Faith leaders stand in solidarity with asylum seekers

An ecumenical group of Christian leaders took turns to be locked in a cage outside the Park Hotel in Carlton, in Melbourne’s inner-north on Saturday to demonstrate their solidarity with around 32 refugees and asylum seekers detained there. 

Sr Brigid Arthur csb, coordinator of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project and life member of Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV), Baptist minister Reverend Tim Costello and Uniting Church minister Reverend Alexandra Sangster joined others for a peaceful protest outside the Park Hotel, calling for the release of the men who have been held in detention by the Australian Government for almost nine years. 

Their action follows on from Anglican Bishops Philip Huggins’ and Paul Barker’s example last week, as part of The Freedom Cage campaign, a grassroots movement protesting the indefinite detention of refugees across Australia and offshore and another campaign launched by multifaith leaders a couple of weeks ago to ‘Set them free’.

Woman standing in cage
Sr Brigid Arthur CSB. Photo courtesy The Freedom Cage campaign

All three faith leaders tied their concern for refugees and asylum seekers to their understanding of their faith. 

Sr Brigid noted that Australia’s treatment of refugees represents a failure to uphold the commandment to welcome the stranger, which is found in all major religions. She offered a powerful apology to the detainees for the mistreatment they have received: 

‘You came to our country asking only for protection, and to our shame we locked you up and we’re still punishing you. We are sorry. 

‘We lament a lack of understanding of what it means to be an asylum seeker, forced to leave all that you love. We are sorry. 

‘We lament that we have forgotten our roots. We pray that you will feel our love and support.’

Rev. Costello spoke of ‘the big lie’ that indefinite detention serves as a deterrent to other asylum seekers who might otherwise try to come to Australia by boat. He posed the question of how politicians who call themselves Christians can treat people in this way and suggested that they perhaps don’t understand much about what Jesus taught, or that the desire for power leads them to be willing to ‘throw Jesus under a bus’.

Rev. Alexandra Sangster spoke of the situation of the men in the Park Hotel as an ‘epic failure’ of human rights. ‘We wish that our actions could stop this insane abuse of power,’ she said. ‘Of Scott Morrison and Dutton and all those who support them: the dog whistlers and the quiet Australians who turn away, who say “deport them”. Well not on our watch!’

Nine years on from the harsh policy changes that saw more than 3,100 asylum seekers sent by Australia to offshore detention in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, there are still 219 held in offshore detention and around 70 held in Australian detention centres, after being transferred to Australia for medical treatment not available in Nauru and PNG.  

The vast majority of those still being held in detention have been recognised as refugees for years.

Less than a third of the people who were held on Nauru and PNG have been resettled to other countries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand over the past nine years. More than 700 gave up on their attempt to find safety in Australia after prolonged detention and returned to danger in their country of origin. Over 1,000 are living in the Australian community on Bridging Visas or in Community Detention following transfer to Australia for medical treatment.

There are around 32 men being held in detention in the Park Hotel after being transferred to Australia for medical treatment in 2019, 14 in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows, 18 in detention in Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA), and 5 held in detention in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, including one woman.   

Sr Brigid said it can be difficult to provide accurate figures about the numbers of former Nauru and PNG refugees in each detention facility as ‘the Government doesn’t disclose them.’ 

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre detention rights caseworker, Nina Field, added that the Government frequently moves people around the Australian detention facilities, particularly between the Park Hotel and MITA.  ‘They can be moved around at a moment’s notice,’ Ms Field said.  

‘But the Minister could decide today to simply release them all. There is no reason for any person who was brought to Australia from Nauru or PNG for medical treatment to be held in detention, when hundreds of others who came for the same reason are already free,’ she said. 

‘This is a toxic and immoral system that has arbitrarily punished and tortured a small group of people, who did nothing but ask for our help. After nearly nine years, it is past time to bring this disgraceful political chapter to an end.’

Advocacy groups continue to hold prayer vigils and rallies opposite the Park Hotel to show support and solidarity for the men inside. All three faith leaders pledged to continue to witness to the suffering of refugees and asylum seekers, and to stand in solidarity with them. 

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