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Asylum solution: Moral failure of the Houston report

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. Photo DIAC Images www.flickr.com/photos/diacimages

The Uniting Church in Australia has decried the "dangerous lie" behind the demonising of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat, describing new legislation to reintroduce offshore processing as both lacking in compassion and breaching international obligations to the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Through a range of national forums, Uniting Church leaders have reiterated the church's longstanding support for onshore processing, community placement for people on bridging visas, and an increased humanitarian intake.

In an article on the ABC Religion and Ethics website, Uniting Church in Australia President Rev Prof Andrew Dutney expressed deep disappointment at the recommendations of the Houston Panel on Asylum Seekers, released on 13 August, and dismay at the enthusiasm with which Parliament passed legislation three days later that saw Australia close its doors to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The panel was appointed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 28 June, and comprised Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston AC, AFC (Ret'd), Professor Michael L'Estrange AO and Mr Paris Aristotle AM.

The panel made 22 key recommendations to the Australian Government, including establishing offshore processing facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as part of a "comprehensive regional network", and an increase to Australia's humanitarian intake from 13 000 to 20 000 places a year, rising to 27 000 within five years.

The government has accepted all 22 recommendations, some of which can be made by executive decision; others need legislative backing.

Prof Dutney was scathing about the process that saw both major political parties support legislation to fast-track the return to offshore processing.

"We are witnessing not only 'grave moral failure', but also a political process that has completely lost its moorings in the Christian heritage – tenuous enough to begin with – and now drifts like one of the crowded, leaking boats at the centre of this debate, aimless and deadly," he said.

Prof Dutney and Assembly Associate General Secretary Rev Glenda Blakefield wrote to members of the Australian Senate on 15 August in an unsuccessful bid to urge them to reject the legislation.

"While the government maintains that these proposed amendments are an expression of its commitment to the development of a regional protection framework, the key goal of any such framework must be its ability to improve the prospects of a durable settlement option for displaced people in the region," wrote the church leaders.

"We fail to see how these amendments make any positive contribution to such a goal."

The letter expressed particular concern about the "unfettered power" vested in the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship as part of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011.

"The Bill allows the Minister to personally designate any country as an offshore processing centre. Unaccompanied minors will also be at risk under this Bill, with the explanatory memorandum detailing amendments to the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946 that allow the Minister to disregard the responsibilities he would normally carry for this vulnerable group."

Rev Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, urged all parties in a media statement "to reconsider the principles of compassion and protection in what has been an ugly conversation."

"For too long the debate has focused on punishment and a false logic of deterrence. The Committee emphasised a 'no advantage deal' for asylum-seekers arriving by boat. This serves only to punish people based on their method of arrival here – an approach that lacks compassion and breaches our international obligations," said Ms Poulos.

While welcoming the increase in refugee numbers to 27 000 within five years, church leaders pointed out that Australia remains the only country in the world with the policy of reducing its offshore refugee intake for every person accepted as a refugee onshore.

"This continuing policy is arbitrary and unnecessary. It achieves nothing other than to perpetuate the double lie: that our hospitality is already stretched to the limit, and that onshore refugees are 'queue jumpers'," said Prof Dutney.

"This is wrong enough in itself. But the pitting of one group of disadvantaged people against another is shameful."

Photo : Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. Photo DIAC Images www.flickr.com/photos/diacimages