The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce is calling on both the Labor Party and Coalition to adopt a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers.
“I can’t wait for this election to be over because none of the policies announced in recent weeks especially by either of the two parties are designed for a compassionate approach or response to asylum seekers,” says Misha Coleman, Executive Officer of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce.
Audio – Misha Coleman and Rev Elenie Poulos Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce
This call for compassion is echoed by the 216 Christian organisations represented by the Taskforce, as well as Christian leaders around the world. Locally, The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, has urged the government to treat asylum seekers with “care and compassion”. Internationally, Pope Francis has condemned the “globalisation of indifference” towards the plight of refugees.
Under Labor’s Papua New Guinea Agreement which is already underway, asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia will be sent to PNG for processing and resettlement.
This policy has come under fire from the UNHCR over the “current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea.”
Having lived in PNG, Ms Coleman says there are “very high rates of malaria, infant mortality, maternal mortality, a very high rate of violence against women and girls and it is a very impoverished nation which is struggling to meet the demands of their own men, women and children.”
The policy is also under legal scrutiny as to whether it fulfils Australia’s obligations under international law. Paul Power, CEO of the national peak body for refugees, the Refugee Council of Australia, says: “It wasn’t intended when the Refugee Convention was developed that a country in the position that Australia is in … would be transferring people seeking protection from persecution in such large numbers to much smaller and economically weaker countries.”
Audio - Paul Power CEO of The Refugee Council of Australia
At a practical level, Daniel Ghezelbash, doctoral student and lecturer in refugee law at Sydney Law School, says the real test of this Agreement will be one of Papua New Guinea’s capacity: “If they keep coming, I don’t think Papua New Guinea is going to be happy to keep taking them.”
The Coalition’s asylum seeker policy is outlined in Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led response that would reintroduce ‘turning back the boats’ as a central tenet of their policy.
Rev Elenie Poulos, Chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, shares her concern for the safety and protection of refugees: “We’re asking our service men and women to respond to vulnerable people in very small boats on dangerous seas and turn them back and then leave them – will we ever know if they get back and what will happen to those people?” she says. “That’s if we don’t have tragedy in the meantime.”
This hardline approach to asylum seeker policy making is part of an international trend, according to Mr Ghezelbash: “I argue that there’s been a competition among countries … to develop new policies within the framework of the Refugee Convention that push the boundaries in terms of limiting access to those protection procedures.”
Fellow researcher at the Sydney Law School, Hannah Martin, explains that Australia’s tough stance is framed by our nation’s experience and belief that ‘good’ and ‘real’ refugees are selected by Australia from overseas refugees camps. “We’re not asked to be kind on our own terms, we’re actually been asked to be kind to people who are here already,” says Ms Martin. “So I think that plays into all those ideas about control of borders, it challenges them all.”
Audio - Daniel Ghezelbash, Laura Smith-Khan and Hannah Martin, Sydney Law School
In reality, asylum seekers entering Australia by boat are fleeing persecution, they are unarmed and presenting themselves to authorities, and close to 90 per cent of them are granted refugee status: “it takes a bit of political imagination to construct that into a threat to our borders,” Mr Power says.
However, policies of deterrence have proven ineffective in stopping asylum seekers from taking the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. Just weeks after the Papua New Guinea Agreement was announced, a boat carrying over 100 passengers sank near Christmas Island, claiming five lives.
People smugglers continue to take advantage of the desperation of asylum seekers and offer the false hope of safe passage.
“The people smugglers are saying I have a luxury boat, I’m going to charge you more … and then by the time they get to boarding the boat, and it’s this old fishing boat filled to the brim, they don’t have a choice – it’s either get on or they lose their money,” says Mr Ghezelbash.
It has been widely suggested that in order to reduce the flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat, Australia must engage in regional cooperation to protect people earlier, a view shared by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce: “that means protecting people in countries so that they don’t have to flee in the first place, and protecting them wherever they end up,” says Ms Coleman.
Mr Power says that in Burma, where Qin and Rohingya minorities are fleeing the country, Australia’s improved relationship with Burma puts our government in a stronger position to influence the Burmese political agenda and use aid to support change that will allow these minority groups to remain safely in Burma. “But I hear nothing from the Australian Government in relation to its strategies to supporting Burma to reduce the flow of refugees out of the country,” Mr Power says.
Laura Smith-Khan, researcher at the Sydney Law School who has conducted field studies in refugee camps across Asia, says improved conditions for refugees in host countries of first asylum may stem the flow of arrivals to Australia by boat. In countries like Pakistan, which hosts over 1.6 million Afghan refugees, refugees are not looking to resettle elsewhere but need support in Pakistan. “So what’s important in those situations is looking at how aid and supporting development in the world … how that can make a more durable situation for the people living in those countries,” Ms Smith-Khan says.
“What we need to do is to move the focus of punishment and towards protection,” Rev Poulos says, “if they’re not safe, if they don’t feel secure, they will keep moving until they find somewhere.”
The international refugee crisis is significant and growing, with 42.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. Australia’s current humanitarian intake is 20,000.
“I’m often asked what is the magic number of refugees Australia should resettle and there is no magic number, apart from 10 million over the next decade which is completely unsustainable and no one could reasonably expect it any single country can resolve these issues themselves,” Mr Power says.
But perhaps there is scope for Australia to adopt a more compassionate response.
“Australia is one of the wealthiest, secure and stable countries in the world … it does have the moral responsibility to offer not the very least but the very most,” says Rev Poulos.