Church leaders in both Australia and Papua New Guinea are voicing discontent with Australia’s policy of processing asylum seekers at offshore camps with conditions condemned by human rights groups.
Asylum seekers, many of them from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran, travel by boat from Indonesia and are intercepted by the Australian navy before reaching land. They are then sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a small Micronesian nation.
Reza Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker, was murdered Feb. 17 at Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island detention center, and more than 77 others were injured in a spark of violence.
The bishops conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Island stated their condolences and solidarity with the victims of violence Feb. 28, and asked: “how it could be right, in the light of the Papua New Guinea constitution's protection of freedom, to bring into our country and imprison people who have not broken our laws?”
The bishops expressed their concern that the “rhetoric of a righteous campaign against people smugglers actually seems to be more a question of political convenience.”
Australia and Papua New Guinea signed an agreement in 2013 establishing the policy, citing the need to fight human trafficking. It was agreed that refugees will be settled in Papua New Guinea, and that all other asylum seekers will be deported to their home countries.
“We don’t know if the two governments are serious about it, or it’s just a strategy to discourage anyone else from trying to illegally reach Australia,” Fr. Giogio Licini, secretary of social communications for the Papuan bishops, stated.
He added that Papua New Guinea “is in an awkward position. Riddled by corruption and frequently depending on Australian aid, our government could not deny ‘help’ to Australia when requested by the Rudd cabinet to scare off the boat people by hosting them on Manus Island.”
The Papuan bishops added their indignation that “settlement in Papua New Guinea was presented in such a negative light so as to act as a deterrent to asylum seekers.”
Human rights groups have noted inadequate conditions at the detention center -- including the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which has “consistently raised issues around the transfer arrangements and on the absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in PNG … including lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions.”
“Manus is the wrong answer to a real problem,” said Fr. Licini. “Australia should make an effort at rethinking the whole issue.”
He mourned that in the meantime, “Manus will continue to be a dangerous place.”
Archbishop Francesco Panfilo of Rabaul visited Manus Island last month, meeting with asylum seekers and local administrators, reporting that he sensed humanitarian issues as a major concern at the detention center.
He observed that representatives of local churches were not allowed to enter the center, except for volunteers from the Salvation Army, and stressed the need to provide for the asylum seekers’ “right to worship according to their belief, and the right of the mainline churches to reach out to their members.”
Most Australians support the current policy toward asylum seekers, or wish it to be more harsh, according to a December poll by UMR Research. But a website, “Sorry Asylum Seekers,” has been set up for Australians to express solidarity with the detained who are seeking a better life than what they can find in such places as Iran and Afghanistan.
Catholic Religious Australia, a collection of more than 180 religious orders, has initiated a “National Lament” campaign in response to the asylum seekers to last through the Easter cycle, including both the seasons of Lent and Easter.
The campaign is Christian and “human response” to those seeking asylum in Australia, rather than viewing them as a problem to be solved.
“Many people throughout Australia are disturbed by the punitive and harsh policies and conditions to which people seeking asylum in Australia are being subjected,” Catholic Religious Australia said in a March 3 statement.
“We are taking our inspiration from the words of Pope Francis visiting asylum seekers refugee camp on the Italian island of Lampedusa,” the group said, citing the Roman Pontiff’s statement that “we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”
The program will focus on prayer and penance made on behalf of the asylum seekers, as well as writing to government officials for a change in the policy of offshore detention.
It will conclude with a novena from Ascension to Pentecost, being focused on prayer and prophetic presence for those seeking a better life in Australia.