BY MAURIZIO PETTENA
With all the media attention on people smuggling, offshore processing and politics, it is easy to forget that yesterday 14 people were killed in Iraq taking the death toll for the month of June to 404.
Last year in Afghanistan estimates suggest between 3000 to 15,000 civilians were killed.
These nations – along with Iran and Sri Lanka – remain in the top 10 countries at risk of serious human rights violations and mass killings.
No one wants to be a refugee. But, more than that, no one wants to see their community destroyed, their friends and family persecuted, tortured, raped and killed.
Isn’t this why Australia signed the Refugee Convention?
We signed it because Australians don’t believe it is right that people should have to escape this kind of situation and then be persecuted further when they ask for refuge.
The focus on offshore processing is diverting attention away from the real issue.
In war, the persecution of minorities is brutal and horrific. These people have the right to seek asylum.
Any regional solution must respect this fundamental human right. All too often in Australia, we take a narrow view of what protection means.
We have a tendency to think that once people are out of the war zone they are safe and there is no longer any reason for them to seek asylum. However, real protection means having access to the labour market, access to health and education, and opportunity to take responsibility for your own life and provide for your family.
Malaysia and Nauru are not an option because neither allows asylum seekers the opportunity to rebuild their lives in dignity. Already Malaysia has over 100,000 refugees, and Nauru has an unemployment rate estimated at 90%.
Is this an ethical decision for Australia to make for the lives of “those who’ve come across the seas” and for whom “we’ve boundless plains to share”?
Have we forgotten our history, and how well we’ve done, when Australia organised an orderly departure program for those people fleeing the Vietnam War, and dictatorship strickened countries such as Chile and El Salvador in the 1980s?
In just ten years from 1976, Australia took over 94,000 refugees from Vietnam and this took away the need to reach our shores by boat.
We know the need to escape Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka is great. Why can’t the government negotiate similar arrangements with these countries today and put an end to the political bickering?
To send asylum seekers away might help us to shut our conscience,. But does not stop the cry of the poor which will rise towards God and for whom we will be held accountable.
Fr Maurizio Pettena CS is the Director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office. Earlier this year he was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees.
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