About us



Vol 39 No 4


Francis Mansour LCM

Charles Hill

Terry Lyons

Vincent Battaglia

Sophie McGrath RSM

Peter Malone MSC

Kevin Mark



Welcome the stranger:
Reflections shared at a parish gathering on Refugees and Migrants Sunday 2005


TWITH THE CELEBRATION of Refugee and Migrant Sunday we remember and celebrate our own roots: 98% of us are either newly arrived or have ancestors who came to this country as migrants or as refugees. Refugee and Migrant Sunday is a time to pause and give thanks for who we are; for the unified yet diverse multicultural community we have become. It is a time to remember that our forebears, or we ourselves, came seeking freedom, security a better way of life—the same values espoused by those coming today. The wars, poverty, political and religious persecution and famines are just as devastating in this era. Today is also a time to reflect on our attitudes towards migrants and especially refugees arriving in our country.

Certainly the issues relating to Asylum seekers and Refugees in our community are very divisive and at times emotional. So where are we in the debate? And why?

There are twelve million refugees in the world today; twenty million including those internally displaced. Seven million of these people have been in refugee camps for more than ten years. They are 'warehoused' (notice the faceless terminology) with little chance of integration, repatriation or resettlement in another country.

Each year Australia accepts 13,000 refugees. The majority are processed offshore.

Because Australia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, people can commence the process to be recognised as refugees once they are already in Australia if they apply for a Protection Visa. Depending on their document status upon arrival, these 'unauthorised arrivals'—not illegals—will either be sent to indefinite mandatory detention or remain in the community while their application is processed.

Today I want to highlight these two aspects of government policy.

Indefinite Mandatory Detention
There has been much public debate recently concerning our detention policy and the extraordinarily detrimental costs incurred by those who are incarcerated. Recently, I spent time with a family released from Villawood detention centre after nearly three years. Their three-year-old child—born just prior to the family's detention—is very small for his age; sucks a dummy most of the time and has very limited speech. Sadly, one of the few words he has learnt to say is 'key'. Having become so inculturated by the the jail-like routine of Villawood, he screams and refuses to move from one room to another in their small unit without a key and won't leave the unit until a key is produced. One can only imagine how scarred this child is, and how other detainees must be suffering after their experiences of incarceration.

Following the recent Petro Georgiou interventions, some improvements have been made to mandatory detention policies. About four weeks ago, families who were previously living in detention were released into the community, and asylum seekers who have been detained for more than two years are having their cases independently reviewed.

Unfortunately though, Australia remains the only Western country with a policy of indefinite mandatory detention. One wonders why we need to persist with this policy as community models of detention do work. Why release only the families? Why not release all asylum seekers into the community after security, identity and health checks are completed? Somehow our fear and insecurity have become disproportionate and allowed us to perpetrate injustices on innocent people—our brothers and sisters—who have a right to seek asylum from us. Indeed, we have a concurrent right to live securely and protect our borders. Improved, and very costly, border protection has resulted in a decrease in new arrivals. Only one boat carrying fifty-four people has arrived on our shores since the Tampa crisis of 2001, and in 2003-2004 only 2% of unauthorised air arrivals—less than one hundred people—sought protection. At the beginning of 2005, there were around 300 asylum seekers in mainland detention centres—certainly not a huge number considering the global situation. Bearing in mind that 90% of those detained are eventually given Permanent Protection, there surely must be another way.

Community Based Asylum Seekers
Among the most disadvantaged, the poorest and the most dispossessed people in our society today are the group of asylum seekers living in the community with Bridging Visa E or the like. Many of them have been released from detention to await the processing of their claim.

This group of about 8,000 people are denied the right to work, income support of any kind and Medicare access. If they are not living with relatives or members of their community, this group of people become reliant upon various charities, churches or concerned individuals. If they are fortunate, after housing has been provided, they may have $60-$100 per week for living expenses. They are often hidden and isolated in the community.

Dependence on community support, fears concerning present and future survival and constant anxiety often result in depression. They do not know how long their case will take to process and therefore have no foreseeable prospects for family reunion.

All these factors make eventual settlement and integration much slower and far more complex. We have known families who have lived this way for five or six years while their cases have been decided. Can you imagine what it is like to live like this? How far can your $100 stretch in the supermarket? How many of us agonise over our ability to seek medical help for sick children?

In the coming months there will be a campaign seeking work rights for these people so they can live with some dignity while their cases are decided. You might consider supporting this campaign. Earlier this year, the government announced an increase of 20,000 migrants to our annual migrant intake of 120,000 to boost the number of workers in the country. So we certainly don't have job shortages at present.

In today's reading from the Gospel of Matthew, (Matt 16:21—27) Jesus begins to speak to His disciples—to those whom He loves—about His forthcoming passion. He shares with them that He will suffer greatly and will be put to death and he will rise again.

He is revealing to his disciples, and indeed to us, the heart and mystery of our faith. If we want to follow Him—and we say we do since we are Christians—then He says we are to renounce ourselves take up our cross, whatever it may be, and follow Him. At times I come away from Villawood after hearing someone's story and find myself deeply touched not only by the depth of the person's pain and suffering, but very often by their sincere surrender to God whom they recognise as playing a role in their outcome, whatever that might be. A true surrender that is of trust and absolute faith. Here I find the suffering Christ among us. At those times I leave knowing I have received more than I have given.

Pain and suffering must come to us and are part of the human condition. It is for us though, knowing God's mercy to us, to be merciful; to love as He loves us. As He has taken our brokenness to Himself, so are we to do for our brothers and sisters.

So How Can We Bring About Change?
When the problems faced seem insurmountable, sometimes it is hard to stay motivated to advocate for change. But big changes often spring from small actions. In a climate of misinformation and hostility, it is more crucial than ever to read and to be informed. Speak out the truth—even if it is to friends and family—in order to debunk the myths that abound concerning asylum seekers and refugees.

Reflect on seemingly arbitrary judgements concerning who should be included or excluded from our society—are the seeds of racism finding root here?

Your actions can go further than this, too: consider writing to your local member and lobbying for change or join in campaigns against discrimination. Also consider some hands-on practical involvement in the form of volunteering at organisations that pro-actively help refugees and asylum seekers.

I would commend to you 'House of Welcome' at Carramar, which is the NSW Ecumenical Council's project offering support to refugees and asylum seekers who have been released from detention and are living in the community. 'House of Welcome' was commenced in 2002, and offers assistance with housing and subsistence funds, English and computer classes, job searches, legal support and a respite holiday program.

There are many formal and informal support groups throughout the community formed by people who feel really moved by the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Seek them out. See what is right for you.

To conclude, these matters are not easy. We may feel fearful or disturbed and confused about what to do or say. No matter. Go aside for a while into the presence of our God. Surrender in love to Love. Allow yourself to resonate with the words that the Prophet Jeremiah gives us: 'You have seduced me Yahweh, and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me, you were the stronger' (Jer 20:7). In the strength of His Love, you will know what to think and say and do.

Thank you for all that you are already doing.

Francis Mansour is a sister of the Little Company of Mary. She works for refugees in her Order's Refugee Project and also works at the NSW Ecumenical Council in its Refugee Programme.