Australia’s Catholic bishops call for an increase in our intake of refugees, immediate closure of offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, and for all of us to build communities which welcome and support asylum seekers.
As a nation, we are not doing enough for asylum seekers, according to the Catholic bishops in this year’s Social Justice Statement, For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Justice for Refugees & Asylum Seekers. “Australia’s response has been to devise ever-harsher policies that aim to deter those fleeing war and violence and to incarcerate people who are in fact victims.”
The Catholic bishops call for increased compassion and to reframe the discourse around asylum seekers as an opportunity rather than a problem.
The bishops call for help for asylum seekers not out of pity or because they are “deserving of charity and compassion”, but “because they are equal to us in dignity … they are no longer ‘aliens’, but our brothers and sisters”.
Step by step with each successive government, our treatment of these people has become increasingly cruel: “as a nation, we harm innocent people by detaining them, pushing back their boats, and transferring them to impoverished nations. We pretend that the pain and diminishment of one group of people, including children, is a justifiable price to pay for sending a message to others.”. The Statement details how these harsh measures are affecting men, women, and children.
As an Iraqi man detained on Manus Island said:
“I have lived in war zones with bombs and explosions. I have never experienced what I am experiencing here with the uncertainty we face. If we had died in the ocean, that would have been better. I just need to know my destiny so that I can sleep at night. Just to know, so I can be prepared for what will happen.”
These detention facilities are extremely stressful places, and in the words of the 2010 Australian of the Year, psychiatrist Dr Patrick McGorry, have become like “factories producing mental illness & mental disorder”. Our children’s children will be studying in years to come how our policies have torn families apart, with many people – including children – self-harming.
They will ask, why didn’t the Australian people stop this? Where was the compassion? How could the public allow this to happen? As we continue to hide the cruelty of these measures, while drinking our morning coffee and reading our morning paper, many of these distressed people seeking our support are being detained indefinitely. Even those who have been given bridging visas struggle to make ends meet.
Our treatment of asylum seekers is a wound on our nation that will not be healed until we support appropriately those who seek refuge, welcoming them as equals and friends.
The Australian government spends $3 billion dollars annually to detain asylum seekers who are innocent victims of injustice. In contrast, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has a budget of $5.5 billion to cover costs for nearly 60 million people. This is an issue crying out for our attention.
Australia allocates only 13,750 places for asylum seekers. That is 0.00023% of the 59.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world (as of 2014). Our oft-quoted values of Australia as a country which supports the underdog and believes in a ‘fair go’ for all sound hollow when we consider our niggardly response.
Concerned about the increasing scale of the refugee problem, then-Prime Minister Abbott offered in early September to take another 12,000 Syrian refugees over four years. Australia will also provide $44 million extra to fund agencies involved in resettling refugees.
For us personally, the test will be what happens as a result of this statement, including how our parishes step up to the challenge and welcome refugees. Are we entering a new springtime of respect for others and developing just and humane policies?
Those who agree with the bishops’ Statement may hold a minority view in the general community, and we must discuss seriously how to challenge public misperceptions about asylum seekers.
A short resource accompanies this Statement, Ten steps towards justice for refugees & asylum seekers, giving practical advice on actions we can take, and facts about the situation.
We live in a time when each of us can make a difference. But it is a choice. “A just and healthy society is one in which all people are able to live decently, and all contribute to the needs of the weakest, including non-citizens.”
There is no better time to advocate and work for an improved situation for people in need. To change the world is an overwhelming task, but to change our patch of the world is feasible. Let’s make a history in which our children’s children can take pride.
Michael Walter works for the St Vincent de Paul Society in Melbourne. He has recently joined the Board of Social Policy Connections.
“Australia should be processing asylum seekers’ claims on shore. Detention in immigration facilities should be for the shortest period possible to undertake identity, health and security checks. No child should be detained solely on the basis of their immigration status and all children are entitled to a healthy family life with the support and nurture of their parents.”
For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas, 17.