Australia and refugees


5 Nov 2021

The closing of off-shore processing on PNG should be only the first step in abandoning an unreasonable and cruel policy towards asylum seekers.

Recently the Australian government announced it would end offshore processing in Papua New Guinea by the end of this year. That is a cause for celebration. The places of detention in PNG were brutal where many people suffered greatly. Their suffering was designed as a warning to others not to flee to Australia by boat.

At a time when our hearts go out to people who face persecution in Afghanistan, however, the cessation of offshore processing in PNG will be an empty gesture unless Australia has a change of heart to refugees. Many of the people whom Australia sent there have been abandoned to the care of Papua New Guinea. Among those who spent years on Manus island or Bromana Immigration Centre are many who fled from Afghanistan. Others from Afghanistan are held in detention centres in Australia or on Christmas Island. Still others live in the Australian community on temporary visas in fear of forced return and unable to plan their lives. They are hostages to a cruel and unreasonable refugee policy.

 Australia has a responsibility to Afghani people forced to flee from their nation to seek protection from persecution and death. Australia assisted in the invasion of Afghanistan which intensified local hatreds and forced people to flee. We have a debt especially to those who worked with our military in Afghanistan, both those who have come to Australia and to others at risk in Afghanistan. We should welcome the small increase of places promised to Afghan refugees and the planned increase in this number. Many Afghan refugees have been given only temporary protection visas. This prevents them from sponsoring relatives and from beginning a new life and making their precious contribution to building a generous Australia. They should be given permanent residence and priority be given to their relatives at risk in Afghanistan.

People in the headlines today disappear tomorrow. Goodwill too easily also disappears with them. We can help our Afghan people by keeping them in the attention of government and of the Australian people. Action for Afghanistan, a diaspora-led campaign developed by the Afghanistan-Australian Advocacy Network has proposed a seven-point plan. To take action, contact your local members of Parliament to express your concern for these brothers and sisters of ours, and also to highlight one or more of the points on the plan.

For those in the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA) and similar community groups the closing of off-shore processing on PNG should be only the first step in abandoning an unreasonable and cruel policy towards asylum seekers. It has devastated the lives of too many people for more than a decade. Places of detention throughout PNG are the emblems and embers of a policy based on deterrence. The policy believes that it is ethically acceptable and necessary to make people suffer in order to deter others from trying to come to Australia.

That cruel policy also found expression in holding people for many years in detention centres, and leaving them suspended in the community. They had no avenue to build a decent life in Australia nor any possibility of returning safely to their own nations even if they wanted to.

This policy is based on the absurdity that if we treat in a humane way even a few people who were unfortunate enough to arrive in Australia after an arbitrary cut-off date, it will lead to a flood of boats. A family or school that adopted a similar policy of indefinite long-term punishment for rule breaking with no possibility of exception would be regarded as monstrous. So should a national government for punishing people who have broken no rules in seeking protection.

At a time when our hearts go out to our Afghan brothers and sisters, we should question this myth of deterrence and press for a more reasonable and just policy. 

Image: An Afghan refugee Girl Standing in front of her mud-built house in freezing weather near Pakistan Afghanistan border in an Afghan Refugee camp. Getty Images

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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