WEB DESK: Australian church leaders Thursday said they would offer sanctuary to asylum-seekers facing removal to a remote Pacific detention camp, vowing to defy the government’s harsh immigration rules.
The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, the Very Reverend Peter Catt, said the churches were reinventing the “ancient concept of sanctuary” by opening facilities such as St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane to the asylum-seekers.
Catt told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the concept of sanctuary was not tested under law, “but my hunch is that if the authorities chose to enter the church and take people away, it would probably be a legal action”.
He added: “So this is really a moral stand and it wouldn’t be a good look, I don’t think, for someone to enter a church and to drag people away.”
Asylum-seekers, including children, who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to off-shore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they can be held indefinitely while refugee applications are processed.
Many of the asylum-seekers brought to Australia from Nauru are being held at Wickham Point, a secure facility near Darwin in northern Australia.
The High Court ruled Wednesday the detention of asylum-seekers on Nauru did not breach domestic law, meaning the potential refugees could be returned there in the coming days.
Across Australia, thousands of people protested Thursday against the possible off-shore transfer of the asylum-seekers, carrying signs reading “(Prime Minister) Malcolm Turnbull #LetThemStay”.
Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce’s Misha Coleman admitted it would be difficult to move the detained asylum-seekers to the sanctuaries but said if they were, the cases would be managed “in a very sort of confidential way”.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the churches had the right to their opinion but were not above Australian law.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the tough measures on deterring asylum-seekers, saying “one child in detention is one child too many”.
He added: “Our goal is to reduce that (number of children in detention) to zero but the key element in doing so is ensuring that people do not get on people smugglers’ boats and put their lives at risk,” Turnbull told parliament in Canberra Thursday.
The churches’ stance came as the nation’s human rights chief said children being held at Wickham Point suffered high levels of mental illness.
Human Rights Commission head Gillian Triggs said a medical team led by the government-funded body found that “34 percent of the hundreds of children we visited had severe to moderate mental illness compared with two percent for children in the Australian community”.
Of the children aged over eight previously held in Nauru, 95 percent were assessed as at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, the report released Thursday said.
“These children, most of whom had spent months in Nauru, are among the most traumatised we have ever seen in our 50 years of combined professional experience,” Elizabeth Elliott, one of the paediatricians who accessed the children in October last year, added in a statement.
Those interviewed told doctors of thoughts of suicide and self-harm, while others had already self-harmed, the report said.
“Hell is a hot place and it was hot in Nauru. In hell you have no quality of life. In hell you have people tormenting you,” a father of a two-year-old and two-month-old said of his fear of being sent back.
Nauru’s government hit back at criticism of the camp’s conditions. Justice Minister David Adeang said in a statement that asylum-seeker families were “safe, well-supported and treated with great respect”.
The United Nations human rights agency warned Wednesday Australia was at risk of violating its obligations under international law if the asylum-seekers were transferred to Nauru.
Canberra says the policy is necessary to prevent the deaths of asylum-seekers at sea.