March 2017

By Tim McKenna

Pope Francis regularly calls on us to welcome people seeking our protection. The Australian bishops’ 2015 statement called for justice for asylum seekers, in particular condemning their prolonged detention in Australia and offshore. Last year the bishops re-iterated this condemnation stating ‘It is time to bring them here.’ (Statement in Support of Offshore Detainees, 14 October 2016).

The Australian Government continues to reject these calls. Last month there was a series of incidents demonstrating the continuing abuse of people seeking Australia’s protection and who are legally subject to the Government’s duty of care:

  • Two men on Manus were forcibly deported to the country from which they fled, without their refugee claims being subject to judicial review. The others on Manus in the same situation are now terrified this will happen to them.

  • Implementation of the US settlement deal announced four months ago continues to be delayed with the ‘extreme vetting’ now required not likely to commence for ‘several months’. And there is no guarantee that the US will take any refugees at all. There is no safe ‘Plan B’ for these vulnerable people, who have already suffered abuse for nearly four years.

  • In Australia, the Government attempted to remove the mobile phones from asylum seekers in detention, denying them effective contact with family, friends and supporters. Luckily an injunction has been imposed temporarily preventing that action.

  • Again in Australia, the Government issued letters to more than 12,000 people, warning that they have only weeks to lodge a claim for refugee status through the ‘fast track’ process. This unjust process gives the applicant just 28 days to submit their claim, with no changes allowed after it is submitted. This is extremely difficult for people who have experienced violent (including sexual) trauma, with poor English and with little money for lawyers. The applicant then has a very limited opportunity for review of an adverse finding.  As a result refugee supporters have launched a campaign to quickly get all these people legal aid. But this is not enough.

And all this cruelty is unnecessary as the boats continue to be stopped by turning back the boats! There are humane ways to stop the boats that the Government is not prepared to try. It is time for all of us to re-state in no uncertain terms that all this abuse must stop and that we must welcome refugees not persecute them.

The first step is to ensure that all on Manus and Nauru are quickly found a safe place to re-start their lives; not sent back to the country they fled and not forced to remain in PNG or Nauru or sent to other unsafe countries. As a start we should accept the New Zealand offer to take 150 people.

This is our problem, and the rest of the world sees it as such. When some countries took people from our offshore detention centres in the early 2000s, we still had to take some too.  The only way we can be sure our problem is fixed quickly is to take responsibility and fix it ourselves. We must be prepared to welcome many of these people to settle in Australia.

And finally for those people already in Australia, we must reform the unjust ‘fast track’ assessment process and conduct an independent review of the situation of people still in detention in Australia, either to release them into community detention or to improve their conditions in detention.

The Project Compassion theme for Lent this year is Love Thy Neighbour, which Christ defined in the parable of the Good Samaritan as love for all, not just our immediate neighbours. So a key opportunity to express our love for and welcome for refugees, and to call for a better approach, is at the Palm Sunday Rally for refugees held on Sunday 9 April in capital cities and towns across Australia. We need to make this rally the biggest ever, since numbers are significant for most politicians. Please make a special effort to attend and to bring friends and family. If the response is big enough, maybe we won’t need one next year!

Tim McKenna is involved with St Vincent de Paul Society in the ACT. He is a member of the Vincentian Refugee Network and is part of CAPSA’s National Advocacy Network.