Horrified by what is being done in their name, on 26th February 5,000 people gathered in a Melbourne vigil to protest against the government’s treatment of asylum seekers. Many Christians were involved in the vigils, and several churches around Australian are now planning other expressions of opposition, such as Catholic Religious Australia’s call to participate in a “National Lament” - a campaign of prayer, penance and action for people seeking asylum in Australia, which takes its inspiration from the words of Pope Francis when he visited Lampedusa (for more details head here).

The government says its policies on offshore processing are working, but it depends on how you define ‘working’. Is a policy under which not a single asylum seeker has been resettled ‘working’?

"There are no easy answers to the worldwide refugee crisis, but for Australia there are far better ways of dealing with the people who come to us for help. The first is to meet our existing obligations under international law."

People do not flee their home, their family, friends and community and undertake dangerous journeys without very good reason. When we look at the news we see apartment buildings bombed in Syria, or a Pakistani girl shot because she wanted to go to school, or emaciated mothers with skeletal babies lining up for food handouts in Africa. This is the reality that asylum seekers are fleeing from, and what they’re looking for is safety and a chance of a normal life. We might ask ‘what would I do in that situation?’ And if we were forced to flee, would we pray to be offered refuge somewhere?

There are 10.4 million refugees worldwide who are of concern to the UNHCR, which doesn’t include the 4.8 million registered Palestinian refugees. Over 50 per cent are in the US, Sweden, France, Germany and the UK. Australia, the world’s 10th richest country, takes three per cent - the same as Turkey, the world’s 66th wealthiest. More than 90 per cent of asylum seekers arriving in Australia are found by the Australian Government and UN processes to be refugees. Current policies are directed at reducing, not expanding our refugee intake.  And at the same time the Government is reducing foreign aid - aid that wealthy countries give to poor countries to reduce the poverty from which people sometimes try to escape. So we’re effectively hitting the citizens of these desperate countries twice – first by reducing aid to them and then by refusing to take them in when they flee. To add insult to injury, since the diversion of a big chunk of the aid budget to the Department of Immigration to look after asylum seekers in Australia, Australia is now currently the third largest recipient of our own overseas aid, after PNG and Indonesia!

There are no easy answers to the worldwide refugee crisis, but for Australia there are far better ways of dealing with the people who come to us for help. The first is to meet our existing obligations under international law. Australia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This means that a person who arrives in Australia seeking asylum is entitled to have their claim for refugee status assessed fairly, within our jurisdiction. Asylum seekers have the right to be processed in Australia. They are not criminals. But under current government policy their situation is worse than the most violent criminals in our jails. Criminals such as murderers go to trial and have access to legal representation before they can be imprisoned. They know what they were charged with and how long their sentence is. They have the right of appeal. That’s because Australia is a democracy. But the government does not extend its democracy to asylum seekers, even though it is legally obliged to do so.

Asylum seekers are not going to go away just because we’ve got them off our radar. They have no homes to go to. When we ‘turn the boats around’ we’re just shifting them to our nearest neighbours, countries a great deal poorer than us and with much less in the way of infrastructure. How is that fair, or ‘workable’? When we put people into one of the ‘unsinkable’ orange lifeboats, we spend $50,000 of taxpayers’ money on a ’gift’ to Indonesia (the government has not disclosed the costs of the lifeboats, but this figure was given to the ACRT by a Liberal Member of Parliament). But we have no idea what happens to the mums, kids, brothers inside. Where do they land? What happens to them there? And are they safe or in danger?

The only workable policy is a long-term regional solution. Australia needs to take a bipartisan approach and stop using the world’s most desperate people as political footballs. We need to get together with our neighbours and the international community to develop a joint strategy. That would include encouraging Southeast Asian states to ratify the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and importantly, to help develop their capacity to assess asylum claims and to protect refugees.

The cost of keeping people in detention is unsustainable – this financial year alone it’s estimated we’ll spend around $3.2 billion on offshore detention alone. With only about 2200 in these centres, the overall spending equates to roughly $1.3 million for each asylum seeker in detention.  These funds should instead be spent on assisting UNHCR and welfare agencies to process claims expeditiously and, while turning back the small percentage of asylum seekers who may not be found to be refugees, we would be protecting the vast majority who are.

The worldwide refugee crisis isn’t going to go away. With the current suite of blinkered policy responses we simply push the persecuted into poorer countries in the region. And the factors that push people in our direction are far greater than any deterrent we can think up. We need to step up and be good international citizens, take our share and honour our obligations. This is the way forward - the only way.

Dr Caroline Miley is a member of the Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce (ACRT) and a lay preacher in the Anglican Church in Melbourne. Misha Coleman is the executive officer of the ACRT.