This week three Christian leaders publicly expressed distress at the deaths of more asylum seekers trying to reach Australian shores. This is an expected response to a terrible tragedy, but what was not expected was the support for offshore processing that went with it. Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall and Jim Wallace, director of the Australian Christian Lobby, all spoke of their support for offshore processing and a desire to see both sides of government working together to prevent further tragic deaths at sea.
It is a departure from the usual statements made by Christian leaders about Australia needing to treat people humanely, respecting the inherent dignity of each person. Or is it? The inherent dignity of each person is currently being compromised as unseaworthy vessels fail in open water and more deaths of asylum seekers are tallied. Compared to deaths at sea, these Christian leaders appear to be suggesting that it would be more humane to implement offshore processing than to continue to witness people risking their own lives and their children’s lives for their future.
What is sadly missing in the myriad comments about people smugglers and Australia’s refugee and asylum policy is that the core outcome of any policy on managing asylum seekers should be to keep people safe. Lack of safe and secure conditions is what drives people to move on, while enhancing safety or safe conditions gives people more options to consider than risky travel to countries like Australia. Processing asylum seekers claims under the convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the administrative part of what should be a wider focus on building and improving humane and safe conditions across the region.
This broader focus may be an explanation for why there has been a change of heart by some Christian leaders on the matter of offshore processing. None indicated in their statements that asylum seekers should not be treated humanely if they do reach Australia but all implied that to keep people safe, other options need to be considered including offshore processing.
Of course the ultimate question is what offshore processing could look like in order to achieve this safety. While there were few faith-based bodies that submitted to the inquiry into the agreement between Australia and Malaysia on the transfer of asylum seekers to Australia, it was clear at the time of the release of the agreement document that several Christian leaders were not supportive of the plan. Catholic priest Father Frank Brennan called it more “ruthless” than Nauru and Uniting Church president Alistair Macrae welcomed the High Court dumping of the Malaysian agreement with the words: “The Uniting Church has been opposed to the arrangement with Malaysia which treated people like commodities.”
Clearly these comments reflected their belief that the Malaysian model would not keep people safe or uphold the inherent dignity of those to be transferred.
Other challenges arise when discussing Nauru or PNG as sites for processing asylum seekers, not the least of which include conditions in both countries. But overall, narrowing the discussion of offshore processing to one or two sites, limits what could be a broader more creative discussion on what offshore processing and a regional solution could look like.
Inevitably this must be done in collaboration with countries in the region. Australia cannot compel other countries to sign conventions, implement legislation nor build reception centres without serious and sustained dialogue. The Bali process was established in 2002, initially to focus on people smuggling, trafficking and other related transnational crimes and now has protection as part of its focus.
There are 43 states and territories in the Asia-Pacific region involved in the process and it is an opportunity for building better regional solutions. However, this avenue would be slow and could take years before a comprehensive plan can be implemented. Hence the more speedy focus on offshore processing in one or two locations.
If safety is the aim of any discussion about a policy to manage asylum seekers either coming to Australia or more broadly in the region, then it makes sense that any offshore processing component should involve secure and humane conditions, contribute to expanding safe conditions across the region and have a view to being incorporated into a longer-term strategy for the region.
Anything else would constitute Australia burden shifting, not burden sharing with the many countries who host far more asylum seekers than we do across the region.
*Caz Coleman is former director of the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project and a member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution advising the Minister for Immigration. Opinions expressed are her own.