WHEN AT LAST you are released from Villawood detention centre you are overjoyed. Your application for asylum has been accepted as genuine. It took some time, but now it has happened. They have given you a visa. You are no longer an ‘illegal’. The visa is only for three years, but who knows what you can get fixed in three years.
Then reality strikes.
You realize you have no-one to turn to in Australia—no family, no friends, no contacts at all. You have no local knowledge, nowhere to go, little command of the English language, and above all, little money. You have been effectively put onto the street and told to fend for yourself.
There are government services for new arrivals, yes. There is Centrelink and medicare and English language courses. But these are not for you. You are on a Temporary Protection Visa. You are not eligible.
You need to get a job, and soon. But who will employ you when your English is so poor and, in any case, when you are only on a temporary visa? Job application procedures, resumés, job interviews, are quite beyond you.
There is only one thing to do: you have to seek emergency assistance from non-government charitable organizations. Thanks be to Allah that concerned Australians are generous with their money and their time and are ready to come to the aid of people such as yourself with material assistance and emergency shelter. It seems that the government in this country, too, doesn’t care.
If you go a little into the history of your present predicament you would discover that you are receiving less government support in 2002 than you would have received prior to October 1999 when the Temporary Protection Visa system was introduced. Then you would have been on a Permanent Residence Visa, not a temporary one. You would have had the right to family reunion, which you do not have now. You would have been able to leave the country and return. Someone from the Immigration Department would have picked you up at the detention centre and taken you to three months temporary accommodation. That person would have helped you with the various government agencies including Centrelink and medicare, and helped you open a bank account and get a tax file number. Then he or she would have assisted you to move into more permanent accommodation. You would have been entitled to 510 free hours of English classes. You would have been entitled to the full range of employment services—training and assistance for job applications and in-work skills.
However we may try to justify the contrast in the treatment given to refugees and asylum seekers prior and post-October 1999 there is no denying the fact that genuine asylum seekers are among the most neglected and vulnerable people in our society. It has been officially acknowledged that they have need of asylum, i.e. of our protection and hospitality, yet we treat them with special meanness. This speaks volumes about the hardening attitude of Australians and our elected governments over the past few years.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published a ‘Statement on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees’ in July 2001. This was a statement on pastoral care, as the title indicated, meant for all the faithful and for those who had a special care for migrants and refugees. It had nothing to say about government policy and it addressed current attitudes of Australians only obliquely. Now the bishops have followed their first statement with a supplementary statement, published on 26th March 2002. This new document addresses the issues that are to the fore in the media and which are dividing the nation, and calls for greater sensitivity and changes in government policies.
The bishops have ‘grave doubts’ that the dignity of people seeking refuge from persecution is reflected in our national policies.
The government’s policy towards those who have been granted a Temporary Protection Visa is declared to be ‘harsh’ and ‘inconsistent’. Australia should give a lead in compassion, while ‘sadly, despite Australia’s traditional generosity, there appears to be, in our national community at the present time, and to our great shame, a considerable decline in that active spirit of generosity.’
The bishops recommend that we meet the Humanitarian Program quota of 12,000 every year, and that we raise that quota to 20,000. They call for the abandonment of the ‘Pacific Solution’, while the practice of turning boats away and escorting them to other countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea is declared ‘unconscionable’. Lengthy periods of mandatory detention beyond the minimum necessary for the usual security, health and identity checks and lodgment of applications for Protection Visas ‘is deeply destructive of human dignity. This is particularly true of children.’ They strongly criticize the isolation of detention centres, and restrictive measures taken by government over the last nine years to strengthen Australia’s borders against people arriving without documents, measures which treat people found to be refugees as ‘people of a lesser dignity’.
Our policies should not use asylum seekers as a means of deterring others from seeking asylum in Australia. Neither should xenophobic feelings towards them be exploited for political advantage.
The bishops put on record the efforts of Catholics and Catholic organizations in Australia that seek to alleviate the sufferings of refugees:
The Catholic Church in Australia, through the Catholic Immigration Offices at national and state level, Religious Institutes, Church Organisations, and many dioceses and parishes, has taken and continues to take important initiatives to help refugees and asylum seekers. These have ranged from intervention at the policy and advocacy levels to providing refugees, asylum seekers, and those who have been granted Temporary Protection visas, with advice and assistance with housing, employment, clothing, friendship, support and pastoral care. The contribution of these support networks remains invaluable.
It has been a distressing time, especially over the past months, as the controversies have raged. I refuse to believe that we Australians generally are as selfish, intolerant and unwelcoming to people in distress as we appear to be at the present time. I believe too many of us are too easily influenced by sections of the media (tabloid press, talk-back radio especially) and by public opinion generally. I believe that we are suffering from bad national leadership. And most of all, I believe that we have an urgent need to meet some of these people who ask for and deserve our concern and assistance. As long as we are talking about ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘Muslims’ on boats or in detention centres, and not about Mehmet and Zuleyha whom we are meeting and talking with, then the gates of our compassion and sense of human brotherhood and sisterhood remain closed.
I will give the final word to Archbishop Carroll, quoting his words at the launch of the supplementary statement from the bishops:
Clearly we need to be more sensitive to the plight of these people, many of whom have experienced hardship and pain most of us would find difficult to comprehend.
There needs to be a more determined effort to recognise the human dignity and rights of our sisters and brothers from other countries and enable them to live with dignity and in safety as valued members of the human family.—Editor