Is Sanctuary the Way to Go?

Source : Fr Maurizio Pettenà, National Director, Australian Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office

cropped detention facilityIn response to the decision of the High Court that it is legal to send and detain asylum seekers in off-shore detention places, some Christian Communities have offered the right of sanctuary in their churches, as a solution to prevent these people from being sent to Nauru.

As an immediate response I wish to say that this is a very generous offer. It shows the care and concern these Christian Communities have towards those most in need and suffering persecution. This has been met with the support from many people who are appalled and shamed by the High Court decision.

It is sad, though, that since the announcement by the Anglican Dean of Brisbane the Reverend Dr Peter Catt, attention has drastically shifted to focus on the offer of sanctuary rather than the situation of asylum seekers or refugee claimants themselves.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law makes clear provision for the right of Sanctuary, “Jus Asyli” (Canon 1179). However, in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law there is no mention of “Jus Asyli”. One might speculate that its disappearance from the latest revision of the Code of Canon Law, however, does not mean that this practice is no longer possible or, better put, necessary at this time.

This is not something new. In some countries such as the United States of America and in some European countries, there have been parishes offering “Jus Asyli”, especially to refugees.

dreamstime_l_60497368Asylum seekers arriving to a Country by means other than the legal channels of immigration may be, and very often are, subjected to immoral treatment.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs the faithful that good government has two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, in particular financially blessed nations:

“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2241§1)

The second of these duties is to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good. Sovereign nations have the right to enforce their laws and all persons must respect the legitimate exercise of this right:

“Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2241§2)

Australia, like other nations, has legalized a very complex immigration system to combat the evil of people smuggling and to try to stop people dying at sea. This, however, is not reason enough to justify the harsh treatment and detention of the ‘survivors’.

CanberrahighcourtThe High Court decision has ruled in favour of the legal right of Australia to enter into an agreement with Nauru. The High Court, however, has not taken away from Australia its obligation under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The question for each person of good will to ask is: though it may be ‘legal’ to send people, including babies and children, to indefinite detention either onshore or offshore, is it is ‘morally’ acceptable?

Catholic Social Teaching lays down the principles according to which all persons on the move for different reason have rights, which national and international communities must respect and protect. They are: The sacredness of human life; The dignity of the human person; The common good of the community; The principle of subsidiarity; The universal destination of goods; and The principle of solidarity.

The proper implementation of Catholic Social Teaching applied to Migration would draw the following considerations: the right to migration is a human right; this is also a right of every family to live together. The right to migrate consists in the right to leave a country and to enter into another country. The right to migrate is not an absolute right. The exercise of such right needs to be regulated to take into account the common good of the State. The common good of the State is not an absolute reality, rather, resources have a universal destination and every human person is a citizen of the universal society. Absolute restriction to migration is not permissible, limited restriction is possible, but it should be tempered by solidarity. Conflicting interests should be solved by an international cooperation.

Catholic Social Teaching maintains both positions where a person has the right to migrate and the State has the right to regulate migration. What can occur is that because both rights are to be maintained, that the State will always have the coercive power. Catholic Social Teaching, however, explicitly sates that the demands of human dignity always come before the national interest.

migration-croppedAs Christians, we have the duty to shift attention from what is legal to what is morally acceptable and to work on this. There are fundamental questions that must be asked and answered:

  • Is it ethically right to migrate?
  • Is it ethical to exclude migrants?
  • Is it ethical to give preference to some migrants?
  • Is smuggling migrants justifiable?
  • Is it ethical to enter a country irregularly?
  • Is it ethical to send boat back?
  • Is it ethical to discriminate against migrants?
  • Is it ethical to deny migrants the possibility to remain and settle?
  • Is it right to put asylum seekers in detention?
  • Is it right to put children of migrants in detention?
  • Is offshore processing of refugees ethical?

I respectfully believe that the offer of sanctuary is not a solution. Sanctuary in this context does not address the larger ethical and legal issues of asylum. This is a limited response to a particular act of injustice, a kind of symbolic show of outrage at the State’s actions and moral blindness. Sanctuary does not address the more systemic breakdown of an understanding of the moral right to migrate, and the legal obligation, incumbent on the State, to offer protection to asylum seekers. With this in mind, we need to, as a community, explore different, more durable and long term avenues.

Catholic Social Teaching applied to migration suggests the moral principle of distributive justice which consists in the proportional distribution of what is common. Catholic Social Teaching draws attention to the fact that before belonging to a group (family, community, State) everyone belongs to humanity and the goods of the earth have a universal destination. Here, the principle of justice for migrants is demonstrated. People migrate in order to have access to all those goods that are denied to them in their homeland.

Detention Centre

Detention Centre

In 2010, the Minister of Immigration Chris Bowen, engaged with the Catholic Church and other groups resulting in highly successful community programs which saw an incredible number of young asylum seekers living in dignified and caring homes. They are now in the community studying and contributing to the welfare of our Country. Sadly this program came to an end. The successes of this program showed that this approach can work.

In September 2015, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the special humanitarian program for 12.000 refugees from Syria. Since the announcement, only a handful of the permanent applications have been processed and granted for them to live a safe and dignified life in Australia.

People migrate in search of justice along with the desire to rise above any form of fear and poverty. One could argue whether this is a condition of injustice or a result of corrupted governance which should be remedied. Should intervention occur in the situations that generate corrupted governance? If migration is used as a remedy against the injustices which cause the unequal distribution of the universal goods, who, then, is to be held morally responsible and act justly. What should the role be of the international community in holding to moral accountability those who found responsible?

Meanwhile, ‘Justice’ asks that safer legal channels of emigration and practical ways of participating with all the rights and obligations afforded by the receiving countries be put into place.

It is not a physical place of sanctuary that is most needed now, but rather a moral sanctuary which affords the God-given right to uphold the moral dignity of the human person, which is the true ‘sanctuary’ which needs protection.