The chair of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibility Committee, the Rt Revd Philip Huggins, Assistant Bishop of the Northern Region of Melbourne, has called for asylum seekers in Australia to receive "decent treatment" from the Australian government.
The Bishop was speaking after 700 asylum seekers were sent to Christmas Island under a plan which would see those granted refugee status settled in Papua New Guinea (PNG) rather than Australia. The plan has already been criticised by Bishop John Harrower who tweeted: "Mr Prime Minister, Jesus weeps. Whatever you do for the least of these..."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has now warned that Australia's policies might breach international human rights law, deflecting its responsibilities under the refugee convention. It said that PNG lacked the "national capacity and expertise" to process the applications, and that "poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings . . . can be harmful to the physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees, particularly families and children."
Bishop Huggins said that the attention focused on the new PNG arrangements should not detract from the rights of asylum seekers already in Australia. "Once the normal security and health checks are done, they should all be released into the community. They should be given access to both education and employment whilst their refugee status is assessed. Let us treat those who are here decently, even whilst the new arrangements with Papua New Guinea are bedded down."
Bishop Huggins called for Australia's "no advantage" policies, which restricts the freedom of asylum seekers, to be abolished, describing them as "so punitive and ineffective, demeaning us all."
But he welcomed the "better regional co-operation" that is part of the PNG arrangements, "especially if it impacts on the criminals behind people smuggling."
He said: "Their dangerous, overcrowded boats have caused so much suffering. It is good, too, that the way might now be clearer for more of the refugees languishing in UNHCR camps to have a better hope of resettlement in Australia."
His statement comes shortly after the the United Nations Refugee Agency launched a declaration that aims to strengthen protection for the world’s refugees as well as internally displaced and stateless people, who account for more than 40 million people in the world.
A number of faith-based groups, including the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, helped to develop the declaration. Others involved in the process include the World Council of Churches, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the University of Vienna Faculty of Roman Catholic Theology, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Evangelical Alliance.
The "sacredness of all human life and the sanctity of creation” are central to Christian beliefs," said Sydia Nduna, the WCC programme executive for Migration and Social Justice, "Our Christian faith compels us to ensure that human life, physical security and personal safety are upheld in the law and institutions."