Archbishop Denis Hart


Minister Chris Bowen, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Bishop Joe Grech was passionate about helping refugees and asylum seekers, so I am very pleased we are remembering him in this Colloquium.

Migration and the Church

In acknowledging the Traditional Owners of this area, I invite you all to reflect on how the great majority of us have relatively recent family histories in Australia, how migration has been central to the development of the Catholic Church and how migration has transformed Australia into a vibrant, prosperous, western democracy in just over two hundred years.

I remember that migration has not always helped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  We have a lot more work to do with our Indigenous brothers and sisters to create a truly just Australia.

The 2011 census shows almost a quarter of Catholics were born overseas.  Migrants to Australia have brought the Church new symbols, practices and devotions which express the richness and diversity of the Universal Church.  We are grateful for example for the people from the Eastern Catholic Churches – the Maronite Diocese and the Melkite, Chaldean and Ukrainian Eparchies.  Their traditions help to enrich the whole Church in Australia.

A recent analysis of the 2011 census data in The Australian newspaper highlights the role of migrant communities in Australia’s most Catholic city suburb, Horsley Park in Sydney’s west.  Almost three quarters of the population there are Catholic, partly explained by the fact that more than 40 per cent of the residents have Maltese or Italian heritage.

Speech structure

This evening I will be speaking about our moral obligations towards those people who are refugees or seeking asylum.  I will in particular be focusing on the light the Church’s social teaching can throw on an area of policy that remains in national debate.

The Scriptures and key Church documents offer insights into how we should approach refugee policy.  I will then discuss the debate surrounding people seeking asylum in Australia, the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers and Parliament’s response to that report earlier this month and whether that response corresponds with our obligations.  I will also look at what the Church is doing to help refugees and proposals we have to improve Government policy.

Catholic social teaching

There is a long tradition of teaching in the Catholic Church on how we should treat strangers.

The Scriptures teach us to respect people from foreign lands.  Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea to escape slavery and so, to remember their time as foreigners in Egypt, the Israelites were urged in the Old Testament to treat foreigners well, as they would fellow citizens, including providing strangers with food and clothing.  (Exodus 22:21; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:18).

The Holy Family experienced the displacement so many people around the world are living with today.  Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn and he had to migrate with his family to Egypt to flee the threat of Herod.  (Mt 2: 14)

Jesus asked us to love our neighbour as we do ourselves (Mt 22:39), to see Christ in the humble, the weak, the stranger: “… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”. (Mt 25:35)  Jesus demonstrated his acceptance of foreign people by helping people like the Samaritan woman (John 4:3-42), the Roman Centurion (Mt 8:5-13) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:25-30) in the Bible stories.

Saint Paul too advised the Romans: “You must love your neighbour as yourself.”

The mystic Thomas Merton said: “God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart but in the voice of the stranger … God must be allowed the right to speak unpredictably.”

There is no question we are called to treat strangers well and to welcome them.

The Church has a long tradition of social teaching, which recognises two rights in respect to migration:  the right to seek asylum and the right of nations to manage migration flows across their border.

Pope Benedict XVI noted that “the Church recognizes this right [to emigrate] in every human person, in its dual aspect of the possibility to leave one’s country and the possibility to enter another country to look for better conditions of life”.

The second right was outlined by Pope Benedict when he said “states have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers”.  These words from His Holiness are to ensure migration is orderly and so there is no loss to the political, social and economic order in the destination countries.

We have to find a balance between these seemingly conflicting rights, which both serve the same purpose, described by Pope Pius XII as “devotion to humanity”.  There is an obligation on countries to regulate their borders, but that regulation must be undertaken with justice and mercy.  Pope Benedict commented the task “is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life”.

The right to live a dignified life in one’s homeland is the ultimate goal.  As humans are not only sacred but also social, the Church demands that all persons have a right to be part of a community and nation.  The right of nations to protect their borders is an extension of the right of all persons to live a dignified life in their community.  It is not the protection of borders in itself, but the protection of the community which serves humanity.

Let us consider how to balance these rights as we look at the migration debate in Australia.


To start I should outline some terms I wish to use.  The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees says a refugee is a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

An asylum seeker is someone whose claim to be a refugee has not yet been assessed.  I am concerned in this debate that people seeking asylum are sometimes wrongly, in my view, called “illegals” because that term does not show proper respect for the dignity of the person, nor his or her right to apply for asylum.

Why are refugees controversial?

I think most Australians would agree our nation has an important obligation to accept refugees.  The controversy is largely over how people seeking asylum arrive here and the numbers in which they arrive.

The arrival of people who have been assessed in an overseas camp to be refugees and have been accepted for resettlement in Australia is relatively uncontroversial.

Public concern tends to rise though when people apply for asylum on arrival in Australia and, although many people arrive by air with some form of visa and then claim asylum, public concern is concentrated on those who arrive by boat.

I think two key reasons why members of the public tend to object more to asylum seekers applying to be recognised as refugees after they have arrived in Australia, and particularly after they have arrived by boat, is because of an Australian sense of fairness and because of a concern over the risk to life involved in travelling to Australia by boat, often in an unseaworthy vessel provided by people smugglers.  The very notion of people smugglers arouses strong feelings as instinctively we reject the idea that the vulnerable should be exploited in this way.

The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers reports more than 100 people travelling to Australia by boat died or were missing at sea in 2012 alone and almost 1000 people have died or gone missing since 2001.

The loss of life is a very serious concern and it has rightly galvanised the public’s and the Parliament’s attention.

Australians are also very attached to a sense of fairness or of a fair go, which I think is an admirable national trait.  It is the sense of the fair go that drives so much good in our community, but in this case I think it has been misapplied.  Asylum seekers arriving in Australia are seen by many in the public as queue jumpers, taking places from people waiting patiently in refugee camps all over the world.  This is especially so given those people arriving in Australia have often paid people smugglers large sums of money to get them here.

I can sympathise with those concerns, but I think the concerns are misplaced.

First, because there is a sense in these concerns that there is an orderly queue that asylum seekers can join, with some prospect of success.  In reality, United Nations numbers indicate that in 2011 there were more than 42 million forcibly displaced people in the world today.  Of these people, more than 15 million were refugees and there were almost 900,000 people whose asylum claims were yet to be assessed.  Sadly in that year only 80,000 refugees were resettled under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  That is less than one per cent of all refugees.  It is difficult to blame people stuck for years or perhaps a lifetime in a refugee camp for trying to do better for themselves and their families.

The second reason I disagree is because there is a sense in those public concerns that we get to say who knocks on our door.  Pope John Paul II asked on World Migration Day in 2000: “How can the baptised claim to welcome Christ if they close the door to the foreigner who comes knocking?”  To those wise words I would add we cannot determine who knocks on our door.  We can work to regulate our borders but ultimately we just have to respond the best way we can when someone knocks.

The alternative is to offer refugees and asylum seekers enough hope to pursue a different course.

Expert Panel

Australia has had many years of divisive debate on how to deal with people seeking asylum in Australia.

Earlier this month, the tragic loss of the lives of asylum seekers who have drowned at sea on their way to Australia and the increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Australia by boat this calendar year, prompted the Parliament to act.

In June the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship appointed the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers to look at the policy options with a view particularly to “prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia”.

The Expert Panel released its report on 13 August which included a range of recommendations.  To my mind, the key recommendations are:

  • Increasing the Humanitarian Program by 6,000 to 20,000 places a year;
  • Putting in place a ‘no advantage’ principle, so those people seeking asylum by boat have no advantage in being accepted as a refugee in Australia over those people waiting in camps;
  • Opening detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea;
  • Removing family reunion concessions for those who arrive by boat; and,
  • Undertaking further work to improve cooperation with Malaysia, Indonesia and the region.

These changes were hastily agreed by a Parliament desperate to reduce the risk of asylum seekers losing their lives.  I can understand the haste, but as with all legislation rushed through Parliament, there was not adequate time to reflect to try to ensure the legislation will not bring its own problems.

I applaud the increase in the number of places for the Humanitarian Program.  This offers the opportunity to offer resettlement in Australia to recognised refugees in camps, which may reduce the incentive to come by boat.

Australia has a great capacity to resettle refugees and I would encourage the Government to an even more generous resettlement program.  From popular media coverage we might have the impression we are resettling record numbers of refugees.  But consider this: statistics from the Refugee Council of Australia show that in 2010-11 Australia accepted just under 400 people per million of our population, but in 1981-82 we accepted more than three times this number or more than 1400 refugees per million population.  So it is clear that Australia has the capacity to do more.

It is also important to engage with countries in the region.  This is an area of work which has had modest success to date, but there is value in having ongoing dialogue with our regional neighbours.

But my central concern with the plan is that in order to deter people from seeking asylum by boat under the ‘no advantage’ principle, Australia will have to detain people on Nauru and Papua New Guinea at least as long as they would stay in a camp, which is many, many years.  Holding people for long periods of time, perhaps even if the person is a recognised refugee, for no purpose other than deterring others does not respect the basic human dignity of those detained.

I am also very concerned that Australia would deny people who arrive by boat the chance to bring their families back together.

I want to acknowledge the good will and hard work of our Federal Politicians in trying to find their way through competing interests to reach agreement on this difficult issue.  Theirs is a very difficult job.  But the problem with politics is that morality and the common good can be lost in debates between competing interests.  We end up accepting what is judged possible rather than what is preferable.

I acknowledge it is easy to find fault with the difficult decisions politicians have to make and much harder to offer a positive, practical alternative.  It is even harder to put those alternatives into action.

This is where the Catholic Church in Australia has a lot to offer.  The Catholic Church plays a very important role in the migration program by providing pastoral care to migrants and refugees and through sponsorship and resettlement.

What the Church is doing

The Catholic Church has had a central office for helping migrants and refugees since 1947, which is today the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office.  There are equivalent offices in each archdiocese.

There are more than 30 Catholic agencies in Australia working hands-on with refugees to help with community resettlement.

For example, CatholicCare in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn has taken up the challenge of establishing and running a house to accommodate and support unaccompanied minors who are seeking asylum in Australia and this initiative has been followed up by similar good work by a number of congregations in other parts of Australia.

Church suggestions for policy

The Church has also made clear what it thinks should be the approach to this very difficult policy problem and Father Maurizio Pettenà and his staff at the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office have worked tirelessly on this issue.

First there is an obvious need to go to the source of the problem of displaced people, which is conflict and persecution in their home countries.  The Migrant and Refugee Office has pointed out that Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka are listed in the top 10 countries for people being at risk of serious human rights violations and mass killings.  How can we redouble our efforts to help bring peace to those countries?

To cut the risk of people travelling by boat to Australia, we must offer refugees and asylum seekers more hope in another route.

In the early 1980s Australia had an agreement with Vietnam for an orderly departure program, creating a safe, officially sanctioned and organised way for people to migrate to Australia.  This largely stopped people seeking asylum by boat in the 1980s.  There is the opportunity to negotiate with major source countries of refugees today, including Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, to establish this program and ensure people do not undertake risky boat trips.  To offer adequate hope to deter risky journeys, it would require Australia to agree to accept perhaps another 10,000 to 15,000 refugees a year.


The increase in our humanitarian intake from 13,500 to 20,000, on which I congratulate the Minister and his department, will offer more hope to refugees, while helping at the same time to stop dangerous boat journeys to Australia.


The issue of refugees and asylum seekers is a difficult one for Australia to deal with, but it starts first with our hearts.  We must not forget the central place in this for prayer to reflect on what we can do, both individually and as a community for the strangers who come to our shores.  We know we must love the strangers and we know there is no real love without sacrifice – we must go out of our way to help.

The Church is very willing to continue to work with the Government to help resettle migrants and refugees in Australia, and looks forward to our continuing relationship which has been in place since at least 1947.

I conclude with a quote from Pope Benedict from this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees:

“Asylum seekers, who fled from persecution, violence and situations that put their life at risk, stand in need of our understanding and welcome, of respect for their human dignity and rights, as well as awareness of their duties.  Their suffering pleads with individual states and the international community to adopt attitudes of reciprocal acceptance, overcoming fears and avoiding forms of discrimination, and to make provisions for concrete solidarity also through appropriate structures for hospitality and resettlement programmes.  All this entails mutual help between the suffering regions and those which, already for years, have accepted a large number of fleeing people, as well as a greater sharing of responsibilities among States.”


+ Denis J. Hart,