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Church leader calls for amnesty for detainees

The Catholic Diocese of Darwin has made a bold call for an amnesty for the roughly 800 detainees still on Nauru and Manus Island in a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and every single member and senator in the parliament of Australia.

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“As regards the detainees still on Nauru and Manus Island, why not consider the feasibility of a carefully planned, once and for all AMNESTY, with cross-party support, for as many of them as possible?” writes Malcolm Fyfe, Vicar General of the Diocese of Darwin, in the 200-plus letters posted to electoral offices last Friday.

Australia’s current offshore processing regime – designed to deter boat arrivals – is “immoral in the most basic of ways: an evil act is engaged in for the purpose of achieving some good outcome.” — Malcolm Fyfe

He was writing to mark the sixth anniversary of the “Stop the Boats” campaign, when then prime minister Kevin Rudd vowed that no person seeking asylum by boat would ever be resettled in Australia.

He writes that Australia’s current offshore processing regime – designed to deter boat arrivals – is “immoral in the most basic of ways: an evil act is engaged in for the purpose of achieving some good outcome.

“How far can one go inflicting suffering on one group of people to prevent unrelated others from acting in a certain way?” he writes.

“Why stop at indefinite detention, which is already just a slightly civilized form of torture? Indeed, in my opinion, it has similarities with the use of ‘human shields’ in warfare.”

“As a bishop and a former boat person, I deplore the detention of our brothers and sisters on Nauru and Manus Island.” — Vincent Long

Another Catholic church leader, Vincent Long, Bishop of Parramatta in Sydney, has also joined the call on the government and political leaders to find a humane solution to the plight of the remaining detainees on Nauru and Manus Island.

“As a bishop and a former boat person, I deplore the detention of our brothers and sisters on Nauru and Manus Island,” he writes in an article on the Catholic Outlook website.

“While recognising the effort of the government to find a durable solution, I say with many fellow Australians that enough is enough. The harsh treatment of this relatively small number of people – most of whom have been proven genuine refugees – over the past six years is more than a shame, a disgrace, or something that we can say ‘not in our name’ to.

“We call on our government and political leaders to act in accordance with our honourable tradition and put an end to a deplorable situation. It is time to find an alternate and conscionable solution. It is time to bring them here or to New Zealand, which has offered a helping hand. Those refugees accepted for entry to the US could then migrate when their vetting processes are complete. The other refugees should then be able get on with their lives here in safety. Those who are not refugees can be held here in secure detention until they are returned home.

“It is time for us to reclaim Australia as a responsible world citizen, a wealthy and resourceful nation capable to rise to new challenges as it did throughout history – the kind of Australia that refugees like myself are living testament to. It is time to re-enshrine the best of our traditions with policies that reflect our solidarity, human decency and care for the most vulnerable.”

Catholic parishioners in the Diocese of Parramatta have also been encouraged to contact their local MP expressing their concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in indefinite detention and how they would like the MP to address the issues.

Pressure on the government to resolve the situation has also been stepped up by the Governor of Manus Island, Charlie Benjamin, who told the Guardian newspaper Australia must “step up” and help resettle refugees from his province to a third country.

He was speaking as part of a delegation from Papua New Guinea, including Prime Minister James Marape, who reportedly demanded a deadline be set for the end of offshore processing on Manus Island during bilateral talks with Scott Morrison on Monday.

“People have been there for quite a long time, we sympathise with them,” Benjamin said. “We want their travel to come to an end, they have to find a place to go to, but I think the onus is really on Australia, because they [the refugees] don’t want to be in Papua New Guinea.”

Meanwhile, an independent health panel has found that medical centres on Nauru and Manus Island are providing hundreds of consultations each month to asylum seekers for mental health concerns.

According to SBS News, the figures are contained in a report by the Independent Health Assessment Panel tabled in parliament as the government tries to repeal legislation giving doctors more say in the medical transfer of asylum seekers and refugees from Manus and Nauru to mainland Australia for treatment.

In his strongly worded letter, Fyfe criticises government ministers for having “blatantly repudiated and debunked the raft of concerns raised by United Nations personnel, the Human Rights Commission, Church Leaders, Medical and Legal Experts, Children’s Welfare Organisations and other highly principled members of the public. Our elected leaders simply take cover behind a Jericho Wall of total secrecy regarding Operation Sovereign Borders, the treatment of persons intercepted at sea and those in immigration detention centres generally,” he writes.

“Earlier legislation should not be so set in concrete as to justify a stubbornly maintained policy of keeping hundreds of fellow human beings locked away in our Offshore Detention Centres, with scant hope of reprieve in sight.

“Tragically, as might have been expected, the incidence of self-harm in detention centres has risen to epidemic levels.”

He called for removal of the deterrence component of the Operation Sovereign Borders strategy and reliance on “the diligent efficiency of our Australian Defence Forces monitoring and controlling the seas surrounding us.

“Has not our experience over recent years shown that the Australian Defence Forces are quite capable by their own resources, of achieving the goal of ‘stopping the boats’ to the point that we no longer need the deterrent factor associated with our costly and inhumane detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island?

“We should henceforth guard our shores by military skill and effective intelligence and discreetly dismantle our offshore detention centres, re-assuming responsibility ourselves for on-shore processing as swiftly as possible.

“As regards the detainees still on Nauru and Manus Island, why not consider the feasibility of a carefully planned, once and for all AMNESTY, with cross-party support, for as many of them as possible?

“What an innovative and laudatory move that would be! Our international standing would be greatly enhanced by such an act.”

If an amnesty is rejected, he makes a fall-back proposal to set up another Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers on cross-party lines to review the situation and to indicate what changes can now be made to the conclusions and outcomes of an earlier Report in 2012.

“Australia is capable of something a lot savvier and more generous than our current harsh and mean treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. The majority of people I encounter are most uncomfortable with this ongoing reprehensible phenomenon and there is a growing sense that, as Australians, we are better than this.

“As an elected representative with good moral principles, can you stand aloof and make no effort to achieve a more positive and humane future for these already damaged and hapless human beings?

“Instead of subjecting them to even harsher Medevac arrangements, let’s bring them out of their current confinement into the realm of freedom and opportunity that we Australians inhabit and so put an end to this ugly and unnecessary six year episode.”

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