There are around 1,650 asylum seekers and refugees, adults and children, currently in Manus and Nauru. These are people who arrived by boat after 19th July 2013 and are still awaiting resettlement. Many are entering their sixth year in those regional processing centres, and a steady stream of health professionals have articulated concerns about the mental and physical damage sustained by people who have been given little reason to hope for a time when they can establish permanent roots in a community.
These are lives on hold.
At the beginning of 2017 there were some 2,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Manus and Nauru. The USA agreed to take up to 1,200 refugees as part of a deal struck between Australia and the USA in 2016. Around 280 have left for resettlement there so far and with other repatriations and settlements, there are 1,650 remaining. Even if the USA takes 1,200 people, that still leaves over 700 who will not go there.
If the government takes up the offer by New Zealand to settle 150 refugees, that still leaves 580 people, probably many more, with no mutually acceptable path out of the offshore processing centres to which they are confined.
Immigration issues often arouse strong passions when we discuss and debate the policies put forward and then implemented by the government of the day. But while immigration policy is decided by the government, there is one aspect of this issue on which neither the government, nor the parliament, nor the wider community, nor especially faith communities, can compromise.
Government policies need to give expression to the fundamental values that underpin the type of society we strive for, regardless of any political pressures.
And for the Government to argue that it has relinquished responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees in Manus and Nauru to the PNG and Nauru governments may be a statement of legal status, but skirts our moral responsibility to the people we have placed in Manus and Nauru.
If we accept that people accused of a crime can be tried in a court of law, convicted and sentenced to a maximum period of detention, then we cannot arbitrarily and indefinitely hold asylum seekers and refugees who have not been convicted of any crime.
In the language of faith communities we say that each of us holds the spark of the transcendent and this informs our common commitment to treating all people with decency, dignity and respect. This is not merely an ideal, but an intrinsic part of each of our communities, and far from seeing ourselves as imposing this view on the wider community, we see this as a common shared value and indeed one that must find expression in the policies and words of our government.
Our obligation to assist the refugees in Manus and Nauru began when they arrived in 2013. Now, 5 years later there is still no clear plan for the complete resettlement of this cohort. It is a nightmare for the adults and children in this plight, a self-evident failure to treat this group of people according to the values we ourselves espouse, and an abrogation of responsibility to ensure compassion underpins our deliberations on this issue. Current government policy will allow this situation to continue for another 20 years. Just imagine if in 2038, the lives of this group of people are still on hold after 25 years.
In the end, a practical way must be found as soon as possible to resettle the many hundreds of remaining refugees who will not be included in the USA and NZ refugee resettlement options. We urge our policy-makers to bring this situation to a close.
Bishop Philip Huggins
Bishop Vincent Long
Imam Riad Galil OAM
Sheik Abu Omar
Rabbi Shamir Caplan
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM