by: Kaye Lee
“May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper.”So said Tony Abbott at the swearing in of his latest security appointment, Roman Quaedvlieg, the commissioner of Australia’s newly created Border Force which merges the frontline functions of Customs and Immigration.It will be responsible for immigration security at Australia’s air and sea ports and will also patrol Australia’s waterways, with Operation Sovereign Borders falling under its control. It will also be responsible for Australia’s detention centres.
The blind arrogance of suggesting that God would bless anything to do with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is breathtaking.
God’s ‘representative on earth’, Pope Francis, made an appeal to the diplomats of the world.
‘Here, in your presence, I appeal to the entire international community, as I do to the respective governments involved, to take concrete steps to bring about peace and to protect all those who are victims of war and persecution, driven from their homes and their homelands.’
In January this year the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office published a media release Government response to Manus Island protest disturbing – Warning of further protests
The Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) is deeply disturbed at the unfolding events on Manus Island.
Since Tuesday, 13 January 2013, close to 700 asylum seekers have embarked on a hunger strike with 40 asylum seekers sewing their lips together and others swallowing razor blades.
Asylum seekers on the Island resorted to such drastic measures after being told that they would be resettled in Papua New Guinea; an unimaginable place for most, who fear being tortured by resentful locals.
As the hunger strike has progressed, asylum seekers have gone without food and water simply shouting “what do we want? Freedom!” One asylum seeker is quoted in the Guardian Australia pleading “let your government to kill us. Let your government to kill us. We are human beings. We are not bad people … Please help us. Please help us. We begging you to help us.”
The Australian Government response to the protest is one of secrecy, denial and blame shifting. Asylum seekers protesting for their rights to freedom and a safeguarded future have been labelled as “irresponsible” by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton.
ACMRO finds the government’s lack of transparency on Manus Island, particularly at a time when the lives of individuals are at stake, highly worrying. The current protest bears much similarity to last year’s occurrence on Manus Island that escalated out of control and resulted in the death of Reza Barati.
The Director of ACMRO, Fr Maurizio Pettena calls for transparency on Manus Island. The Australian public has a right to know the truth about what is happening on Manus Island, given that their taxes are channelled there and asylum seekers are indirectly under their care. Asylum seekers too have a right to information and to know their future prospects of resettlement, regardless of how they arrived on Australian shores.”
Fr Maurizio cautions “Protests will continue to occur on Manus Island. Asylum seeker claims need to be processed in an efficient and safe manner, leading to reasonable resettlement options. There is no excuse for keeping people detained for periods as long as 18 months. The frustration will boil over time and again and lead to further protests.”
Would Fr Maurizio face jail under our new border protection laws?
In March this year, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council released a briefing in response to The Forgotten Children report.
Among the findings are the following revelations on the impact of the detention regime:
- 34 per cent of children detained in Australia and Christmas Island have a mental health disorder of such severity that they require psychiatric support. The rate is likely to be higher on Nauru.
- There were 128 incidents of self-harm amongst children over a 15 month period from 2013-2014.
- There were 27 incidents of voluntary starvation involving children over the same period.
- 128 babies were born in detention, many having their first birthday without ever knowing freedom.
- Children have been exposed to unacceptable levels of assault, including sexual assault and violence in detention.
- Children live in very cramped conditions where disease and fear spread quickly.
Following the release of the report, over 230 Australian human rights organisations and community groups have signed a joint statement calling on all members of the Federal Parliament to take action to end the detention of children once and for all. Coordinated by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the statement urges the Parliament to introduce legislation to prevent children from being detained for immigration purposes in the future.
The statement was supported by national peak bodies, religious groups, refugee and asylum seeker support agencies, international development agencies, health services, welfare agencies, legal centres and human rights groups, including the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.
In addition to arguing for legislative change, the statement calls for the release of children and families detained in Nauru and for allegations of child sexual abuse in Australian-funded detention centres to be referred to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
‘The Australian Human Rights Commission report is a well-researched, detailed and deeply disturbing account of the harm inflicted on vulnerable children as a direct result of decisions taken by successive governments,’ RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said.
‘All of the politicians and bureaucrats involved in detaining children knew what they were doing, as the consequences for children’s mental and physical health were clearly outlined in the Commission’s 2004 report on the detention of children and numerous research reports and parliamentary inquiries.
In highlighting the flight of thousands from their homelands in search of sanctuary, including those who are particularly vulnerable – children at risk of people trafficking, orphaned children and unaccompanied minors – the Pope spoke of the mindset that allows us to ignore the plight of these children.
“Rejection is an attitude we all share; it makes us see our neighbour not as a brother or sister to be accepted, but as unworthy of our attention, a rival, or someone to be bent to our will. This is the mindset which fosters that “throwaway culture” which spares nothing and no one: nature, human beings, even God himself. It gives rise to a humanity filled with pain and constantly torn by tensions and conflicts of every sort.”
Well may he say God bless our border forces, but nothing will exonerate the Prime Minister and our politicians who, for cynical political reasons, are prepared to sacrifice the lives of the children who came seeking our help.