21/08/2013 16:54

Australian Jesuits: 90% of the boat people are genuine refugees

The Australian Jesuits issued a statement of deep concern ahead of Refugee Sunday on 25th August 2013 and two weeks before one of their alumni, now opposition leader Mr. Tony Abbott, is likely to become Prime Minister of Australia according to opinion polls.



Dear Brothers and Sister in Christ,

Before he went to Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis visited a detention centre on

Lampedusa, an island to which people from North Africa come, seeking a home in Europe. Many die on the sea journey. The Pope asked, ‘Who has grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters?’

He went on to reflect on those who had died and on the hostility many people feel towards asylum seekers, ‘In this globalised world, we have fallen into globalised indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.’

The Pope’s words speak directly to us as we await an election in which the main political parties compete with each other in devising harsh asylum seeker policies. We are making the same basic mistake made in the story of Adam and Eve, who were persuaded that they could be like God and be the final arbiters of what is right and wrong.

We live in a world of bloody persecution and crushing poverty, where millions of people are on the move. The majority of Australians have been persuaded that we must be the absolute masters in our own land, and that we must pay any price to stop the boats. We are told we have to be tough. To be tough we have to become more indifferent. We comfort ourselves by believing the lie that the harsh policies are motivated purely by our noble desire to prevent thousands of deaths at sea.

Actually we do not have mastery over life and death, and others do have rights that we may not simply ignore. God is Lord of creation and the master of our lives too. The people we bundle together as faceless asylum seekers each have faces like ours, lives like ours. They bleed like us, laugh like us, and grieve like us. They are given to us by God as brothers and sisters. We may not pay any price to stop the boats. And we can find better ways to reduce the deaths at sea.

If an extremely complex and difficult situation cannot be changed quickly in an ethical way then we shall have to make the best of things while pursuing slower but ethical ways to address the problems. We need our government to provide moral leadership for an anxious and insecure Australian community, while doing the slow hard diplomatic work behind the scenes internationally.

When we reflect on our asylum seeker policies, we must first look at asylum seekers through the eyes of the people who have fled from persecution and terror in their own lands to seek our protection.

Remembering that over 90 per cent of people who come by boat to seek protection in Australia are found to be refugees who have fled from persecution in their own land, we should imagine why a young man, knowing that his friends have died on a previous boat, would pay a people smuggler to take him to Australia? What would it be like for young people traumatised by what they have seen in their own lands and on the journey, to spend years in detention? What would it be like for families to be dumped on Nauru or Manus Island? What would it be like to live as a foreigner, resourceless and with limited rights in a poor Pacific nation that struggles to care for its own citizens?

What matters in our refugee policy is the welfare of real human beings who come to us to seek asylum. We should hear their claims and offer protection to those found to be refugees. That protection involves ensuring that they have food, shelter, security, care for health, access to education, the right to work and to make a life for themselves and tocontribute to society free from fear.

To ensure and to save human lives and suffering, we shall need to make regional agreements. But their aim should not be to exempt Australia from the claims made on us by people who seek our protection. It is to ensure that they can travel and live with dignity without need for people smugglers.

The Pope concluded his sermon on Lampedusa with a prayer: ‘Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this. Today has anyone wept in our world?’ Tears of compassion are not the be all and end all of good policy. But they are its indispensable beginning.

In Our Lord,

Fr Stephen Curtin S.J.


25th August 2013, Refugee Sunday