BY BISHOPS EUGENE HURLEY AND GREG O'KELLY
Part of our ministry as Bishops includes an important pastoral area for which both of us have had a passion since the 1980s.
This issue is the situation for asylum seekers and refugees who come to this country. We have visited them, shared time with them, learned their stories and shared about their family situations.
These experiences of knowing human beings do not permit us to keep quiet when viewing the injustice with which some of them have been treated.
The two of us have both been Bishops of the Diocese of Port Pirie in South Australia, where there is currently one supported accommodation facility for asylum seekers in Port Augusta.
The Port Pirie Diocese has been home to two immigration detention facilities Baxter and Woomera, places which received much media coverage over the last 12 or so years.
Bishop Eugene Hurley
In 2007 I was appointed the Bishop of Darwin, and it too brings its graces and challenges, particularly with reference to the very real and obvious struggle for justice for asylum seekers.
On Australia Day each year, it is much on my mind our treatment of those who come across the seas to seek refuge in our boundless plains, and this Australia Day, together with four other Bishops, I have put pen to paper into a statement regarding the effects of immigration detention on vulnerable people.
Even the very use of the word detention, and more so the practice, is highly problematic. On the Australian Bishops’ Ad Limina visit to Rome last year, one of the main points I made in my conversation with the Holy Father was about the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. I believe that there is just no sense to the way we make these people suffer.
The conversation about boats too is inappropriate. In the context of immigration, we are talking of human beings who are peopling the boats – not just the vessels which carry them. The use of the words “boats” and “detention centres” has the effect of de-personalising the issue. Hearing about boats can help people detach themselves from the reality that there are people inside.
The fact is that the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving on these boats and held in these detention centres will be found to be refugees, and as such they have a perfect right to be here. That is clear. The real problem is the way we respond as a community. I know so many of these women, men and families. What I have learned is that I should never judge until I know their story and when I’ve heard their story, then compassion is all I feel.
Bishop Greg O’Kelly
Minister Chris Bowen announced last November that the Government would issue around 100 bridging visas each month for the community placement of asylum seekers. This announcement recognises that prolonged detention does serious harm to vulnerable people.
My first involvement with refugees came in the 1980s when I was headmaster at St Ignatius College in Adelaide. When the Vietnamese boat people started arriving, we were one of the first Catholic schools to welcome them. They made a rich contribution to the life of our school.
In the last ten years, most of the students who came to the school were from Afghanistan, mostly Hazaras – an ethnic group that had suffered much persecution in their home country. Most of the boys we taught had had direct contact with the Taliban.
In 2004 and 2005 the difficult story of the Bakhtiari family became news. We attempted to campaign on their behalf through the media and through political involvement, but were unsuccessful, and they were deported in 2005.
In the last year or so, supported accommodation in the community has become the norm in South Australia. The officers and SERCO staff make a tremendous effort and this makes a big difference in Port Augusta to the Vietnamese people who are held in this facility. It is much more humane, and it is obvious that a difficult situation is made more bearable by this gentler approach.
However, as we said in our statement today “while supported accommodation and community integration brings the Government closer to its 2008 commitment that detention would be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time, the dire circumstance of many detainees requires more immediate action.”
It is our prayer this Australia day that our political leaders consider deeply the words of our national anthem.
Let us celebrate the rich diversity and blessing of migrants to this nation and consider how we as individuals and a community might do better to help them call Australia home.
Eugene Hurley was Bishop of Port Pirie (1999-2007) and is currently Bishop of Darwin.
Greg O'Kelly SJ is Bishop of Port Pirie.
Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.