By Dave Crampton
Australia's Anglican leaders and the Federal Court have slammed Australian Prime Minister John Howard's refusal to land more than 430 asylum seekers that were packed on a container ship in Australian waters near the remote Christmas Island earlier this month.
Anglican leaders have also criticised Howard's decision to tighten up immigration rules.
Canon Ray Cleary, who chairs the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission, says the plight of asylum seekers cannot be ignored on both humanitarian grounds and Australia's obligations under International covenants.
"The Australian Government and people cannot deny the human suffering and wash its hands of the issue."
Mr Howard was adamant that asylum seekers rescued from a crippled Indonesian ferry by Norwegian container ship MV Tampa would not set foot on Australian soil.
Earlier this month the Federal Court in Melbourne found that the Government illegally detained the boat people on the Tampa and ordered that they be brought back.
But the Government successfully appealed, arguing that a decision against it would restrict its ability to avoid disasters such as the attacks on the World Trade Centre.
On August 30, National Council of Churches Vice President Rev Professor James Haire led a national delegation representing 90 percent of Australia's Christians to Canberra calling for a fair go for asylum seekers. Upon arrival, Professor Haire said, "We've come to Canberra to appeal to Australians to show the values that we are famous for. It isn't Australian to keep more than 400 people on a ship designed for about 30."
"Our leader Jesus Christ was a refugee, he fled to Egypt to save his life."
In a letter to the Prime Minister, leaders from the National Council of Churches, representing seven denominations including Anglican, Catholic and Baptist, urged government officials to respond with compassion, drawing attention to the fact that there are legal, moral, and humanitarian issues at stake.
"Sometimes we got so caught up in our procedures and processes that we forget the human side of the dilemma of people forced to flee for their lives."
According to the United Nations, one in every 280 people - 23 million - is a refugee. Australia takes 12,000 each year, but so far this year has also assessed 4500 asylum seekers, compared with 2939 for all of 2000. Australia is currently the second highest per capita receiver of refugees behind Canada.
Although the Australian Migration Act allows for 20 years punishment for smugglers, Australia has ratified the UN Convention on the status of refugees which obliges signatories not to turn back asylum seekers.
But in an election year, Howard does not want to be seen as being soft on refugees and has called for changes to the convention to prevent people seeking asylum in Australia, which would weaken the whole regime of international refugee protection.
Howard said legislation would be introduced into Parliament this week to exclude Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from the nation's migration zone. This would means asylum seekers would have to reach the Australian mainland before they could apply for refugee status.
Taking the pulpit on August 26, National Refugee Sunday, Mr Cleary said Australia's future would be diminished without the contribution of dispossessed people.
"This provides a context for us to think clearly and carefully about our responses to the arrival of boat people."
Sydney's Anglican Archbishop Dr Peter Jensen has said the refusal to allow the Tampa from docking may stop other vessels from rescuing people in similar circumstances.
"The custom of the sea is to rescue people - and that has been done - but then to care for people. If we do not do so we are saying to the rescue craft, 'Do not rescue people or it will engage you in grave difficulties afterwards'."
The Australian Director of the Anglican Board of Mission, the Reverend Geoff Smith, said Christians should respond to refugees and asylum seekers with generosity, not by political forces.
"In a very real sense we were all 'outside people' welcomed and included by God who is generous. As we are generous and as we welcome the stranger we might be amazed at the blessings the stranger brings."