Oceania regional solution sought for refugees

Groups working in the area of refugees and people seeking asylum should work together to pressure governments to treat refugees and people seeking asylum justly and humanely, and come up with a regional solution.

Fr Peter Smith

Fr Peter Smith, justice and peace promoter of the Archdiocese of Sydney, made this suggestion at a video-recorded talk released by the Auckland Pastoral Office on their website on June 20, for Refugees and Migrants Sunday.

“What I am trying to do is to get together a coalition, firstly, of people working in this space in Australia, but I would like to expand that to Oceania, to challenge the bishops of Australia, of Port Moresby, of PNG, and the Solomon Islands, in general, and the bishops conference of New Zealand,” he said.

“Together, we can work to put pressure on governments. We can come up with solutions. We can show our strong Catholic voice in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, where we are going to help heal and welcome those who are most disadvantaged in our world.”

Fr Smith said there are many people working to care for refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia, but added that they seem to be “working in silos”.

Worldwide, he said, there are 70.8 million people displaced from their homes. Of those, 41.3 million are internally displaced (living in their own country, but displaced from their homes), while 25.9 million are refugees. Around 3.5 million refugees are seeking asylum in various nations throughout the world.

When asked what refugees want, Fr Smith said that the top answer they gave was to be able to go home in safety.

“They want to go home. Failing the ability to be able to do that, they want to live somewhere next door or as close to home as possible, so that, when the strife they are experiencing in their homeland finishes, which they hope and pray will be soon, they can return home,” he said.

He said the least desired option was to settle in a country outside of their region.

Fr Smith said Australia had once been a welcoming nation for refugees, but this changed in August, 2012, when the processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island were set up.

“Since July, 2013, successive governments have stated, no one from Manus or Nauru will be settled in Australia,” he said.

“Just recently, [the] Australian government has withdrawn what is called SRS (status resolution support services) payments, so now people who are living in our community who have been released from detention have no financial support. They are now looked after by the not-for-profit (organisations).”

Gradually the Australian government closed down Manus Island, and the refugees were moved to Bomana immigration processing centre in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, right beside Bomana prison.

Fr Smith visited Bomana with a group that included Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta, the first refugee bishop in Australia. Fr Smith said they saw the conditions experienced by refugees had worsened, to the point that one of them had committed suicide.

“What we needed was to gather together to try [to] have a united voice and united effort to help with Australia’s policy into how we are looking after refugees and people seeking asylum. That work continues,” he said.

Fr Smith believes the wave of refugees will come again at some point, because the countries where they were from are not at peace now. He said we must be ready with a regional solution.

“Our bishops could have a united voice around a humanitarian response to refugees and people seeking asylum,” he said.

“We’ve forgotten, sometimes, the power of the voice of the Church. And when we work in coalition with a united voice, you can have a strong impact in the region on all governments,” he added.

He also challenged the viewers to be part of the movement fighting for marginalised people.

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Rowena Orejana

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