“A shield for all who take refuge”: churches offer sanctuary to asylum seekers facing deportation back to offshore detention

Churches around Australia are offering sanctuary to the over 250 asylum seekers in Australia who yesterday were told they would have to return to offshore detention in Nauru.

A High Court decision yesterday ruled offshore detention legal in a test case brought by a Bangladeshi woman who came to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment in 2014. 200 other people from offshore detention centres have also brought cases, including victims of violence and sexual assault from Nauru and Manus Island.

Rev Dr Peter Catt, the Dean of Brisbane’s St John’s Cathedral and chairperson of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, says churches are filling a void in offering protection to the asylum seekers facing being sent back to offshore detention.

“It’s the government’s duty to offer sanctuary or asylum to people who flee persecution, and it looks like our government is reluctant to do that. So we’re stepping up to fill that void,” says Dr Catt.

“We’re all aware of the damage being done to children in particular in detention … someone has to offer them the hope of protection. We’re doing that and we’re hoping it will be sign to the government that the Australian people want these people to be protected, too.

“The ancient principle of sanctuary goes back to The Old Testament, and was enshrined in English Common Law. Where a state is causing grievous harm, churches can provide sanctuary and immunity from arrest by authorities. The legality of Sanctuary has never been tested under Australian law, nevertheless we are determined to apply its moral precepts and protect the most vulnerable from certain harm,” says Dr Catt.

“My understanding is that these asylum seekers are so traumatised and so scared that I think it would be very unlikely for them to take up the offer.”

A report released today from the Australian Human Rights Commission says 95 per cent of children over 8 years old who have previously lived on Nauru were assessed as at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These children, most of whom had spent months in Nauru, are among the most traumatised we have ever seen in our 50 years of combined professional experience,” said Professor Elizabeth Elliott, one of the paediatricians involved in assessing asylum seeker and refugee children at the Wickham Point detention facility last October.

“Many of the children had palpable anticipatory trauma at mention of return to Nauru,” said Professor Elliott. “Nauru is a totally inappropriate place for asylum seeking children to live, either in the detention centre or in the community.”

Dr Catt says there he has received a “huge groundswell” of offers of support and encouragement from churches this morning as news broke of the offer of sanctuary at the Brisbane Cathedral.

Other churches offering sanctuary include St George’s Cathedral in Perth and St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Albury, St David’s Cathedral in Hobart, Gosford Anglican Church, Paddington Anglican Church, the Wayside Chapel in NSW and several Uniting Churches including Pitt Street Uniting in Sydney and Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide. Dr Catt says more churches are coming on board this morning.

Incoming Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Rev Kanishka Raffel, who will be installed this evening, says the Sydney Cathedral is looking into offering sanctuary. “The reports of the human rights commission are gravely concerning,” Rev Raffel told Eternity.

We would not want to see people in the care of the Australian government being harmed on Nauru and will do whatever possible to prevent that harm. The Cathedral has and will continue to welcome asylum seekers and refugees into our church and assist them where we can.” 

Eternity spoke with Rev Geoff Broughton from Paddington Anglican Church in Sydney and Rev Sandy Boyce from Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide this morning. Both churches are offering sanctuary to the asylum seekers, but both Geoff and Sandy said they thought it unlikely asylum seekers would take up the offer.

Sandy said there were one or two families in South Australia who were part of the asylum seeker group facing deportation back to Nauru. She, like Geoff in Sydney, is unsure if the families affected would be able to get to the church to take up the sanctuary offer.

In Brisbane, Dr Catt says there are five asylum seeker families in the area who could take up the church’s offer, but he’s not expecting them to do so.

“My understanding is that these asylum seekers are so traumatised and so scared that I think it would be very unlikely for them to take up the offer. They don’t want to be labeled as troublemakers. I think they’ll be too fearful to take up the offer.”

Regardless, Rev Catt says he is seeking legal advice on the concept of sanctuary but for now is working on a “moral authority”.

“We’re working on the basis that if someone was here [in our church] and we said we had given them sanctuary, the authorities would honour that in some way.

“And we’re ultimately hoping that the Prime Minister honours his previous statements [that one children in detention is too many].”