Time to convert our conscience

From left: Fr. Steve Curtin, Fr. Aloysious Mowe and Fr. Mark Raper.

From left: Fr. Steve Curtin, Fr. Aloysious Mowe and Fr. Mark Raper.

“The notion that Australia is fulfilling its legal and moral obligations as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention by resettling refugees from refugee camps overseas is built on a convenient misreading of that convention.”

“Christ hangs in agony until the end of time; and how are we to sleep?” 
Blaise Pascal

Australia seems to be sleeping through one of the most shameful and disgraceful periods in its history. Thousands of people seeking asylum here are being treated as criminals, either locked up on Christmas Island while awaiting transportation to Australia’s new penal colonies in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, or sent back to the countries which they’ve fled without their asylum claims being even considered. Worse, the government has admitted that unaccompanied children have been sent back to Sri Lanka without any opportunity to put in a claim for protection in Australia.

Children have now been locked up for months on Christmas Island with no access to education. In recent weeks the government has begun transporting some of these children to Nauru, their future uncertain, and their physical and mental health at risk the longer they remain in detention.

As far as the government is concerned, these boat arrivals should have stayed in their own countries and found some way to get one of the 11,000 visas that Australia doles out each year to refugees who meekly stay in a refugee camp somewhere until they are lucky enough to be chosen for resettlement by Australia. I say “lucky” rather than “vulnerable”, even though vulnerability is assumed by most people to be the main criterion for granting a refugee in a camp somewhere a visa to Australia. Even granting all the merits of the resettlement program, the reality is that, with very few exceptions, the most vulnerable refugees in the camps – unaccompanied minors – have not been included by Australia in its resettlement intake.

The notion that Australia is fulfilling its legal and moral obligations as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention by resettling refugees from refugee camps overseas is built on a convenient misreading of that convention. The convention obliges Australia to provide protection and rights to those who arrive in its territory, or enter an area under its jurisdiction, seeking asylum. Nowhere in the convention is it stated that any nation has to resettle refugees who are currently living in other countries.

In his Lenten message, Pope Francis asks us to reflect on what it means to be like Christ who became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He calls on us to “confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own, and to take practical steps to alleviate it.” His words are most apt for Australians when he says that our consciences need to be “converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing”.

On Christmas Island, on Manus and Nauru, in the persons of the asylum seekers ignored and turned away by Australia, Christ hangs in agony. Are we walking the path of conversion this Lent, opening our consciences and our hearts to the cries of our sisters and brothers? Or do we continue to sleep in the bliss of our own comfort, the sleep of the disciples who ultimately betrayed Christ even unto death?

Fr Aloysious Mowe, SJ, JRS Australia Country Director

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