Australia: saviour or persecutor?

“The Acehnese, who are subsistence fishers and farmers who have still not fully rebuilt their lives from the tsunami of 10 years ago, came to the rescue in defiance of their government.”

Most Friday afternoons, I take a couple of trams across Melbourne. Eventually, I arrive at one of the privatised detention centres in which the Government keeps those asylum seekers not held in overseas detention camps or allowed the limited freedom of community detention or a bridging visa (which grants the right to stay in the community but generally without study or work rights). Security – for inmates and visitors – makes the place barely distinguishable from a prison.

Having placed my valuables in a locker, I wait my turn to go through the layers of locked doors, scanners and metal detectors to visit a young man – I’ll call him Ali. Ali and I talk about, and pray for, his health, his wife and his young family (who wait on the outside). Ali has fled persecution in his homeland, with people from minority groups like himself passed over for jobs, harassed, threatened – and sometimes even killed. He is grateful to see me and always asks me about the little things – everyday life in Australia, the basics of English, even the weather. He always appreciates the snacks I bring as the food in the centre, like detention centre life in general, is monotonous and bland. Such is Australian hospitality for those fleeing persecution.

In 2013, Tony Abbott told the Institute Australia of Public Affairs, “‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is the foundation of our justice. ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ is the foundation of our mercy. Faith has weakened but not, I’m pleased to say, this high-mindedness faith helps us form”. In citing these scriptural passages he appeared to be saying that these values remain at the heart of Australian ‘high-mindedness’, even if Judeo-Christian faith is less apparent today than it used to be.

In May, nearly 7,000 km to the North, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, a group of Muslim fishers lived these values in practice. A group of Rohingya refugees had fled from Myanmar to seek safety elsewhere – and were turned back by Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai authorities. (The Rohingyas’ ancestors came from what is now Bangladesh but for the last two or three centuries they have lived in neighbouring Myanmar. The government there will not recognise them as citizens and persecutes them).

The Acehnese, who are subsistence fishers and farmers who have still not fully rebuilt their lives from the tsunami of 10 years ago, came to the rescue in defiance of their government. Under the coordination of Muhammad Hendra (head of the Tamiang Farmers and Fishers Association), they helped the Rohingya from the sea. From the little they had, these generous people provided the refugees with food and accommodation.

Mr Abbott was invited to help join the rescue effort. His response was short and to the point: ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ The scriptural ‘foundation of our justice’ goes only so far, it seems.

Australia is a party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. This ground breaking treaty was adopted by countries horrified by the Nazi genocide of the Jews and determined not to let such horrors happen again. Those who signed it guaranteed that they would give protection to people who had fled their countries based on a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. The litany of atrocities has not stopped since and there are now well over 50 million refugees in the world today.

There was a time when Australia took its Convention obligations seriously. The Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s found a welcome home in Australia under Malcolm Fraser’s leadership. Later, however, the picture changed.

In 1992, the Labor Government introduced mandatory detention and, since then, legislation passed under both parties’ governments has progressively moved the detainees off-shore and prevented them from challenging their detention. As one parent on Christmas Island told the Australian Human Rights Commission (reported in the Forgotten Children report into children in detention earlier this year): ‘In Iran I was the only one being tortured, and now my children are being tortured here [in Australia].’

Last year, the new Liberal Government even allowed the return of asylum seekers to places where they face torture. Given that the prohibition of this kind of return (usually known to lawyers by its French equivalent, refoulement) is the cornerstone of the Convention (Article 33), it is no longer clear what, if anything, Australia intends by nominally adhering to this much abused treaty.

Now, we turn the boats back at sea and outsource what limited protection obligations we acknowledge to others – the private detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru run under the direction of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

And they have not been doing well. Two men, at least, have died: one of blood poisoning sustained after a cut to his foot and one beaten to death. Conditions in the offshore camps have been criticised by groups as diverse as the Moss Review (established by the Immigration Minister), the Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Strangely, however, we do not mete out this awful treatment to asylum seekers who come by plane and claim asylum after their arrival – traditionally the group slightly less likely to have genuine protection claims. This too is a breach of our Convention obligations – by Article 31 of the Convention we promise not to discriminate against people based on their mode of arrival.

I cannot understand the cruelty of Australian policies. Refugees come to us as people already vulnerable and traumatised and the system does its best to repeat the process.

The people I meet are lovely, talented and resourceful – they have to be to flee to safety. They are also hurt and desperate. It breaks my heart to walk into the wall of hopelessness which surrounds them – one which we have helped create. Pope Francis, in an address for World Refugee Day last year reminds us that ‘We believe that Jesus was a refugee, had to flee to save his life, with Saint Joseph and Mary, had to leave for Egypt.’ It is hard to imagine that the Christ who calls us to relationship with him, and others in him, would have us pass by those who are among the neediest in Australia today.

By Justin Glyn SJ

This article was first published in Quest. For an annual subscription please click here.

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