We’re talking about people just like us – cricket fans and accountants and gourmet cooks, adults and children who fled war and terror to seek safety in our community. The 267 even include women who have allegedly been sexually assaulted on Nauru and now face return to their abusers.
Amnesty International details heart-wrenching stories. Ahmed was put into detention and separated from his family. Bala was tortured in Sri Lanka, and fled to Australia. Yasmin fled to Australia with her young child. Siva was held in immigration detention for over three years. A recent report laments: “Our system is broken – and it’s not getting better.”
When the Rev. Nicole Fleming (Balmain Uniting Church) first heard of the High Court’s decision against granting asylum to “aliens” – returning them to the nightmare of offshore processing on Nauru – she was incensed. In consultation with the National Director of Uniting Justice, Ms Fleming invoked the concept of “church sanctuary” for desperate and vulnerable people. Balmain Uniting Church, along with many other church and religious groups outraged and stirred to action, may be able to offer asylum seekers and their children accommodation and support, but at what cost?
The next few weeks will be a telling time. “Church sanctuary” has never been invoked in Australia, not since federation anyway.
The concept, though, has a long history. The practice is mentioned in 1 Kings 1: 49-53 and 2: 28-34 for people seeking sanctuary at the altar of the Temple. However, as Neil Foster, the ABC’s Religion and Ethics correspondent, points out, members of a religious group who shelter someone who is set to be returned to Nauru may be guilty of an offence under s.233E of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), subsection (3)o (ABC article February 9, 2016).
If we can put the law aside for a moment, isn’t there sometimes a stark difference between what is legal and what is morally right? Surely, it’s something worth debating, robustly and fairly. Perhaps a moral outcry will see a review of the law, which our government appears so desperate to cling to.
Of course, it could swing another way. It is noted that in Canada, where offering sanctuary to asylum seekers has become a contemporary practice, the church had to start a “screening process” which soon mirrored the process the Canadian government employed in deciding who should be granted refugee status (thanks again to Neil Foster, ABC, February 9).
Regardless of the outcome, and (a) whether or not the asylum seekers can get to the churches opening their doors, and (b) whether the churches are held to account under the law, this is fanning the sparks of debate in the community about our immigration processes, and is keeping the issue very much in the forefront of the media.
The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, with the National Council of Churches in Australia and Act for Peace, supports the decision taken by several churches and cathedrals across Australia to offer a sanctuary to asylum seekers.
Catholic sisters, Anglican, Uniting Church and Baptist church ministers have spoken publicly throughout Australia to offer protection to asylum seekers from deportation to a place where people face unimaginable situations. Other Australian international aid and community sector agencies have united behind churches across the country, and medical support for any asylum seeker in a sanctuary has been publicly offered by the Calvary and St Vincent’s network of hospitals across the country.
An Act for Peace statement declares: “We believe that refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to a safe and humane treatment during the difficult process of seeking and finding safety. We support wholeheartedly this initiative and join the call on the federal government to provide safe haven here in Australia.”
Further information is available at www.acrt.com.au