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Churches buck the screws on refugees

CANBERRA (SE): Churches in Australia are offering to test the common law principle of sanctuary after the High Court in Canberra ruled that it was lawful for the government to return some 270 asylum seekers, including almost 40 children, to offshore detention camps in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Some Anglican clergy are offering to provide sanctuary for the refugees in their churches, a concept based on the old English common law principle that fugitives would be free from arrest within the confines of a church.

The legality of sanctuary was removed from the Common Law in England in 1624, but is still sometimes observed out of tradition or respect for the religious establishment. Its validity in Australia will now be tested, the Anglican Communion News Service reported on February 4.

The Anglican primate of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier, argues that just because the government is able to return the refugees to offshore cold storage, it doesn’t mean that it should return them.

A test case was brought by a Bangladeshi woman who had been held on Nauru after being detained trying to enter Australia by boat. She had been taken to Australia for medical treatment while she was pregnant and gave birth to her child there.

But in the test case she challenged the right of the government to return her to Nauru, saying this was in breach of the constitution.

The High Court rejected her claim, saying that offshore detention of what are misleadingly known as illegal migrants is not in breach of the law; but the judges said that such detention should not be indefinite.

Redemptorist Father Bruce Duncan points out that cynical, retrospective legislation rushed through parliament in June last year prevented the High Court from deciding otherwise. Vietnamese-born Bishop Vincent Long,  who himself spent 16 months in a refugee detention centre, has appealed for children to be kept safe from environments of Nauru and Manus.

He added that the Catholic Church is against all detention of asylum seekers, either in Australia or off-shore

The chairperson of the Anglican Working Group on Refugees, Bishop Philip Huggins, said, “No reasonable Australian wants to encourage people smugglers in any way, but it is simply morally unacceptable to leave children to languish in appalling conditions in offshore detention centres. If the nation can agree on these two principles, surely it is not beyond us to find a solution.”

In a related report, John Menadue, a former director of the Prime Minister’s Department for two governments of different colours, points out that in September, the then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, announced that Australia would accept 12,000 refugees from Syria by June this year.

But Menadue is asking where the other 11,990 are, as to date, only 10 have shown up. He points out that Churches, community groups and non-government organisations have geared up to receive them, but are still waiting.

He adds that the one-time ability Australia had of receiving and processing such a large number of people has evaporated, as the Immigration Department has been morphed into a basic defensive unit called Border Protection and the responsibility of receiving refugees has been fobbed off to the Department of Social Services.

In addition, security scrutinising has fallen way behind, despite an increase in budget and staff at the Australian Security Intelligence Operation (ASIO) and scare campaigns conducted by successive government ministers have shifted the focus away from humanitarian response to control.


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