Seeking asylum – seeking refuge – a big challenge for Australia

Apart from the Aboriginal people who have been in Australia since somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 years all Australians are migrants or descendants of migrants or of people who have sought refuge in Australia following civil strife, war, violence, and natural disasters. Yet, today in face of the terrible plight of people seeking asylum, Australia is demonstrating a reluctance to receive people who are in dire need, especially if they have come by sea (boat) in which case they are regarded as illegal which, in most cases, they are not.

Twelve months ago Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen was appointed the fourth bishop of Parramatta, a catholic diocese adjoining the Sydney Archdiocese. He himself, as a teenager, came as a refugee by boat from Vietnam in 1980, and his appointment is a reminder to all of the contributions migrants and people seeking refuge/asylum have made and continue to make to the Australian community. We have been exposed to the cultures of peoples from all countries of the world and have been greatly enriched by them.

The 2015-16 Social Justice Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Australia is entitled For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas – justice for refugees and asylum seekers and is very timely in view of the stance of our political leaders and many in the general community. It begins with the quotation from the words of Pope Francis at Lampedusa in 2013 - “We are a society that has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalisation of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep”.

Our national anthem includes the words ‘for those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share’ and there are people who cannot sing those words knowing that we are not generous enough to share those plains. One of the scripture readings for our national day, Australia Day on 26th January, includes the words “ … giving the stranger a loving welcome” (Rom.12:13). One form of deterrence is that of promising that those who come by boat will never be settled in Australia; some boats have been turned back prior to arrival, and those who have arrived have been taken to Nauru (Pacific) and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) where conditions are appalling and people are languishing in hopelessness. Needless to say, many have lost their lives on the perilous journeys by boat.

Community groups in Australia are trying to bring about change, including a group of people from various religious groups some of whom are leaders of religious institutes or members who are particularly active. There have been public rallies and marches but still our political leaders are resisting change. Certainly Australian society is divided over the debate concerning people seeking asylum but now that we have had another election perhaps some change of heart and attitude may have the possibility of emerging.

Esmey Herscovitch, rscj
Province of Australia – New Zealand
January 2017