The bishops of Oceania upheld their solidarity with those traveling across the water to seek asylum in Australia, known locally as "boat people," urging a “more humane approach” to their situation.
Stressing that “boat people are real people,” Bishop Eugene Hurley of Darwin, Australia, remarked that “the giving of sanctuary has always been one of the noblest of human endeavors.”
He warned of the use of language to dehumanize those seeking asylum, noting that while they are called “queue jumpers,” there is no discussion of how to form orderly lines when one is fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka and Syria.
The bishop went on to call the offshore detention centers “factories for mental illness,” saying their use is “devoid of logic, fairness, and compassion.”
Bishop Hurley was among more than 80 bishops from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and other Oceania nations who were gathered in Wellington May 12-16 for prayer, fellowship, reflection, and discussion.
Among the topics discussed was current Australian policy, under which asylum seekers – many of them from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Iran – travel by boat from Indonesia and are intercepted by the nation's navy before reaching land. They are then sent to offshore detention camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a small Micronesian nation.
The camps' conditions have been condemned by human rights groups. In February an Iranian asylum seeker was murdered, and 77 others were injured, during a spark of violence at Manus Island detention center.
“We express our solidarity with our fellow bishops, priests and pastoral workers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea who are attempting to respond compassionately to the presence and plight of asylum seekers who have been transferred to these nations against their will,” read a motion adopted May 15 by the Federation of Catholic Bishops' Conferences of Oceania.
“We appeal to the leaders of Papua New Guinea and Australia to review the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea … with a view to developing a more humane approach to asylum seekers attempting to reach Australian shores.”
In addition to asylum policy, the bishops at the gathering discussed pastoral planning and earthquakes; the Church in Fiji; preparations for October's synod on the family; youth ministry; and faith amid secularity.
Bishop Hurley, Archbishop Douglas Young of Mount Hagen, and representatives from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands spoke about Manus Island detention center; while Bishop Paul Mea Kaiuea of Tarawa and Nauru gave a presentation on the Nauru detention center.
The motion which the bishops adopted after the discussion called Australia's policy regarding asylum seekers “institutionalized cruelty.”
Australia is currently negotiating an agreement with Cambodia to resettle some asylum seekers.
Cambodia scored a 20 on Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks the perception of corruption in public sectors. The country's score tied it with Eritrea and Venezuela, and left it just behind Zimbabwe.
“People come to get protection from Australia . . . why would they go to Cambodia?” an asylum seeker being held at the Nauru detention center said to The Sydney Morning Herald June 3.
Virak Ou, chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, has said that “there's no reason for Australia to believe that Cambodia will protect the rights of refugees, which to me is very irresponsible of Australia.”
In May, a Labor party parliamentarian, Tanya Plibersek, told ABC, “We are gravely concerned about some of the things that are happening in Cambodia,” saying it is “one of the poorest countries in Asia, it still has difficulty feeding its own people . . . and protesters have been shot in the street.''
In recent years, Cambodia has deported a number of Degar refugees from Vietnam back to their home country. The Degar are an indigenous people of Vietnam's central highlands, who are largely Christian and have been persecuted for their faith by the communist government.
Frustration with Australia's policies have culminated recently in acts of self-immolation – suicide by setting oneself on fire.
Two Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have committed the act in recent months, believing they would not be granted asylum in Australia, though they feared persecution from the Sinhalese majority should they be returned to Sri Lanka.
In a June 2 interview with ABC, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said that “Pope Francis would subscribe to that statement that the current policy supported by both sides of politics is morally unacceptable and shames our country and the need for it to be reconsidered is urgent.”
He added that the Pope would be “appalled” were he to visit the Manus Island detention center.
Archbishop Coleridge said that the “cruel” treatment of asylum seekers “can only happen if those who are seeking refuge are seeking refuge on our shores are dehumanized – and that’s the heart of the problem.”