October 2015

Religious leaders hold urgent meeting about refugees

Sister Clare Condon, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, was one of 50-plus leaders representing diverse faith groups who met with Federal parliamentarians last week, calling on them to restore Australia’s standing as a compassionate nation by winding back policies negatively impacting on people escaping violence, persecution and death.

The October 15 forum at Parliament House in Canberra was initiated by Catholic Religious Australia, the peak body for Catholic religious congregations in Australia, with the support of other Christian denominations and other faiths, and in collaboration with four Federal parliamentarians – Cathy McGowan MP (Independent), Anna Burke MP (ALP), Russell Broadbent MP (Liberal) and Senator Janet Rice (Australian Greens).

Clare described the discussions between parliamentarians and religious leaders as “positive”.

“There was a sense that everybody was on the ‘same page’,” she said.

Clare felt there was recognition among the parliamentarians that public opinion in Australia about asylum seekers and refugees is changing, particularly since the Government announced that Australia would accept 12,000 Syrian refugees.

“There were some strong statements about the importance of language and the need to change the narrative at the national level – to stop demonising people who arrive by boat, to stop the three-word slogans, and to attend to the real needs of vulnerable people,” she said.

At the same time, Clare said there was a “strong understanding” among the group of the “complexity of the issues” around forced migration.

Responding to a question from the forum’s moderator, journalist Paul Bongiorno – What can practically happen, given the complexities? – Clare said: “Immediately release the children and their families from detention. They are innocent children who are incarcerated. That’s what we’re asking for”.

A positive outcome of the forum was the establishment of a cross-party, interfaith task force, comprising five parliamentarians and five religious leaders, who will work together to change the political and public narrative regarding asylum seekers and refugees.

Building on the goodwill arising from the Government’s decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees, it is hoped this task force, which will meet within the next month, can develop new policies for the thousands of other refugees, including ending off-shore and mandatory detention, removing children from detention and abolishing temporary protection visas.

Presentation Sister Anne Lane, representing Catholic Religious Australia, said the religious leaders asked all sides of politics to value the dignity of every human person.

“There have been many reputable reports which show that immigration detention causes significant psychological harm, particularly to children.

“It is never right to use people as a means to an end. It is morally wrong to punish one group of human beings by locking them up on off-shore islands in order to deter other people from coming to Australia.

“We cannot allow such cruel policies to continue,” she said.

Anne said it is time honesty was brought into this issue, with the whole mantra of “stopping the boats” being just that, a mantra.

“Due to the lack of transparency, we don’t know if or what boats have been turned back and what has resulted from those actions,” she said.

“It may simply mean stopping the boats in Australian waters, so that we can hold our heads high as vulnerable people die in other countries and situations to which we’ve returned them.

“Our nation’s response is in stark contrast to the way the people of Europe have rescued and welcomed tens of thousands who arrived by boat on their shores.”

Anne said economically the current policy is also destructive.

“In so far as we can estimate, the taxes of the Australian people are being squandered to the tune of more than $5 billion in implementing the current border protection policies.

“This money would be better spent assisting refugees to make a meaningful contribution to society, as well as supporting the UNHCR and working with other countries in our region to develop a humane and effective regional solution,” she said.

Anne said for many years religious groups have put their resources at the service of refugees and asylum seekers by providing housing support, employment, food and clothing, education and counselling.

“We say to our parliamentarians, stop mandatory detention and let more people into our country and we will work with you to ensure these people are looked after and are able to become part of the Australian community,” she said.

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