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Penalising one group to punish another is skating on flimsy moral ice

PORT MORESBY (SE): “How could it be right, in the light of the Papua New Guinea constitutional protection of freedom, to bring into our country and imprison people who have not broken our laws,” the bishops of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands asked in response to Australia’s deal with Port Moresby to reestablish a lock up for asylum seekers on their sovereign territory in November 2012.

The bishops spoke again on February 28 in the wake of the death of an Iranian man detained at the controversial Manus Island Regional Processing Centre a week previously.

“We are appalled to hear of recent disturbances at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre resulting in the death of an asylum seeker,” they say.

Radio New Zealand International quoted the general secretary of the bishops’ conference, Father Victor Roche, as saying he was appalled to hear about clashes at the centre in mid-February that left 23-year-old Iranian, Reza Berati, dead and over 70 others injured.

The bishops believe that using policies that involve penalising one group of people to punish another is skating on pretty flimsy moral ice at the best of times.

They also believe that Canberra is well behind the eight-ball in its efforts to justify its action against asylum seekers in what it claims is a fight against people smuggling or human trafficking.

While people smuggling is a heinous crime, the success of the keep the boats away from Australian shores policy (Operation Sovereign Nation) is only being measured by how few asylum seeker boats arrive in Australian waters, not by any criteria that may reflect a change in the people smuggling business itself.

Canberra has been accused of making a few presumptions that have not been demonstrated to be connected with the issue the government rhetoric claims is its top priority—combating people smuggling.

At least one group that is not convinced is the Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

“We were concerned that the rhetoric of a righteous campaign against people smugglers actually seemed to be more a question of political convenience,” they say in their February 28 statement.

“We were offended that settlement in Papua New Guinea was presented in such a negative light so as to act as a deterrent to asylum seekers,” they continue.

Meanwhile, innocent people sit in a detention centre in Papua New Guinea, which the bishops describe as not meeting international protection standards indicated by the United Nations.

The bishops quote the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as saying, “Arrangements for the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre do not meet international protection standards and the present situation on Manus is likely to lead to increased levels of psychosocial harm.”

On top of that, the bishops add that apart from any injustice done against asylum seekers in the name of achieving a greater good, Canberra has managed to insult a free people of a neighbouring sovereign nation by making a mate’s rates deal with the prime minister in Port Moresby, Peter O’Neill, without reference to the people.

The bishops are telling O’Neill in a strongly worded statement that locking up people, who have not broken the laws of their country against their will, is not a just solution worthy of a nation which can otherwise be proud of its human rights record.

They are also telling Canberra that while they are not denying that it is facing real problems, insulting the dignity of a sovereign people is not the way to go about solving them.

They say that even if the so-called Manus Island Solution had proven to be a successful deterrent to people smugglers, it still needs to find a more humane solution for people seeking asylum.

“Asylum seekers are human beings who deserve respect and recognition of their dignity,” the bishops say.

They add that they believe that a country like Australia that has a proud track record for its hospitality and human rights is well capable of doing better.

“Detaining people against their will in Papua New Guinea, even if it does work as a deterrent, is not a just solution worthy of a great nation otherwise proud of its human rights record. It clearly places an intolerable strain on the capacity of Papua New Guinea to manage and might lead to even more deaths, injury and trauma. Close the centre and manage the problem in Australia,” they advise.

Father Roche told Radio New Zealand International from Port Moresby, “Asylum seekers who come to Papua New Guinea do not come to seek asylum here, they want to go to Australia. So the stand of the Catholic bishops is that the process should be done in Australia and not in Papua New Guinea or in Manus.”

Another issue that on the surface may seem to be unrelated to the Manus Island Solution, but still penalises boat people for unspecified reasons, was unveiled by the Jesuit Refugee Service in February.

A Sri Lankan family that has been waiting for resettlement in Australia for 13 years and had finally received acceptance, as well as the final okay to migrate by the Australian Immigration Department, had its visas revoked because the relatives who were sponsoring them had first come to Australia by sea as boat people.

Even though the all clear had been given before the administration of the new prime minister, Tony Abbott, introduced a measure that precludes citizens who first arrived as asylum seekers by boat from sponsoring new migrants, the Sri Lankan family is now being told it is no longer welcome in the Land Down Under.

As a nation, Australians baulk at what they call shifting the goal posts and, since this policy has no apparent connection with combating people smuggling, it can only be seen as punishing those who legitimately arrived in the country by boat, as well as their relatives, who had previously been found acceptable.


Writing for UCA News, Father Michael Kelly sj recalls the barb from the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, when he spoke of the white trash of Asia some 30-odd years ago, saying this ghost may well reappear to haunt the land under the Southern Cross in some other guise.