Australian churches to offer refuge to asylum seekers


SYDNEY (TIP): Australian church leaders on february 4 said they would offer sanctuary to asylum seekers facing removal to a remote Pacific detention camp, vowing to defy the government’s harsh immigration rules.

The asylum seekers, who were brought to Australia from Nauru mostly for medical reasons, number more than 260 and include 37 babies born in the country and 54 other children, advocates said.

The Anglican dean of Brisbane, the Very Reverend Peter Catt, said the churches were reinventing the “ancient concept of sanctuary” by opening facilities such as St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane to the asylum seekers. Catt told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the concept of sanctuary was not tested under law, “but my hunch is that if the authorities chose to enter the church and take people away, it would probably be a legal action”.

He added: “So this is really a moral stand and it wouldn’t be a good look, I don’t think, for someone to enter a church and to drag people away.”

Asylum seekers, including children, who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to off-shore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they can be held indefinitely while refugee applications are processed. They are blocked from being resettled in Australia even if found to be genuine refugees. Many of the asylum seekers brought to Australia from Nauru are being held at Wickham Point, a secure facility near Darwin in northern Australia.

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The high court ruled Wednesday the detention of asylum seekers on Nauru did not breach domestic law, meaning the potential refugees could be returned there in the coming days.

Across Australia, thousands of people protested on Thursday against the possible off-shore transfer of the asylum seekers, carrying signs reading “(Prime Minister) Malcolm Turnbull #LetThemStay”. Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce’s Misha Coleman admitted it would be difficult to move the detained asylum seekers to the sanctuaries but said if they were, the cases would be managed “in a very sort of confidential way”.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton said the churches had the right to their opinion but were not above Australian law. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the tough measures on deterring asylum seekers, saying “one child in detention is one child too many”.

He added: “Our goal is to reduce that (number of children in detention) to zero but the key element in doing so is ensuring that people do not get on people smugglers’ boats and put their lives at risk,” Turnbull told parliament in Canberra on February 4.