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Australia - Expression of concern about treatment of asylum seekers

29 August 2001

Letter to WCC Member Churches in Australia and the National Council of Churches in Australia, 29 August 2001.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Over the last few days, we have been watching the unfolding story of the Tampa, the ship filled with asylum-seekers which has been standing off Christmas Island that has been prevented from landing in Australia and is apparently unable to travel elsewhere. Like many around the world, we have been dismayed by the initial reaction of the Australian government and hope that the government will allow the asylum-seekers to land, to receive the assistance they need, to be allowed to tell their stories and to present asylum claims. The right to seek and enjoy asylum is a basic human right (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art.14) which must be upheld throughout the world - and on Christmas Island.

We know, through our participation in the NCCA Forum and a staff visit on these issues to Australia last month, that the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers has become a burning political issue in your country. While Australia is certainly not alone in the world in implementing measures to deter asylum-seekers, such policies stand in stark contrast to Australia's history as a country of immigration and of refuge. Over the years, Australia has played a leading role in creating and supporting an international regime to protect those forced to flee their countries because of persecution, human rights violations and wars. It is truly sad to see the public debate in Australia now characterized by stereotyping, xenophobia and lack of compassion. Moreover, it is deeply troubling to see Australia's role in the international community changing from one of support and leadership for a collective response by the international community to one of questioning international obligations.

The Tampa case is not an isolated example. Together with the churches joined in the NCCA, the World Council of Churches is particularly concerned about the wider pattern of policies toward asylum-seekers currently being followed by the Australian government:

mandatory, unlimited detention of asylum-seekers in detention centres located in isolated parts of the country where community support is minimal;

asylum-seekers who are recognized as refugees are given temporary protected visas which delay them from being reunited with family members and beginning new lives;
the government's agreement with Indonesia under which asylum-seekers en route to Australia are detained by Indonesian security forces;

recent reports that the government is calling for fundamental changes in the 1951 Refugee Convention precisely at a time when other governments and churches around the world are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Convention.

All of these developments have repercussions far beyond Australia's shores. When the government of such a democratic and prosperous country refuses landing privileges to a ship loaded with asylum-seekers rescued from peril at sea, other governments take notice. When the Australian government calls for changes in the 1951 Refugee Convention to prevent people from seeking asylum in other countries, the whole international regime of refugee protection is weakened.

We share the concern expressed by the government that the practice of trafficking in human lives must be stopped. However, we reject the notion that the victims of such practices be further punished rather than the traffickers themselves. We understand that it is difficult to speak out on such divisive political issues in the current climate in Australia poisoned by government spokespersons and media that label asylum-seekers as "illegals" and "queue-jumpers." Yet the Gospel tells us that Jesus made the love for strangers and enemies a hallmark of the inclusive community of the children of God. In this, he followed the Old Testament tradition of receiving the stranger (Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19: 33-34; Deuteronomy 24:14-19; Jeremiah 5-7). We are therefore greatly encouraged by several recent statements by Australian churches that offer both an alternative vision of a culturally diverse society and which outline concrete steps the churches are taking. We commend you for these actions and express our solidarity with you as you struggle to live out your faith in difficult times.

 As the WCC Central Committee said in 1995: "Christians are called to be with the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalized and the excluded in their suffering, their struggles and their hopes. A ministry of accompaniment and advocacy with uprooted people upholds the principles of prophetic witness and service - diakonia. We cannot desert the ‘needy', nor set boundaries to compassion (Hebrews 13:2; Luke 10: 25-37; Romans 12:13)."

May God bless and sustain you in your witness now to a government and a society in need of such words of wisdom, mercy, peace and justice.

                                                                                                                                       Yours in Christ,
                                                                                                                                       Konrad Raiser
                                                                                                                                       General Secretary