Seek Justice

Refugee Weekseek-justice-1.jpg

Refugee Week begins 19 - 25 June. The theme for this year is "With courage let us all combine". John XXlll College will be hosting a lunchtime screening of "Freedom Stories". It is a documentary that brings together a collection of personal stories from former asylum seekers who sought protection in Australia at a time of great political turmoil, but who have long since dropped out of the media spotlight. Given the ongoing controversies over 'boat people' it is timely that their stories be heard.

Below are some commentaries from both Fr Andrew Hamilton and Sr Libby Rogerson regarding the plight of Refugees and Asylum Seekers within Australia. You will also find links to the Australian Bishops' Social Justice Statement for 2015 - 2016, "For those who've come Across the Seas: Justice for refugees and Asylum Seekers". This Statement was developed in response to the longstanding divisions in Australian society over asylum seekers, particularly those who have arrived by sea. The statement is attached here.

The Australian Catholic Bishops' Social Justice Statement for 2015 - 2016 challenges us to face the reality of the terror and danger that people face around the world and to work to change Australia's response to people seeking asylum. The statement is attached here and provides ten actions that we can take, personally, locally and nationally.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

For people seeking protection from persecution, 2016 has been a bad year. In many parts of the world, including Australia, they have been seen as problems, not as persons with problems. They are derided as a threat to borders, as a cost on the economy, as a blight on a culture, as a dangerous mob. When they are invited to see the individual faces of refugees and to hear their stories, many people turn away. They don't want to know.

In an Election campaign, with which Refugee Week coincides this year, politicians are sometimes tempted to appeal to fear and prejudice in order to win votes.

Pope Francis has been tireless in insisting that people who seek protection are human beings like ourselves and that we should welcome them. He has made two special journeys to join people fleeing for their lives - once to do penance for the lack of compassion that led to the death of so many people in the Mediterranean Sea, and more recently to join the many refugees on Lesbos who have been shut out of Europe. Symbolically, he brought back with him to Italy twelve Syrian refugees from Lesbos. He laments for a Europe that has lost its soul in its response to refugees. Might he also weep for Australia?

Bad news can make us lose heart. It becomes all too hard. Pope Francis always invites us to keep going cheerfully - to rejoice at the twelve refugees saved as well as to grieve for the tens of thousands who are rejected.

Refugee Week, too, is a time to gather heart and to look at the small things that bless the lives even of desperate people: the visits to detention centres, the supportive letters in the daily papers, the march for refugees that people in detention glimpse on the television news, the letters to politicians, the conversation that turns another person from problems to persons, the encouragement we give to people who have opened their hearts to asylum seekers for the long haul. These small things do not free people from detention, close Manus Island and Nauru as overseas prisons, nor change the minds of the majority of Australians who believe that we should punish asylum seekers in order to stop the boats. But in doing these things we dig the small channels that, when the season changes and the rain comes, will irrigate the parched fields.

CAPSA is one of those channels - linking together people with a heart open to those who seek protection, letting others know of small activities, celebrations and protests, and encouraging one another to be of good heart. Its motto is 'we can'; its conviction is that though we may be weak singly, together we have strength to change the future.

Refugee Week - celebration or lamentation?
Libby Rogerson ibvm

A poignant post script to the recent announcement that that the five refugees sent from Manus Island to Cambodia had opted, despite fear of persecution, to return to their home countries was the reference to the one remaining refugee - a Rohingya from Myanmar. Poignant because this lone man epitomises so much of what it is to be a refugee- stateless, poor and with no place to go. Rohingyas, a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, are persecuted for their Islamic religion, prevented from working, required to have government permission for almost every aspect of their lives, including marriage, and denied the most basic of human rights. Although they have lived in Myanmar for generations the government wants to send them "back" to Thailand, where their ancestors came from and Thailand won't have them.

With Courage Let Us All Combine, a line from Australia's national anthem, is this year's Refugee Week theme. The rhetoric associated with the build-up to the election - keep our borders safe, turn back the boats, save our jobs and have regard to the cost of those who are illiterate, does not easily lead to "combining" but certainly requires courage on the part of asylum seekers and refugees. It is a week when we are invited to celebrate diversity, richness of culture and the achievements of refugees. Most Australians, delighting in the array of different foods, in the exoticism of ethnic shopping areas and the colourful cultural traditions of the more than 100 nationalities which grace our shores, have no difficulty in celebrating. But along with the celebrations is the question we cannot ignore: what is to happen to the 2000 people locked in a limbo of despair on Manus Island and Nauru? It is inconceivable that a prosperous country with a stable democracy and a well-developed rule of law continues to countenance the incarceration of men, women and children for years and years on impoverished off-shore islands with no prospect of freedom. Something has to give. Australians cannot remain impervious to the lip sewing, the poison taking, the self-immolating of desperate people driven mad by a toxic mix of uncertainty, mental illness, fear and boredom.

The issue is not simple and well-meaning but simplistic responses to the issue may well do more harm than good. But until Australia and the countries in the region sit down with UNHCR and map out a regional response to people-smuggling and the settlement of refugees there can be no solution. Until, with courage, the regional nations, "all combine" there will be no genuine celebration of the contribution refugees have made and continue to make to Australia.