By Paul Power (CEO, Refugee Council of Australia)
In the past month, the national political and public debate about asylum seekers and refugees has, yet again, reached fever pitch. Sadly, the battle between the major parties takes centre stage and much of the media coverage focuses not on the issues or on the lives at risk but on the implications for national politics.
In global terms, the intensity of the debate in Australia makes little sense, a point which is made regularly to me by NGO colleagues in other countries. Australia receives only around 1% of the world’s applications for asylum.
There are 15.2 million refugees in the world, 10.4 million under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and 4.8 million Palestinians under the care of the UN Relief and Works Agency. Of the 10.4 million UNHCR-registered refugees, 7.1 million are stuck in long-term situations with no durable solution in sight.
The human tragedies behind these statistics are beyond the imagination of most Australians. Those who reach our shores as asylum seekers or resettled refugees speak of family members murdered, of threats to their lives, rape, torture and homes destroyed.
In the face of little effective international action to resolve the problems faced by refugees, there is an ever increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees moving further afield in search of the effective protection they cannot find in countries of first asylum.
The issues are complex. Governments need to maintain asylum processes with integrity, ensuring that protection remains focused on those who need it while not forcing people back to countries where they may be killed. For the asylum system to work well, applicants need quality independent advice and representation, as well as practical help and material aid while they wait for a decision. Refugees resettled from other countries and asylum seekers recognised as refugees need help to settle in Australia, including practical orientation, language learning, torture and trauma counselling and employment support.
The Refugee Council of Australia was formed in 1981 to provide national representation and support to the many local agencies involved in this work. Our organisation is involved in research, policy development and advocacy, taking the concerns and ideas of refugee communities and the organisations working with them to governments, UN bodies, the media and the public.
Church organisations were instrumental in the formation of the Refugee Council 31 years ago and remain a significant proportion of our membership today. This connection between the work of the churches and the work of the Refugee Council makes perfect sense to me. The path to my current work included my involvement in parish life in Camden, the St Vincent de Paul Society and diocesan faith development and social justice activities.
My parents and many other teachers in the faith since have encouraged me to see that Christian faith must be linked to practical concern for others. This concern can be expressed in any number of ways – our response to neighbours and friends, positive involvement in our parish or school community, engagement in community organisations and through the quality of our relationships in the workplace.
My volunteer involvement, coupled with professional experience in journalism, led 19 years ago to the opportunity to work for Caritas Australia. I later worked for St Vincent de Paul Society before taking on my current role at the Refugee Council in 2006. It’s challenging work, in a small organisation with few resources and a huge mandate, but a role which is deeply rewarding.
We don’t need to be lofty theologians to understand the importance and value of supporting people seeking refuge from persecution. The Scriptures include many stories of exile, in Egypt, in Babylon and the flight of Jesus and his family from King Herod. Both Testaments include many pleas to support the foreigner and the exile – and to treat others as we would like to be treated if we were in their shoes.
Australian Catholics are part of a culturally diverse national Church and a global network of believers and this, if we allow it, can help us to see a foreign national fleeing persecution as someone with whom we have a connection. In the current debate, each of us is challenged to act in some way, for instance, by volunteering, expressing concerns to a Parliamentarian or gently speaking up when the humanity of asylum seekers is being ignored.
To learn more about refugee issues and the work of the Refugee Council and its members, visit www.refugeecouncil.org.au