Letter to the Prime Minister on the Deteriorating Situation on Manus and Nauru

11 May 2016
Letter to the Prime Minister on the Deteriorating Situation on Manus and Nauru

On 5 May 2016 the President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Mr Stuart McMillan, wrote to the Prime Minister expressing the Church's concern about the deteriorating situations on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru for people seeking asylum.

The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP
Prime Minister of Australia
PO Box 6022,
House of Representatives Parliament House,
Canberra, ACT 2600

5 May 2016

Dear Mr Turnbull,

Greetings on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia. I write to express the Church’s concern about the deteriorating situations on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru for people seeking asylum.

As you are aware, the Uniting Church in Australia has a long history advocating for the rights and the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum. In response to the tragic events on Nauru, with the death of Omid Masoumali and the attempted suicide of Hodan Yasin, a 21 year old Somali woman who set herself alight, Uniting Church members joined with other concerned Australians in prayer vigils around the country.

These events are tragic. But they are also the result of a great injustice. Numerous reports from the UNHCR, Amnesty International and the Australian Human Rights Commission, as well as anecdotal stories from former staff of the offshore immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island highlight the appalling conditions and inhumane treatment of people in these prisons. Medical experts have confirmed that such environments are immensely damaging to physical and mental health. Our country’s policies of offshore processing and prolonged and indefinite detention are directly contributing to the hopelessness and despair that people languishing in these centres clearly feel.

The Uniting Church believes that there are other ways to respond to refugees and people seeking asylum. Australia is the only OECD country that imposes mandatory detention on people seeking asylum. Our bilateral arrangements with various other countries for processing and resettlement of refugees have all failed. Earlier this year the New Zealand Government offered protection to 150 refugees from our offshore centres but this offer was rejected. In 2014, the Uniting Church offered to care for all unaccompanied minors on Christmas Island but this offer was also rejected and many were transferred to Nauru.

I was heartened by the agreement made at the last Bali Process Ministerial Meeting, where countries from across the region agreed to strengthen contingency planning and preparedness for forced migration in the region, to enable more predictable and effective responses. This demonstrates that productive regional cooperation is possible, beyond unsustainable bilateral arrangements.

I believe that Australians are compassionate people who want to see a better outcome for those fleeing persecution. The politicisation of a humanitarian issue has distorted and masked the goodwill which does exist. The announcement last year that we would resettle an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees was welcomed by an overwhelming majority of people.

There are still close to 2000 refugees and people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island. With the PNG Supreme Court decision that the processing centre on Manus Island is unlawful, the future of all these people is uncertain and precarious. The UNHCR has also called for Australia to move refugees and asylum seekers to humane conditions and I echo that call. Offshore detention has proven to be a cruel and costly exercise.

Prime Minister, I urge you to demonstrate leadership and correct this injustice by closing the offshore detention centre on Nauru and bringing those people who are currently in the centres on Manus Island and Nauru to Australia.

The Uniting Church stands ready and willing to work with the Government to support and care for these people, as we have offered to do with refugees from Syria and Iraq. Our congregations and service agencies have been providing practical support to asylum seekers and newly arrived refugees in our community for decades. The Uniting Church believes that there are alternatives to the policies that punish one group of people in order to send a message to another. We have always maintained that this approach to policy, whatever the issue, is immoral and has dangerous consequences for those caught by it. We continue to call Australians to be compassionate, generous and hospitable across all aspects of our life together. We maintain the hope that our political leaders will join us as we continue to work together for an Australia that reaches out to those most in need as we seek to make a positive difference in the world.

I have enclosed for your information a copy of our Media Release after the announcement of the PNG Supreme Court decision and our policy statement on refugees and asylum seekers, Shelter from the Storm.

The National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, Rev. Elenie Poulos, will contact your office in the hope that we might arrange a meeting to talk about this matter and other issues of importance for the Uniting Church and its members, ahead of the election.

Yours sincerely,

Mr Stuart McMillan
President, Uniting Church in Australia

Cc. The Hon. Peter Dutton MP, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection

Encl. Media Release 27 April 2016, Shelter from the Storm (Uniting Church in Australia Assembly Policy Statement)