From the Director

In Australia this Sunday 27 September is Social Justice Sunday. At this time the Australian Catholic Bishops’ 2015-2016 Social Justice Statement is formally launched. This year’s statement is entitled ‘For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Justice for refugees and asylum seekers’.

This Statement was developed in response to the longstanding divisions in Australian society over asylum seekers, particularly those who have arrived by sea. This year’s statement is made even more poignant by recent tragedies including a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish background, Aylan Kurdi, photographed motionless on the Turkish shore.

Sadly this is not the first such tragedy. On 15 December 2010, a boat carrying around 90 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq and Iran, sank off the coast of Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, killing 48 people aboard; 42 survivors were rescued

Almost two years ago, on 3 October 2013, a ship sank near the coast of Lampedusa, a southern Italian island on the Mediterranean. Only 155 survived of the more than 500 who were on board the ship that caught fire and capsized. Most victims were from Eritrea and Somalia; two African states where the largest numbers of international migrants have come from over the past few years.

In the first journey of his pontificate, the Holy Father travelled by boat to the island of Lampedusa, the closest land for many fleeing North Africa. The number of people who died on the journey appalled Pope Francis. He dropped a wreath in the sea to honour those who had perished and he visited the people who were detained on the island and led a penitential service on an altar made of the wood from wrecked boats.

At Lampedusa, Pope Francis said, "We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalisation of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families?"

These individual tragedies being played out on our TV screens combine to make up a much larger tragedy of almost 60 million people who had been displaced because of persecution, conflict or violence. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees , in their Global Trends Report World at War (2015 p. 2), stated that in 2014, of the world’s 59.5 million forcibly displaced:

  • 38 million were displaced in their own countries.
  • 19.5 million were refugees.
  • 1.8 million applied for refugee status in 2014 alone.
  • Only 105,000 refugees were resettled in other countries.

 

Parallels can be drawn to the end of the World War II when millions of people were displaced. Then, national leaders committed themselves to care for refugees, including Australia. My parents, from war torn Europe, were two of hundreds of thousands of migrants who were welcomed into Australia to build a new life.

Again in 1976 the first boat arrived in Australia carrying refugees who had by-passed formal immigration procedures. Desperate to find a new home, they were accepted as immigrants on humanitarian grounds. Within three years a further 53 refugee boats had arrived and in 1982, the Australian and Vietnamese governments agreed on an orderly migration program, emphasising family reunion, and two-thirds of arrivals over the next few years were women.

So why is the right of asylum such a contentious issue in Australia today? How, as a nation, have we come to believe that harshness and rejection will be enough to deter desperate people from their flight to safety?

Pope Francis, in his recent Encyclical, challenges us on this issue: We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisation of indifference.

 

j-mula

Yours in Hope

John Mula
Director of Catholic Education