OCEANIA/AUSTRALIA - Hopes for first group of minors to be out of detention centres in time for Christmas

Monday, 13 December 2010

Sydney (Agenzia Fides) - Father Sacha Bermudez-Goldman, sj, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS), leads one of the many religious and community groups in Australia working to integrate asylum seekers into communities. “We support this initiative that will allow children in particular to come out of these detention facilities as soon as possible,” he said in an exclusive interview with Fides.

Following news of the Archdiocese of Melbourne welcoming asylum seekers into Church properties (see Fides 06/12/2010), the Federal Government's Department of Immigration and Citizenship initiated roundtable discussions in Melbourne and Sydney on 7 and 9 December respectively. Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman, sj, attended the Sydney roundtable on behalf of the Jesuit Refugee Service along with representatives from Catholic Social Services, the Marist Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service, the House of Welcome (HOW) at Carramar, the Australian Red Cross and other community groups. Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman, sj, spoke to Fides about this initiative by the Australian Government to relocate up to 1,500 unaccompanied minors and families from Christmas Island and immigration detention facilities around the country into local communities.

Who are these asylum seekers?

Most of the asylum seekers who have come to Australia by boat in the past couple of years are from Afghanistan. The majority of these would be ethnic Hazara, a minority group in Afghanistan that has suffered much persecution, especially in the past few years. The second largest group would be Sri Lankan Tamils, most of whom would have fled after the last armed conflict between the government and Tamil Tiger forces; the majority would be civilians who got caught in the cross-fire and who were then interned in internally displaced camps once the fighting ended (it is estimated that over 300,000 Tamils were placed in these camps). Other asylum seekers who have come by boat are from Iraq, Iran, Kurdish, Rohingya, etc. in a fear of persecution in their home countries.

Why may they be seeking asylum in Australia?

There are very few countries who have signed the Refugee Convention in the geographic space between Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Australia. Transit countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia haven't, so asylum seekers search for countries which will offer them permanent protection if found to be refugees. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, have no integration policies. If asylum seekers are assessed to be refugees in those countries, they will need to be resettled to a third country.

What is your view on this initiative by the Australian Government to begin the procedures for processing detainees and housing them in Australia while this occurs?

Religious and community groups, as well as many asylum seeker/refugee organisations have welcomed this initiative by the Government. Our position has always been that asylum seekers should not be kept in detention centres/facilities for indefinite periods of time. After health, security and identity checks (a processing period which for most people would take less than three months), asylum seekers should be allowed to wait in the community for their asylum cases to be assessed and their status resolved. We support this initiative that will allow children in particular to come out of these detention facilities as soon as possible. We hope that this initiative will also be extended to single men and women in the future, so that no one stays for long periods of time in detention centres. One good thing is that the Government is asking community and faith-based organisations to be involved and to provide services for these asylum seekers. Many of these agencies have great expertise in providing care for young people. While in principle the minors will still be in 'community detention', they will have access to schools, skills training activities and very importantly, free movement.

(JF) (Agenzia Fides 13/12/2010)