Sisters Voice Their Concerns About Refugee Policy
On Friday 4 May, Jo Dillon RSM, Joan Kelleher RSM, Pauline Masters RSM and Margaret Tallon RSM met up with a member of the Hon. Julie Bishop’s staff at her Subiaco office in Perth, Western Australia. The group sought to convey their concerns about the Refugee policy of the Australian Government and how this policy affects not only the refugees and asylum seekers but the broader Australian community.
Ms Bishop’s advisor was presented with the following set of points that the Sisters thought were important and could be addressed in Parliament or through Parliamentary processes :
- How the policies of the Australian Government towards refugees and asylum seekers are being perceived by populations in Australia and beyond.
- Treatment of asylum seekers in Papua-New Guinea, Nauru and other offshore locations.
- Consequences of loss of funding for N.G.O’s like the Red Cross who have been providing services for refugees and asylum seekers.
- Fair and just basis of dealing with those on bridging visas and those waiting for processing outcomes for visas, including right to work, medical assistance and other basic rights including schooling.
- Options for those applying for Temporary Visas.
- How can the officers of Immigrations Departments mitigate the pressure on people who have already suffered trauma and other psychological detriments leading to their need to seek shelter in our land.
Each attending Sister of Mercy has had experience working with refugees and asylum seekers. Pauline Masters RSM discussed the fact that Australia, even though a relatively wealthy country, was ranked 46th relative to national GDP, 31st per capita and 26th overall. She posed the questions:
- Why are we not reaching the target proposed by Malcolm Turnbull to boost the annual refugee intake to 19,000 when it appears that only 16,500 refugees were admitted to Australia in 2017?
- How can Australia, still hopefully a Christian country, show more compassion towards refugees and displaced persons who in such great need?
Pauline continued with the second point using a Human Rights Watch Report: Refugees on PNG face unchecked violence (November 10, 2017). She referred to her experience of living in Papua New Guinea for some years and seeing how difficult it would be for refugees/asylum seekers to settle in that country, where land ownership is tribal and traditional and where there are few jobs available.
“Even Missionaries have faced difficulties over some of these issues,” said Sr Pauline. “Some Chinese traders, long-time residents of PNG, have experienced hostility and crime and, because of this, have left PNG. How much more difficult for a refugee, a non-Pacific Islander, to be accepted there?”
Margaret Tallon RSM referred to the difficulties and anxieties faced by those who had been supported by Red Cross. She cited examples of students at Aranmore College whose parents are on Bridging Type Visas and the uncertainty and insecurities that beset them. Sr Margaret voiced her concern about what these changes, some unexpected and unforeseen, do to people who have already been through so much uncertainty and difficulty.
Another case Sr Margaret brought up was that of a family that had become separated from the mother during conflict in Eritrea. The father managed to get the children to Sudan. However the father died there and the remainder of the family were brought to Australia under humanitarian Visas. In the meantime, the mother was searching for her family and, after reaching Sudan, discovered they were in Australia. Since then, the family have tried for years to have their mother come here and be re-united with them. The oldest girl is now 28-years-old. They are doing all they can to bring their mother and working hard to raise the funds. The question is why is sponsorship so expensive? It appears to be costing them about $63 000. They are finding it very difficult to raise that money and, as yet, they seem to have had little response from the Government regarding their application.
Jo Dillon RSM talked about a family at Girrawheen where the children are attending Our Lady of Mercy Primary School. They have had some sort of bridging visa and were advised earlier this year that they are illegal and, among other things, the children’s education funding would be discontinued. Feeling very anxious and not knowing what to do, they brought their worry to Sr Jo. Sr Jo has been to the school to discuss this. The school administration also felt anxious because they have a number of students who could be in similar circumstances and would be very much out of pocket. The family have since had another letter advising they will be issued with another type of visa but they do not know for how long or what that will entail. It is clear that people in these situations feel adrift and quite insecure about the future.
Joan Kelleher RSM rounded off discussion of the groups concerns with an impassioned plea that our Australian Government build a strong and humane refugee policy. She cited the recent case of a family living in Bileola, Queensland who were forcibly removed from their home by Border control police, put on a plane to Melbourne, into Detention and separated as a family. They were flown under guard to Perth and put on a plane for Sri Lanka. Due to a legal appeal on their behalf they were removed from that flight and are now awaiting their case to be processed. 95,000 people have signed a petition for this family to remain in Australia. Sr Joan’s question was, “How can Australia act in such an inhumane and terrifying way, putting people like these in very stressful situations. Why are they being treated like criminals?”
Both Sr Joan and Sr Margaret referred to their time in Refugee camps in Malaysia and Nepal some years ago and how they had said to those refugees : “You might come to Australia and Australia will welcome you”. But they feel that they could no longer be able to make such a statement because of the harshness of current Australian policies.
“We all made a plea that Australia needs to show leadership towards setting an example of a humane and compassionate people and nurturing this in the Australian context,” said Sr Pauline.
Sr Joan noted that some of the language and labels used by Minister Peter Dutton show a disrespect for refugee people, detainees and asylum seekers. She strongly called to reclaim the soul of this country so that it will be again be seen to be an hospitable country and give support to people who come here. She also referred to the time it takes to process cases, some of which have been ongoing for about seven years and, if they are rejected, to return them to their countries in a gracious way.
“We were very appreciative of the attentive way Nicola Milsom received us and listened to our concerns,” said Sr Pauline. “She took notes and will present these to Minister Bishop and see what might be able to done regarding the issues brought up.”