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www.mn.catholic.org.au Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
SEEKING SOCIAL JUSTICE FOR
The Austr alian community is now as
diver se as ever with the ar rival of people
from many different countries since the
1960s. Some have come to our shores
out of choice, to embark on a new career
and a new life. Others have ar rived here
because of a family connection. More
recently other s have come after fleeing
their war-r avaged homelands or escaping
oppressive regimes which denied them
the ba sic rights and freedoms you and I
take for granted. Still, other s have come
after being targeted for their religious or
The plight of these asylum seeker s has
been well documented in the media
and accompanied by fierce and at times
hysterical debate across the national
political spectr um. Yet it is still unresolved,
largely because there are few, if any,
individuals within the major political
par ties with the courage to challenge
a gover nment policy that is mor ally
Indeed, it now seems more likely that
Australia's har sh treatment of asylum
seeker s will not be sof tening any time
soon. Initiatives to 'process' asylum seeker s
offshore on Manus Island perhaps reflect a
hope that the issue will be expunged from
our collective consciousness.
Some people may be surprised to lear n
that seeking asylum in Austr alia is not
a new phenomenon. In the 1970s the
asylum seeker s were from Vietnam.
However, there was never any suggestion
that the many thousands who ar rived
in Austr alia unannounced from Vietnam
would be tur ned away en masse. In fact
in 1951 Austr alia wa s among 26 signatory
nations to The Convention in Relation to
the Status of Refugees, under the United
Nations Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR). This convention acknowledged
the fundamental rights of refugees :
"It lays down basic minimum standards
for the treatment of refugees, without
prejudice to the gr anting by States of more
favourable treatment. The Convention is
to be applied without discrimination as
to r ace, religion or countr y of origin, and
contains various safeguards against the
expulsion of refugees."
In meeting its obligations under the
Convention, from 1967 -1985 Australia
accepted 137,000 Vietnamese refugees.
There was no "Stop the Boats" slogan,
nor a "Pacific Solution." Simply put, the
'Convention' enabled countries in the
region to establish a process for the
resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in
their respective countries. No effor t was
made to retur n them to Vietnam. Indeed,
Austr alia was commended throughout
the world for its open policy towards the
Vietnamese boat people and at the time
Australia's intake was, per capita , one of
the highest in the world.
In the current situation and regardless of
the views being expressed about the rights
and wrongs of asylum
seekers "turning up"
in Austr alia, there is
a fundamental moral
obligation upon us as
a nation to do all we
can to protect the
inalienable right of
other human beings to
be treated with respect.
Indeed, the asylum
seeker debate goes to
the hear t of the Church's
social justice policy, the
dignity of the human per son.
God ha s imprinted his own image and
likeness on human beings (cf. Gen 1:26),
conferring on them an incompar able dignity .. .
In effect beyond the rights which one acquires
by one's own work, there exist rights which do
not correspond to any work performed, but
which flow from one's essential dignity as a
person. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 1991, #11
It is impossible for us to fully comprehend
the fear and abject misery among those
desper ately trying to escape civil war,
sectarian violence, political and religious
victimisation and even genocide.
How many of us ar e prepared to
acknowledge that refugees are forced to
make the decision to flee and to place
their tr ust in complete str anger s, most
of whom are only intent on making a
profitable commercial tr ansaction out of
Hope brings asylum seeker s to Austr alia :
the hope that they will have the
oppor tunity of a future filled with promise ;
the hope that they will be allowed to live
their lives in fr eedom and not hide in fear
of retribution or punishment; the hope
that they will be able to practise their faith
without restriction ; the hope that they
and their childr en will be provided with a
sound education, tr aining and employment
oppor tunities and the hope that they will
have access to decent and compassionate
Contr ast the reasonableness of these
hopes with the reality when asylum
seeker s attempt to get her e.
They are intercepted at
sea by navy vessels
and escor ted to a
on a remote island.
Food, sanitation and
standards are barely
are separated and
most refugees remain
in these centres for
many months while their
applications ar e perused by
over worked immigration officials.
Some are sent home immediately with
little thought given to their safety when
they get there.
There is a significant systemic and
prejudicial attitude among many of our
political leader s against asylum seeker s.
To justify these attitudes they have put
for ward a number of fallacious arguments
in suppor t of government action and
policies which prevent asylum seeker s
from attaining the same status as other
Austr alian residents. One is that asylum
seekers are simply queue jumper s.
Another is that many asylum seekers are
not genuine refugees.
The new coalition gover nment in Austr alia
foreshadowed tough new restrictions on
asylum seeker s with its "Stop the Boats"
rhetoric. It immediately put its policy
into practice but with an additional twist.
In order to discour age asylum seeker s
and people smugglers, the gover nment
has advised that it will not inform the
Austr alian people if an asylum seeker boat
has been intercepted, until the asylum
seeker s have reached the detention
centres on Manus Island or Samoa . This
is a novel, but plainly deceitful and cynical
approach and doesn't address the problem.
It simply removes it from the front pages
of our newspapers.
Asylum seeker s are not ar med soldiers
ar riving in full battle dress to wage war
upon us . They are not intending to take
our homes, over r un our cities, steal our
jobs, r ape our women and kidnap our
children. These ar e people whose lives
have been destroyed and who are willing
to risk every thing to r egain what dignity
they still have in the hope that their lives
will be meaningful. We must not deny
them this right.
As a Catholic community, we have a
responsibility to champion the rights of the
disadvantaged and marginalised; not just
those within our own society but all those
who experience injustice elsewhere in the
world. We have a par ticular obligation to
welcome and protect those who come
to our shores, no matter how they make
that jour ney, because many do not have a
The way we treat asylum seeker s is the
barometer by which our individual and
national mor al consciousness can be
measur ed. Jesus himself provides the
clearest example of our obligations to
humanity in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-112).
These provide us the cor e values which
ought to shape and guide our thinking
and our actions. We only need to ask
ourselves: "What would Jesus do?"
1. Convention and Protocol Relating to the status of
Resolution 2198 (X X I) Adopted by the United
Nations General Assembly, Geneva , 1951, 1967, 1996.
Kevin Mulligan is the Director
of Mission at Calvary Mater,
are not intending
to take our homes,
overrun our cities,
steal our jobs,
rape our women
and kidnap our
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