In the lead up to this month’s World Migrant and Refugee Sunday, 25th August, JRS Australia had two enlightening visits from priests, each from different sides of the world. Both Fr Endashaw and Fr Licini are highly regarded for their work with refugees and people seeking asylum, and it was a privilege to host them.
Our first visit was from Fr Endashaw Debrework SJ, Director, JRS Eastern Africa. JRS is present in ten regions around the world, and JRS Eastern Africa operates in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. As we showed Fr Endashaw around Westmead, we learnt about the work of East Africa in promoting education and leadership opportunities for the people we serve.
With open ears, we listened to how JRS Eastern Africa arose out of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan where two million became displaced in two weeks. Between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, more than 20,000 boys and girls who fled Sudan’s second civil war. These children had lost their families. As Fr Endashaw explained, JRS was one of the first organisations to arrive and provided much needed with support.
Throughout the world, JRS has supported education. From 1995 hundreds of unaccompanied minors have been supported to attend local secondary schools and were offered scholarships by JRS. Fr Endashaw recounted John Bosco, a former refugee and prominent person in Queensland who refers to himself as “a JRS child” due to JRS funding his education. He now has a successful career in politics and is an expert on refugee issues.
JRS Australia Director, Carolina Gottardo, explained the cohort of people that JRS Australia represents. Our clients are mainly seeking asylum and have arrived by boat or by plane. She explained that JRS represents the most vulnerable cohort of forcibly displaced persons.
The meeting allowed for a dialogue and comparison between how different countries deal with the current global refugee crisis. It became clear that Australia’s policy of “forced destitution” is one of the most punitive system in the world.
A JRS Australia staff member explained how one of our clients had been shocked by her treatment in Australia. She had said to our casework team, “I have been in refugee camps all around the world but never have I seen the cruelty of Nauru.”
Fr Endashaw was surprised to discover that the media in Australia had so successfully convinced Australians of a fictional difference between ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’ migrants. JRS Australia Employment Coordinator, Leonie Dyer, revealed that she had been at a school recently and all the children in the school believed it was illegal to seek asylum. As JRS Australia Director, Carolina, has repeatedly reiterated, the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Australia is a signatory of, explicitly states that it is legal to seek asylum.
Our Casework Manager, Katie Spiroski gave invaluable insights into the situation impacting JRS’ clients in Australia. ‘It would be daily that we [JRS Australia] would be dealing with people who are contemplating suicide,” explained Katie. “Sometimes people want to go out to work but they can’t because the government denies them work rights.”
By contrast, Fr Endashaw explained that Uganda is the most refugee-friendly country in the world. People who arrive seeking safety are not called ‘refugees’, but are called “settlers” and are allowed to own land and to work. The policies come from the government, and their leader, who himself was a former refugee. Uganda promotes policies of welcome and allows the refugee population to showcase their talents.
Australia’s policy is very different. “People are left in constant limbo,” said Carolina. “This is part of Australia’s deterrent policy.”
Three days later, JRS Australia and the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) co-hosted Fr Giorgio Licini at our drop in centre in Westmead. Fr Licini is the General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and a prominent advocate for ending the human rights abuses Australia bears responsibility for on Manus Island.
Earlier in the year, Fr Licini spoke publicly of three refugees who attempted suicide during his two-day visit to Manus Island. “These self-harm and suicide attempts, they are a daily occurrence,” said Fr Licini.
“The main job of the security was actually to prevent self-harm and suicide attempts” he revealed. Fr Giorgio Licini got involved with the issue after questions appeared in social media that asked, “what is the Church doing on this issue?”
“I came back from Manus Island knowing that what I had seen, I should not have seen,” said Fr Licini. “But the worst was yet to come.”
“In Port Moresby, Fr Licini visited a 25 year old man in ICU who had serious mental health issues. “I met people who were completely out of their mind.”
“One Iraqi was in ICU…the conditions were really appalling. I never imagined offshore processing would be like this. I never imagined that people would be pushed to that stage or people would get sick and be left untreated.”
“I realised that what I had seen was inhumane and Un-Christian — that is for sure.”
On the role of the Church, Fr Licini talked to the Catholic Bishops in PNG. “We felt we had to do our part. We felt these were our brothers.” Fr. Licini has written to the PNG Prime Minister, met with the immigration department and spoke with media in Australia and New Zealand.
Fr Licini mentioned that “Politicians cannot sacrifice people’s lives. Some of them will never recover from the trauma and the stress and the humiliation of being detained in this way.”
Fr Licini believed that anyone who has been transferred to Manus Island should be brought to Australia. “They served an Australian purpose” revealed Fr Licini. It was they who “stopped the boats.” They therefore “deserve to come to Australia. It is a duty of Australia to take care of these people which is not thousands and is, at most, a few hundred.”
“If there was a deterrence policy — it has been achieved…What is the point in emphasising that these people must die on PNG?”