27th August, 2012
Looking to increasingly engage in the debate on refugees and asylum-seekers, the National Council of Churches in Australia has established a new network of church organisations working with refugees.
About 15 organisations including the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Anglicare, Jesuit Refugee Services and UnitingJustice Australia have so far joined the Australian Church Refugee Network (ACRN) and the position of national coordinator has recently been advertised.
“Considering that Jesus was a refugee, it has certainly always been a core element of what the church has considered part of its mission."
Alistair Gee, executive director of Act for Peace
Alistair Gee, executive director of Act for Peace – the international aid agency of the NCCA which, as well as being a member of the network, is providing secretariat support, says the network has been established to help better co-ordinate the service churches provide to refugees in Australia and overseas.
“There is a lot that the churches are doing both down at a parish level of helping out refugees in the local community up to engaging on national policy and assisting in refugee camps in other countries in the region…” he says.
Mr Gee says the new network also aims to “better engage” with the national policy debate and to assist refugees to have a greater voice in the discussion.
“Considering that Jesus was a refugee, (working with refugees) has certainly always been a core element of what the church has considered part of its mission,” he says.
The Federal Government announced earlier this month that it would be sending asylum seekers arriving by boat to Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea while they were being assessed.
The move came after a three man panel, headed by former Defence Force head Angus Houston, handed down a report in which it made 22 key recommendations concerning Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers risking their lives by coming on boats to Australia.
Among them were that offshore processing facilities be established in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, that work continues on the Federal Government’s so-called Malaysian Solution particularly with regard to the treatment of people sent there, and that Australia’s humanitarian intake be increased from 13,000 to 20,000 places a year, rising to 27,000 within five years.
The report noted that from late 2001 to June 2012 there have been 964 asylum seekers and crew lost at sea from known incidents concerning boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia.
Mr Gee says Act for Peace has “fundamental concerns” about the Federal Government’s moves to put asylum seekers found on boats on Nauru and Manus Island, in particular with regard to the lack of any indication as to how long asylum seekers may be held there.
“(It’s) very important for people’s mental health to have a sense as to what their future might entail and not to feel that they’re being dealt with in an arbitary manner.”
Mr Gee says the organisation remains supportive of a regional solution which involves providing refugees with “effective protection” at the earliest possible point of their journey.
“It is important – even for advocates of onshore assessment – to realise that there might be 7,000 or 8,000 asylum seekers coming to Australia but what about the 10 or so million who are in the broader Asia-Pacific area? There’s something more we can do to help many of them at not too much of a cost.”
He says that some of the programs Act for Peace is involved with show how cheap early intervention can be compared to expense of keeping people on Nauru or Manus Island.
Taking a program Act for Peace supports in eastern Burma as an example, Mr Gee says it costs less than 20 cents a day on average to provide people with emergency assistance.
“Once they’re in the refugee camps across the Thailand-Burma border, it costs about $1 a day to assist them there and if you’re talking about putting someone on Nauru or Manus Island…it’s many $10,000s of thousands of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars…
“You’re better off providing some assistance closer to where they are rather than putting a whole heap of assistance at the endpoint.”