The Prime Minister’s announcement that Australia will be taking an extra 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq on a temporary basis is a generous response to the refugee crisis we have been watching on our television screens over the past few weeks.
The journey of a refugee is chaotic and risky. From the moment of departure, there is the risk of injury, starvation, separation, persecution, imprisonment and even death.
Such desperation and human misery invites us to respond with compassion, solidarity and generosity.
The increasing global movement of people and our nation’s response mean it is timely for us to reflect on this important issue, which is why Australia’s Catholic bishops on Wednesday, 9 September launched our Annual Social Justice Statement on justice for refugees and asylum seekers.
For me, the desperate plight of refugees is particularly poignant because I came to Australia as a boat person, fleeing as a teenager from Vietnam in the wake of the Fall of Saigon.
I experienced communist oppression and I saw how tyranny and cruelty can leave people with no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere, in any way possible. I am grateful Australia gave me refuge and a new life.
My brother bishop, Archbishop Amel Nona, was Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq until he and his fellow Christians were driven from that ancient city. He, like me, now calls Australia home.
When people are forced into flight, it is the neighbouring countries that are usually most affected. Five years ago, Syria was ranked the second largest refugee-hosting country in the world.
Now it has become the world’s largest refugee-producing country, with around four million people fleeing mostly to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Just last year around 120,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes and resettle in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
These people are living in terrible conditions and they are gradually losing hope of returning to their homes and are worried about the future of their families and children. Who can blame people for travelling to Europe in the hope of a better life?
Today, millions more are fleeing and dying; Rohingyas, Syrians, Hazaras and Somalis.
In 2014 there were almost 60 million people who had been displaced because of persecution, conflict or violence.
The Prime Minister’s announcement contrasts with recent asylum seeker policies focused on asylum seekers in our region, which seem to have lost sight of the human dignity of the person seeking asylum and our obligation to assist and protect.
We have come to believe that harshness and rejection will be enough to deter desperate people from their flight to safety and their right to protection.
However, for too many asylum seekers, this is not a decision which they made lightly.
We need to walk in their shoes, hear their stories and appreciate their courage and determination for a better future.
Pope Francis speaks of how the journey of the asylum seeker is characterised by the search for understanding, acceptance and solidarity.
As a global citizen, Australia has the opportunity to lead a regional response that respects the right of each nation to protect its borders while ensuring protection for asylum seekers and the establishment of prompt refugee status determination and resettlement options.
We need to work globally to develop in-country solutions that can effectively protect displaced people, regionally to increase genuine protection spaces in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and locally by substantially increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake.
The billions of dollars spent each year on deterring and detaining thousands of vulnerable people would be better spent in our region on policies that are far more humane and effective.
Australia rose to the challenge in the past with its generous embrace of migrants and refugees. It proved itself especially courageous during the Indochinese exodus and accepted an unprecedented number of Asian refugees. We are right to be generous to Syrian refugees. Once we have resettled the 12,000 Syrians, we should consider whether there is capacity to do more.
Australia changed for the better as it always has with each successive wave of new arrivals. Australia is what it is today because of their determination and drive for a better future.
We honour the legacy of this great nation not by excessive protectionism, isolation and defence of our privilege at all costs. Rather, we make it greater by our concern and care for asylum seekers in the spirit of compassion, solidarity and generosity that has marked the history of our country from its beginning.
Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFMConv is Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne and Chair of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. The 2015-2016 Social Justice Statement, ‘For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Justice for refugees and asylum seekers’ was launched on 9 September 2015.