Today, my heart has been breaking.
I feel burdened by the dreadful sufferings of asylum seekers in Australia and at odds with my own country about what to do. You see, Australia has mandatory detention for all asylum seekers (including children) who arrive by boat — and people often wait years in centres in Nauru and Manus Island which are worse than prisons, where no media coverage is allowed and where asylum seekers have no redress to Australian law.1
Today, we learnt that the High Court ruled that off-shore detention centres are legal and many will be sent back to these centres, including 90 children, and one poor five-year-old boy who may be sent back to face his alleged rapist who is still detained there.2
I wanted to write about this. But honestly? I couldn’t. I was too angry. It would have come out as a vitriolic denouncement of every selfish, apathetic Australian who supports these laws. (Which, sadly, is most Australians.) So instead, I thought I’d quote from our far more measured — but no less devastating — Catholic bishops here in Australia.
This is what they had to say about refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
All quotes are taken from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Social Justice Statement (2015-2016), For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Justice for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.
What is Going on?
For years Australian society has been divided by the debate over asylum seekers who arrive by boat. In the words of our National Anthem, they have ‘come across the seas’, but both sides of politics have exaggerated the challenge they present to this country. 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.
Globalisation of Indifference
‘We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalisation of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!’3 […] The ‘globalisation of indifference’ Pope Francis refers to has emerged in Australia. It is an indifference to the reasons behind people’s flight from persecution, to the human dignity of every person, and to our once proud tradition of protecting and supporting victims of war and violence.
Jesus was a Refugee
From the beginning, Jesus experienced the terrors of the refugee when his family fled tyranny and sought refuge in Egypt. In his ministry he led the life of a wanderer and relied on the hospitality of others: ‘The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). He urged his disciples to do the same: ‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey’ (Matthew 10:9-10). He embraced the outsider and the exile as a person like himself, and he commands us to do as he did.
$3 Billion to Detain Several Thousand
The financial cost to Australians has been huge. In 2014–15, Australia devoted almost $3 billion to onshore and offshore detention and community placement services for several thousand asylum seekers. The budget for the Manus Island and Nauru facilities alone was over $820 million.4 By comparison, the UNHCR has a budget of around $5.5 billion to attend to the needs of almost 60 million people around the world.5
Factories for Mental Illness
The 2010 Australian of the Year, psychiatrist Dr Patrick McGorry, described detention facilities as ‘factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder’.6 Dr Peter Young, former chief psychiatrist to Australia’s detention centres, described them as ‘inherently toxic’. Psychiatrist Professor Louise Newman said that when the Labor government reopened the Manus Island and Nauru facilities in 2012, ‘they replicated the very conditions that they have admitted contribute to mental harm and deterioration.’ 7
Detention Doesn’t Save Lives
Mandatory offshore detention does not save lives. Recent immigration ministers from both sides of politics admitted as much to the Human Rights Commission.8 There is no evidence that measures like suspending refugee status determination and denying resettlement in Australia will stem the flow of people seeking asylum.
Children at Risk
Children are a particularly vulnerable group in any detention setting. The findings of the Human Rights Commission’s 2014 National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention show that these policies have caused terrible harm to children and their parents. As a signatory to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, Australia is obliged to ensure that the detention of children is a measure of last resort, for the shortest period of time possible, that children are not detained arbitrarily, and are not separated from their parents.9 Australia is the only nation that detains child asylum seekers as a matter of course.10
We are concerned when we hear reports of pregnant women seeking abortions because of the dire conditions in detention, of young mothers on 24-hour suicide watch, of children living in close proximity to depressed adults, and of high numbers of children self-harming and being exposed to potential abuse.11 What can have justified separating a six-year-old girl suffering post-traumatic stress from her mother for an extended period while her mother was sent to the mainland to have a baby? Or seizing the medical records and destroying the medication of a three-year-old girl suffering from epilepsy?12 These actions speak of an institutionalised cruelty that cares little for the most vulnerable.
How Can We Justify This?
How can we justify Australia’s policy of deterring people from claiming protection in the light of Jesus’ words? As a nation, we harm innocent people by detaining them, pushing back their boats and transferring them to other 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. This policy dishonours the human dignity of people who seek protection and denies the truth of their humanity.
Let us Not Close our Hearts
When we Australians support policies of cruelty and rejection, we close our ears to Christ’s call and turn him away from our doors. We know that we are better than this. As Christians, we know that it is within us to hear the call of Jesus. As Australians we have shown ourselves willing to take the path of generosity and leadership. We can do so again. The words and actions of Jesus demand a response. We do not open our hearts and our home to vulnerable people simply because they are ‘deserving’ of charity or compassion. We take them in, provide shelter and bandage their wounds because they are equal to us in dignity. They are no longer ‘aliens’ but our brothers and sisters. (Leviticus 19:33)
Please, pray for asylum seekers here in Australia. Pray that the hearts of Australians will be moved by compassion. Pray that our political leaders will make good and wise decisions which truly honour Christ the King, a refugee. Pray change will come soon.
Pope Francis (2013), Homily of Holy Father Francis, ‘Arena’ sports camp, Salina Quarter, Lampedusa, 8 July 2013. ↩
Refugee Council of Australia (2014), Federal Budget in Brief: What it means for refugees and people seeking humanitarian protection, Sydney, p. 2. ↩
Kumiko Matsuura‐Mueller (2014), Proposed Biennial Programme Budget 2014 2015 (revised), Division of Financial and Administrative Management, UNHCR, p. 5. ↩
Adam Cresswell (2010), ‘Call to abandon “factories for mental illness”’, The Australian, 26 January 2010. ↩
David Marr and Oliver Laughland (2014), ‘Australia’s detention regime sets out to make asylum seekers suffer, says chief immigration psychiatrist’, Guardian Australia, 5 August 2014. ↩
Australian Human Rights Commission (2014), The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, AHRC, Sydney, p. 10 ↩
United Nations (1990), Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 37 (b), (c). ↩
Australian Human Rights Commission (2014), The Forgotten Children, p. 10. ↩
Gillian Triggs (2014), ‘Detention shame: children, mothers self-harming’, The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 24 July 2014; Dr Peter Young (2014), Evidence given to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Sydney Public Hearing, 31 July 2014; Australian Human Rights Commission (2014), The Forgotten Children, pp. 62-63, 90-91, 98-101, 105-106; Philip Moss (2015), Review into recent allegations relating to conditions and circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru, Final Report, 6 February 2015, pp. 14, 23f. ↩
Human Rights Law Centre (2014), Torture and Cruel Treatment in Australia, Joint NGO report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, October 2014, pp. 44, 46. ↩