Sanctuary for asylum seekers
A violation of human rights
Earlier this year, you joined individuals, churches and campaign organisations in a nation-wide campaign to protest the return of 267 asylum seekers, including 37 babies, to offshore detention. We called for compassion and decency and demanded that the Turnbull Government Let Them Stay. The movement, which began in February, grew into a ubiquitous force for change and at the time of writing, thanks to your passionate actions, none of the 267 asylum seekers have yet been sent back to the harsh conditions on Nauru and Manus Island.
The wave of collective action taken under the Let Them Stay banner reflects the growing indignation people in Australia feel about successive governments’ hard-line refugee policies. We’re angry about the repeated reports of human rights violations in the two offshore processing centres, including the sexual assault of children and the rape of women and men. The United Nations says Australia’s immigration policy “contravenes the letter and spirit of international human rights law”.
And in April, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus illegal. The Court ordered the PNG and Australian governments to immediately cease the illegal and unconstitutional detention of asylum seekers on Manus. Despite this, steps are currently being taken to circumvent the decision, and the fate of the 900 men held there remains uncertain.
The planned deportation of 267asylum seekers back to Nauru in February became a catalyst for
national action. Thousands of people across the country added their voices to the Let them Stay
campaign in the form of rallies, vigils, demonstrations and social media sharing.
Churches offer sanctuary to asylum seekers
Putting their faith into action, 120 churches from nine denominations courageously stood in solidarity with asylum seekers by invoking the ancient principle of sanctuary. Organised by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT), an Act for Peace initiative, hundreds of people underwent training to learn how to offer protection from civil authorities to any asylum seeker who could make it onto church grounds. The training focused on non-violent anti-deportation measures. Misha Coleman from the ACRT said, “We are not here to get arrested. We’re here today to demonstrate what respect looks like. This is about a respectful way to challenge the current policy framework”.
The concept of sanctuary dates back to the Old Testament. Historically, churches could give sanctuary to people seeking refuge from brutal and oppressive forces, although the legality of sanctuary has never been tested under Australian law. Church leaders and representatives, who formed the backbone of the movement, knowingly risked jail time to prevent refugees from being deported. Their defiant act shows the strength of their resolve to uphold the Christian commitment to love one’s neighbour, and offer refuge and care to those who are marginalised and in exile.
The sanctuary movement was founded by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, which has also been heavily involved in lobbying politicians to allow these asylum seekers to stay in Australia.
Offering sanctuary has been a hugely significant action for Australian churches to take, and the Christian community demonstrated strength and leadership throughout this remarkable campaign. Together we made our voices heard, and the government was forced to listen. So far your passionate voices have forced the government to Let Them Stay.
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