Church leaders voice concerns for wellbeing of asylum seekers on Christmas Island

President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Rev. Alistair Macrae and Anglican Archbishop of Perth, the Most Rev. Roger Herft have voiced concerns for the wellbeing of asylum seekers on Christmas Island following a recent visit.

A delegation of church leaders visited Christmas Island last week to see first-hand the conditions under which asylum seekers are detained, and to meet with key personnel and asylum seekers.

Rev. Macrae described the facilities as “basic but adequate for short-term needs. Accommodation overcrowding was clearly evident.” Rev. Macrae said, “It is disturbing to approach the detention centre, which is surrounded by a high fence topped with electrified wire. It looks like a high security prison.”

“Asylum seekers being processed at a reasonable speed appeared to be happy enough,” said Rev. Macrae, “however there is a high level of anxiety amongst those whose cases have taken longer to process.  Those most distressed have been detained on Christmas Island for seven to eight months and more.”

The Uniting Church in Australia is a strong advocate for closing the detention centre on Christmas Island and processing asylum seekers on the mainland.  While recognising the Detention Centre is unlikely to be closed in the short term, Rev. Macrae called for families and unaccompanied minors to be immediately transferred to the mainland for processing.  “There is no reasonable justification for vulnerable children to be held in such a remote facility,” he said.

Archbishop Roger Herft said it was encouraging to see that asylum seekers were treated with dignity but the remote location makes it difficult to deliver the necessary services, such as pastoral and spiritual care for detainees and the staff, legal aid, translation services and regular visitation. “How we [as Australians] receive people is of utmost significance,” he said.

He said the group was concerned that, despite Australia still having a relatively small number of people seeking asylum by international standards (in 2008 Australia received 4,750 asylum seekers compared with 35,200 in France and 30,500 in the UK), there was increasing fear-mongering about ‘boat people’.

“Under no circumstances should we ever use a group of people for political point scoring. The fact that asylum seekers come to us fleeing terrible situations asking us for protection only increases our responsibility to care for them,” he said.

The delegation will now seek to meet with Minister Chris Evans to discuss specific issues arising from the visit.

The Christmas Island delegation included Rev. Alistair Macrae, President of the Uniting Church in Australia, The Most Rev. Roger Herft, Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Perth and Rosemary Hudson Miller, Associate General Secretary (Justice & Mission) for the Uniting Church Synod of WA and Chair of CARAD — Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees.