How defiant churches are challenging Australia's strict asylum policy

Australia plans to return 267 asylum seekers to offshore detention centers. But a group of churches is willing to break the law to help them stay.

David Gray/Reuters/File
A protester holds a placard during a rally in support of refugees in Sydney on Oct. 19, 2015.

In a recent sermon, Rev. Mark Dunn asked his congregation to recall the prodigal son as they considered the plight of 267 asylum seekers facing deportation.

Australians, he said, should emulate the father in the parable and embrace the refugees, whom the government has vowed to return to two controversial offshore detention facilities after arriving in the country for medical care.

Rev. Dunn has offered to house the asylum seekers – who are originally from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, and Bangladesh – should immigration authorities try to deport them. It's a bold move that could put him at risk of jail time for harboring unlawful residents.

"The stand I take for asylum seekers, indeed the whole of my ministry, is guided by scripture and the values and teachings of my faith," says Dunn, who presides over St. John's Uniting Church in Essendon, a Melbourne suburb. "'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' includes asylum seekers."

St. John's is one of at least 11 Anglican and Uniting churches in Australia to have publicly invoked Christianity's golden rule. Their offers of sanctuary have bolstered a nationwide campaign against the government's crackdown on asylum seekers and signaled a potential shift in public opinion about its offshore detention policy.

Across the country, 115 churches have offered support for the asylum seekers and pushed the government to let them stay, according to the National Council of Churches in Australia, which represents 19 denominations. On Palm Sunday, some 50,000 protesters rallied in cities from Sydney to Perth to call for more compassionate treatment.

The heated debate over asylum seekers in Australia echoes the migrant crisis that has embroiled Europe for more than a year. It also reflects the plight of refugees across the globe. While many of the migrants in Europe are fleeing conflict-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, those attempting to reach Australia are just as likely to come from South Asia.

The move offshore

The latest flashpoint in Australia's longstanding asylum debate comes after the High Court last month upheld the constitutionality of detaining and processing asylum seekers in foreign countries. The ruling has cleared the way for the return of the 267 asylum seekers to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a small Pacific island nation.

The Australian government has outsourced the processing of asylum seekers who arrive illegally by boat or are intercepted at sea to the two islands. The potential returnees include 37 babies born in Australia after their mothers were transferred for the births because the detention centers lacked adequate medical facilities.

The Australian Human Rights Commission and international advocacy groups, such as Amnesty International, have blasted the government for its reliance on far-flung detention centers. Critics have warned about the centers' squalid conditions and the effects of prolonged detention on children. Concerned staff members and independent monitors have reported a rash of attempted suicides and multiple cases of sexual assault, including against children.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says offshore processing saves lives by deterring asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australia in dangerous boats.

An estimated 1,900 asylum seekers died en route to Australia between 2000 and late 2013, when Mr. Turnbull's center-right Liberal Party gained control of Parliament, according to the Melbourne-based Border Crossing Observatory.

The majority of the deaths occurred during six years of governance by the center-left Labor Party, which ended offshore processing in 2008. It reinstated the policy in 2010 and strengthened it further in 2013, when a record 20,000 asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores.

"The government needs to look and develop other options because there is more than this one binary proposition being fed to the public," says Misha Coleman, executive officer of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce.

The government has also vowed not to allow even certified refugees to live in Australia if they arrive illegally, a policy first initiated by the Labor Party. It's instead tried to recruit other countries to take them in. Those efforts have mostly failed because of roadblocks in Australian courts and pushback from asylum applicants.

Ms. Coleman says detention has now become effectively indefinite. In January, the average length of stay for asylum seekers at both onshore and offshore centers hit a record 445 days, according to the government.

"It was never meant to be forever and that is what it has become," she says. "So we are saying until and unless the Australian government in its own policy thinking finds a resettlement scenario, they just can't keep people locked up."

Shifting public opinion?

While Australians have generally favored the offshore solution in recent years, the controversy over what to do with the 267 asylum seekers could shift public opinion against the policy.

A survey conducted last year found that 54 percent of respondents supported processing on Nauru and Manus Island, compared to 31 percent who were against it. Recent polls suggest Australians are evenly spilt on whether to allow the 267 asylum seekers to remain in the country.

Robert Manne, an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says Australians' attitudes about asylum seekers largely hinge on whether their arrivals are legal and expected.

"It explains the paradox that Australians are relaxed about government programs of refugees and very unrelaxed about spontaneous arrivals by boat," he says.

Australia, where more than a quarter of the population is foreign-born, currently accepts 13,750 refugees annually through official channels.

Mr. Manne says the public had little objection to a recent influx of 12,000 Syrian refugees that arrived in addition to the annual quota. In contrast, he says, boat arrivals disturb the public and have been a major political issue since boat people began arriving after the Vietnam War.

"It's a feeling that we have either lost or have retained control of the borders that seems to be the animating political factor," Manne says.

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