Churches blast Australia-Papua New Guinea pact on asylum seekers

(Photo: REUTERS / David Gray)A woman reads a newspaper containing an advertisement (R) publicizing the Australian government's new policy on asylum seekers arriving by boat, in Sydney August 2, 2013. Around 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat in Australia this year, prompting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to announce a deal last week to send all boat arrivals to detention in Papua New Guinea for processing and eventual settlement if they are found to be refugees.

Churches in Australia and the Pacific region are concerned about plans to send people seeking asylum in Australia to Papua New Guinea for assessment and resettlement.

Critics have lambasted the arrangement as one of shifting humanitarian responsibility offshore.

At the same time the agreement is shining a spotlight on Australia's migrant policies.

Separately in Geneva, Australia's detention of 46 refugees came under fire as "cruel and degrading," U.N. rights experts said Thursday.

The policy on Papua New Guinea was announced by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill in Brisbane on July 19.

The agreement, which will be in place for at least the next 12 months, means that maritime arrivals will be sent to Manus Island or elsewhere in PNG for assessment; those found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG while the remainder will be sent back to their own country or to a third nation.

The president of the Uniting Church Assembly in Australia Rev. Andrew Dutney described the policy as an "abdication of responsibility" by the Australian government.


He said the choice of PNG was "burden-shifting at its most base."

"We now see firmly entrenched in our political system an approach that seeks to circumvent the spirit of hospitality and compassion codified in international treaties and obligations," said Dutney.

In PNG, Christian leaders have asked their Prime Minister O'Neill to reconsider the refugee deal he signed with Australia.

During a press conference Wednesday in Port Moresby, the PNG Council of Churches, and the PNG Christian Leaders Alliance on HIV/AIDS said there needed to be proper consultation with the people through the churches before such deals were signed.

They described the deal as a tool by Australian Prime Minister Rudd to retain victory in an upcoming Australian election.

"Many groups, NGOs and individuals have spoken against it. We urge the government to hear their voices," PNG Council of Churches chairman Rev. Danny Gray Guka said.

Guka, representing the Anglican church in the council, said churches had given their full support to O'Neill since he was elected to the country's parliament and he should hear their concerns.

Alliance chairman and Catholic Church Archbishop John Ribat said, "The asylum seekers are interested in settling in Australia, not PNG. We have been forced to take in something we are not capable of handling."

In Samoa the Pacific Conference of Churches general secretary, Rev. Francois Pihaatae had on July 31 called on Australia and Papua New Guinea to reveal the terms of their asylum seeker processing and resettlement agreement.

"While we recognize the sovereignty of Australia and PNG to make decisions concerning their citizenry, the issue of resettlement has far-reaching consequences which must be addressed with the people of these nations," Pihaatae said.

"In the case of Papua New Guinea, if resettlement takes place the people of that nation must be consulted, made aware of the implications - social, economic, environmental -.before any agreements are signed."


Back in Australia the Uniting Church's Dutney cited recent United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports criticising the processing centre on Manus Island.

After a second visit in June, commissioners said that the facility still fails to meet the terms of the memorandum of understanding between Australia and Papua New Guinea agreed to when the facility was established.

Currently, about 145 people are housed on the island. The last children were removed in early July following ongoing concerns about the suitability of the accommodation and services.

The new agreement includes a significant expansion of the centre to house 3000 people, up from the original capacity of 600.

Dutney described the choice of PNG as "burden-shifting at its most base."

"We also know that the ongoing human rights violations and extreme poverty in Papua New Guinea mean it is not a safe option for permanent resettlement of refugees," he said.

The national director of Uniting Justice Rev. Elenie Poulos, also chairperson of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, rebutted the notion there was such a thing as a queue for asylum seekers.

"The queue is a fabrication. There is no queue if you're a person in Syria who's had to flee your home. There is no queue in Afghanistan, in Iran and Iraq," she said.

Rev. Kaye Ronalds, Queensland Synod Moderator said, "If we are not prepared to offer a home to asylum seekers in our own country, why would we expect that of our near neighbours who have limited capacity? I find myself asking, who is my neighbor?"

Figures from the Department of Immigration show 15,610 people on 220 boats have arrived in Australia so far this year.

The government of the previous Australian prime minister Julia Gillard reintroduced offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Island in 2012.


The detention center at Nauru, which houses 540 asylum seekers, was the scene of a riot on 19 July which caused 60 million Australian dollars worth of damage and destroyed 80 percent of the buildings.

August 25 is Refugee and Migrant Sunday, a celebration of the dignity of people who are refugees and migrants and the contribution they have made to life in Australia.

Meanwhile in Geneva, Australia's indefinite detention of 46 recognized refugees on security grounds amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, inflicting serious psychological harm on them, a U.N. Committee found after examining their cases.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Committee said Australia should release the refugees, who have been held for at least two and a half years, and offer them compensation and rehabilitation.

The refugees - 42 Tamils from Sri Lanka, three Rohingya from Myanmar and a Kuwaiti - brought their complaints to Human Rights Committee, arguing that they were unable to challenge the legality of their detention in the Australian courts.

They had been recognized as refugees who could not be returned to their home countries but were refused visas to stay in Australia because they were deemed to pose a security risk, and so were held in immigration detention facilities.

The committee, composed of 18 independent human rights experts, found that the refugees' detention was arbitrary and violated Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.

The committee reached its conclusion based principally on the fact that the refugees were not told the reasons for the negative security assessment and so were unable to mount a legal challenge to their indefinite detention.

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