22/07/2013 16:48

Catholic Bishops Conference deeply regrets Rudd-O’Neill agreement on refugees.

Statement of CBC Commission for Social Concerns on the recent agreement between Australia and PNG on processing and resettlement of asylum seekers in PNG.

21 JUL 2013. Like everyone else, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands was taken by surprise with the announcement that all asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat will be processed on Manus Island PNG, and those deemed to be genuine refugees will be resettled In Papua New Guinea (and other participating regional, including Pacific Island, states). Until more facts become available it is difficult for us to comment on all the social and moral implications of this decision.

However, we can certainly say this, that while Papua New Guineans are not lacking in compassion for those in need, this country (unlike Australia which is a stable and thriving nation of immigrants) does not have the capacity at this time in its history to welcome a sizeable influx of refugees and provide for their immediate needs and a reasonable hope for a new and prosperous beginning. The leaders of Papua New Guinea and Australia surely know this and therefore appear to be making a very unwise decision.

Papua New Guinea is rightly proud of the protection guaranteed by its Constitution to all people, citizen and non-citizen alike. We refer particularly to the section on freedom and liberty of the person (section 42) in the PNG Constitution. So is it right to bring people across our borders against their wishes? Is it right to imprison people who have not broken our laws? The implication that resettlement in PNG would be a deterrent is offensive to Papua New Guinea.

As noted in a recent report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, arrangements for the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre do not meet international protection standards, and the present situation on Manus is likely to lead to increased levels of psychosocial harm. Therefore no more asylum seekers should be sent to Papua New Guinea unless the facilities and conditions for hosting them are radically improved. We invite other Churches and people of good will to join the Catholic Church in respectfully encouraging Australia to find a more humane solution to people seeking asylum in their country. Very basic principles of human rights are involved in the treatment of people who have for political, religious and economic reasons fled their homes, often in fear, and who are in need of help.

Papua New Guinea is being led to believe that she is joining Australia in a righteous campaign against people smugglers. But we suspect that this is more a matter of political convenience at the expense of people seeking refuge. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference regrets the manner in which PNG is becoming an accomplice in a very questionable handling of a human tragedy. Our Holy Father Pope Francis recently voiced the right attitude for all Christians, and all who claim to be a Christian nation. At Lampedusa, (the “Italian Christmas Island”) he thanked the people of Lampedusa for taking in refugees and setting an example of solidarity to a selfish society sliding into "the globalization of indifference".

At the same time this could be an opportunity for PNG to seriously offer the opportunity for refugees to settle in PNG. Refugees have made an enormous contribution to Australia and could do the same here. In order to be genuinely welcoming in the spirit of gospel hospitality to those in need, the PNG government and others should also stop moves to ban other religions from PNG.

Fr Philip Gibbs SVD, Secretary for the Commission for Social Concerns, Catholic Bishops’ Conference PNG/SI