support.
Professor Gillian Triggs recently completed the Forgotten Children report, detailing the mistreatment of asylum seekers, and especially the trauma affecting the mental health of children. Our government held the report for three months until the last possible day, releasing it on 11 February. Prime Minister Abbott attacked the report as a blatantly partisan ‘stitch-up’.
The next day, Malcolm Fraser, who has long emerged as articulating the moral conscience of our nation, issued a press release describing the government’s response as a ‘disgrace’ and ‘based on a lie’. He said that ‘the inhumanity inflicted on these children’ is part of a deliberate and relentless policy of deterrence.
The Department of Immigration commissioned a report by Philip Moss, a former Commonwealth Integrity Commissioner. This report was presented to the government in early February, but not released until Friday 20 March, a few hours after the announcement of Malcolm Fraser’s death.
The Moss report not only endorsed the findings of Professor Triggs, but also found evidence of at least three rapes and numerous sexual and other assaults on women. Contrary to the claims of then Immigration Minister Morrison, Moss found no evidence that Save the Children Fund staff had been manipulating detainees into protests. The report said the Minister should not have been expelled the staff from Nauru, and indeed they should be reinstated.
Many Australians are dismayed by the secrecy about and cover-ups of the mistreatment of asylum seekers confined in such punitive situations that many have attempted self-harm or even suicide. Never have Australians witnessed such callous treatment of highly vulnerable groups as deliberate government policy.
There are alternatives
As Malcolm Fraser and expert commentators have argued, the problem of refugees arriving by boat could be resolved by negotiating with regional governments and international organisations to develop orderly refugee resettlement programs, as they did after 1975 with 100,000 Vietnamese refugees.
In addition, Australia can increase the number of refugee places readily from its miserly 13,750. This is tiny even in comparison to our annual immigration intake of 190,000 people.
We have many fine people in our federal parliament in all parties who are greatly troubled by our treatment of asylum seekers. We need our parliamentarians to form new bi-partisan policies, as we had in earlier years. Australia has done it before. We can do it again. But parliamentarians need your support. Write to your local member. Better still, become well informed, and talk with him or her face-to-face.
We wish today to send a message to Canberra. In conscience, we must say to our government leaders and to Mr Abbott: not good enough! The treatment of asylum seekers is shameful, and violates our core values as Christians and Australians. As Pope Francis reminds us so insistently, silence on our part on such issues would be complicity.
Bruce Duncan is director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy and one of the Board members of Social Policy Connections.