Listen: Reverend Graham Long of the Wayside Chapel talks to Clare Chate about asylum seekers.
The Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross has condemned the Federal Government’s plan to return 267 asylum seekers from mainland Australia to Nauru—a move that may begin in a matter of days.
The chapel, famous for its compassion towards those in need, has partnered with a group of other Australian churches offering their properties as places of “sanctuary” for asylum seekers. Head of the chapel Reverend Graham Long (pictured above), has called the move an “act of cruelty” and “inhumanity” and is urging the government to let the asylum seekers stay on the mainland.
His plea is in response to the news last week that 267 asylum seekers currently in Darwin for medical and mental health reasons, will be returned to detention centres in Nauru and PNG at the end of their treatments. The group includes 54 children, many who have been born in mainland Australia and now attend school here.
Many are afraid of returning, some describing Nauru island and its detention centre as a “prison”.
Asylum Seekers Unlikely To End Up Sleeping In Pews
The Sanctuary movement was launched last week by a group of Anglican and Uniting churches in Australia and is a revival of a medieval tradition in which fugitives could take refuge inside church buildings.
However Rev Long said he believed it was unlikely that asylum seekers would literally end up hiding in churches.
“This concept of refuge, we’re really talking about a tradition that’s hundreds of years old from Britain and Europe and never tested here at all,” he said. “So I don’t think either churches or government are going to allow a position where cops are storming churches. It’s not going to happen.
“The churches, I’m quite sure, are not saying “we’re going to house a family underneath the altar in our worship space”. Really, what they’re saying is, “we’ll make room somewhere”. We’ll have a house, maybe we’ve got a manse, maybe we’ve got something. We will make room. I think that’s the kind of offer that’s being made.”
Churches Sending A Message To The Government
Above: Activists on February 4, protesting against the plan to return asylum seekers to Nauru.
Rev Long said the movement was as much a message to the government as anything else.
“It really is saying, “For God’s sake, why can’t this country act humanely for these people?”,” he said. “These are innocent people. They’ve done no wrong, they are not charged with anything. And we’re going to send these people to prison. And that’s the right word. We say detention, but it’s prison.
“It’s not against the law to seek asylum.”
“I had a letter from a fellow who said he loves Syria, he loves his country, he’s a very proud Syrian, but when the building next door got bombed to dust, he took his two little children and just ran. Now he’s stranded in Turkey and he’s got no prospect of getting out of there. He’s just stuck. What would you do if your little kids were screaming?”
“These are just people who have run from something that’s horrendous.”
Immigration Boss Says Protests Are Counter-Productive
Despite the compassion behind the protests of churches and other human rights advocates, Immigration Department secretary Michael Pezzullo has warned that it could actually prevent authorities from quietly letting some individuals stay, writes The West Australian.
Mr Pezzullo said that the government had to ignore the highly publicized protests, because caving in may send a message to people-smugglers that Australia is the place to go.
“Yielding to emotional gestures in this area of public administration simply reduces the margin for discretionary action, which is able to be employed by those who are actually charged with dealing with the problem,” he said.
In other words, the Immigration Department can quietly make compassionate decisions for people in the greatest need, if they are simply allowed to get on with their job.
“Avoidance of fanfare and gesture is crucial lest others are encouraged to the game opportunities to get to Australia or stay here,” he added.
Mr Pezzullo said on Monday that the return of the asylum seekers could begin within days.
We Need More Compassionate Solutions: Reverend
Regardless, Rev Graham Long said he believes solutions for asylum seekers aren’t being explored properly in Australia.
“We’ve called them queue jumpers, but there are no queues,” he said. “I think for a start if you create queues and make those queues move, and undercut the price of people smugglers, you can put them out of business.”
“There’s a lot of disingenuous talk about [wanting] to save people from drowning. If that was really true, why don’t we just send a ship over there and safely bring people back? It just doesn’t ring right.”
Pastor Is A Long-Time Refugee Advocate
Reverend Graham Long is a long-term advocate for refugees, and he said it’s at the heart of his church to help those in need, including asylum seekers.
“The Wayside Chapel began 50 years ago as a place of sanctuary,” he said, “and that’s really been our daily life for 50 years.”
“Our doors are open to everyone in need. We don’t distinguish between the rich and poor, housed and homeless, sick and well. And we certainly don’t distinguish between citizens and refugees.
“I personally, in years gone by, played a very large part in settling Sudanese people from the war over there, with On Arrival Housing in Sydney,” he said. “So I have lots and lots of Sudanese friends.”