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Treating asylum seekers humanely is a core Gospel demand

Speaking at St Patrick’s Cathedral before the Palm Sunday rally in Melbourne on 29 March in support of asylum seekers, Bruce Duncan reiterated Malcolm Fraser’s call for more humane policies through regional resettlement programs.

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 into very harsh climates in 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 particularly 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.

Our detention policies particularly 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 criteria when we come to stand before God. He reiterates the message with his very severe judgment against those who ignore the poor and destitute.

Punishing asylum seekers

We have heard many accounts and expert reports on the considerable harm inflicted on over a thousand male asylum seekers on Manus Island and 742 on Nauru, including 126 women and 107 children. 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 have 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 to the last possible day, releasing it on 11 February. Prime Minister Abbott attacked the report as a blatantly partisan ‘stitch-up’.

Malcolm Fraser, who has long emerged as articulating the moral conscience of our nation, the next day issued a press release saying that the government’s response was 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 found evidence of at least three rapes and of 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 and cover-ups about 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.

Palm Sunday March

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 the 100,000 Vietnamese refugees.

In addition, Australia can readily increase the number of refugee places from its miserly 13,750. This is tiny even in comparison with our annual immigration intake of 190,000 people.

We have many fine people in our federal parliament in all parties and 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 go and talk directly with him or her.

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.

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• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.