Asylum seeker legislation a ‘grave moral failure’, says Dutney

Asylum seeker legislation a ‘grave moral failure’, says Dutney

The President of the Uniting Church, the Rev. Professor Andrew Dutney, has called the August 16 passage of asylum seeker legislation through the Federal Parliament “a dismaying and distressing occurrence in our national life”.

Professor Dutney said, “Jesus taught his followers to welcome strangers in need. More than welcome them, to recognise himself in those people.

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35-36).

“Asylum seekers are just such people.

“The Christian faith is not alone among religious traditions in placing at the core of its moral teachings the principles of welcoming the stranger, caring for the neighbour in need and treating others as we ourselves would want to be treated.”

Professor Dutney said the asylum seeker policies punished rather than welcomed the stranger in need.

“They are a grave moral failure, unworthy of us all as human beings, and especially unworthy of those of us who would follow Jesus.”

Professor Dutney said welcoming the stranger was a fundamental theme running through both Old and New Testaments.

“As we contemplate the re-opening of detention centres in places like Nauru, we should also recall that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40).

He said while the Uniting Church welcomed an increase in humanitarian places, Australia remained the only country in the world with the inhumane policy of reducing its offshore refugee intake for every person accepted as a refugee onshore.

“The pitting of one group of disadvantaged people against another is wrong. It is unworthy of us as human beings, and it is especially unworthy of those of us who would follow Jesus.”

Deep concern

Professor Dutney and acting Assembly General Secretary the Rev. Glenda Blakefield on August 15 wrote to members of the Australian Senate expressing the deep concern of the Uniting Church in Australia about the amendments to the Migration Act 1958 and the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946 that the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 proposed.

They said the Uniting Church had long been troubled about the manner in which successive Australian governments amended legislation that affected immigration laws in order to punish asylum seekers and refugees who arrived on Australian shores seeking protection from persecution.

“The current Bill, encouraging refugee warehousing in desolate and under-resourced neighbouring countries, is the latest in a long line of such amendments,” they said.

“The explanatory memorandum for the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011, states that one of the key purposes of this legislation is to ‘affirm that offshore entry persons, including offshore entry persons in respect of whom Australia has or may have protection obligations, should be able to be taken to any country designated to be an offshore processing country, and the designation of a country to be an offshore processing country should not be limited by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country.’

“The Uniting Church is deeply disturbed that such an abrogation of our moral and legal responsibilities is being contemplated in Parliament.”

They said, “We believe that the proposed Bill is a blatant breach of our international obligations under the Refugee Convention and its Protocol, and that it undermines the fundamental human right to seek asylum.

“Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. Under Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, we have obligations to assess the claims for protection of everyone who arrives in our territory, without applying sanctions based on how they arrived. We reiterate our long-standing opposition to policies such as offshore processing and excision which discriminate against asylum seekers depending on their mode of arrival to Australia.”

They said the Bill opened the door for the Government to introduce offshore processing in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru or any other nation in the region. “Asking impoverished neighbours to take responsibility for those we have avowed to protect perpetuates the injustice of the discriminatory legislation.”

 Basic rights denied

The Uniting Church has already expressed concern over human rights abuses against asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia.

Amnesty International’s 2010 report A Blow to Humanity: Torture by Judicial Caning in Malaysia highlighted that asylum seekers and refugees are denied the most basic of legal rights and are subjected to physical and psychological abuse, including torture. Additionally, asylum seekers and refugees live in constant fear of refoulement.

In the 2011 UN Human Development Index, Papua New Guinea was ranked 153 out of 187 countries. It fared poorly with regards to the key indicators of life expectancy, access to education and standard of living.

Nauru has not fare much better in the development index, with high rates of infant mortality and poor access to education.

“The UNHCR has made it abundantly clear that these countries do not have the capacity to provide even the most basic level of care and support for asylum seekers and refugees. While the Government maintains that these proposed amendments are an expression of its commitment to the development of a regional protection framework, the key goal of any such framework must be its ability to improve the prospects of a durable settlement option for displaced people in the region.

“We fail to see how these amendments make any positive contribution to such a goal. There will be no durable solution for asylum seekers delivered to Malaysia, Manus Island or Nauru, who will face a future in limbo as Australia punishes them for ‘jumping’ the mythological ‘queue’ — a dangerous lie that has served only to harden the hearts of Australians towards vulnerable men, women and children seeking a new life in Australia.”

Professor Dutney and Ms Blakefield said that, while the Uniting Church was opposed to all of the substantive sections of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011, of particular concern was the tremendous amount of power that would be vested in the Minister.

“The Bill allows the Minister to personally designate any country as an offshore processing centre. Unaccompanied minors will also be at risk under this Bill, with the explanatory memorandum detailing amendments to the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946 which allow the Minister to disregard the responsibilities he would normally carry for this vulnerable group.”

They said the Bill essentially conferred upon the Minister unfettered power with regards to the treatment of already extremely vulnerable and traumatised individuals.

“The Uniting Church has long been concerned about the extent of ministerial powers under the Migration Act and the lack of transparency and accountability of those powers, and vehemently opposes the introduction of any legislation that continues this caustic legacy.”

Foundations of legal system perverted

They said the Bill would provide the Minister with discretions above and beyond “the rules of natural justice”.

“We find it almost incomprehensible that legislation may be introduced that seeks to pervert the very foundation of our legal and legislative systems.

“People have been fleeing violence and persecution throughout history. This has never been an orderly process and never will be. The Christian faith is not alone among religious traditions in placing at the core of its moral teachings the principles of welcoming the stranger, caring for the neighbour in need and treating others as we ourselves would want to be treated.”

They said any domestic legislation with regard to asylum seekers and refugees must be couched in terms of Australia’s international responsibilities to that most vulnerable group of people.

“It is a responsibility that must be honoured if Australia wishes to uphold its reputation as a just and fair nation.”

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