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Asylum seeker focus should be protection, not punishment

Jesuit Refugee Service Australia says that the Government's new policy on asylum seekers should be focused on the protection of vulnerable people rather than the elimination of people smugglers, and that Australia shouldn't shirk its responsibility towards those refugees trying to reach its borders.

'International agencies like JRS recognise that Australia needs an adequate process of determination of protection for asylum seekers in our region, and the reality is that we do need to work together in achieving this,' says the Director of JRS, Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ. 'But it has to be done in a way that looks to the best interests of the people we are trying to protect.'

Fr Bermudez-Goldman says it is important not to deter asylum seekers but to make them aware of the fact that Australia has one of the strictest processing systems in the world. 'But let's say to them in the same sentence that it is one of the most fair and transparent systems as well.'

Fr Bermudez-Goldman says that Prime Minister Julia Gillard's newly-announced policy - which includes the potential establishment of a regional processing facility in East Timor - was couched in terms that emphasised the role of people smugglers, diverting attention from the reality faced by people fleeing persecution.

'Let's not use that approach. Let's ask what might be the best form of regional protection and processing for asylum seekers. We also don't want to delegate our responsibility to someone else whose voice is not as strong as Australia's. We know what doesn't work and what creates pain and mental health issues. We also know the cost of outsourcing our refugee determination process. Let's hope we can learn from the negative experiences of the past and not make the same mistakes again.'

While Ms Gillard's invitation to the Australian public to engage in public debate is a welcome move, Fr Bermudez-Goldman says that such a conversation can only occur if people are presented with the facts surrounding the issue.

'Sometimes all we hear or read about is speculation or people's own agendas, and their language betrays what those agendas are. Are things really getting better in Afghanistan? Does Australia really only welcome less than once per cent of the refugee population in the world? What are the causes that prompt people to flee their homes and leave all behind? How would be want to welcomed if we found ourselves in their shoes?

'If we are really going to say yes to this invitation then the Australian public needs to have all the information available to be able to engage in the conversation in a way that is helpful and constructive.'

Jesuit Refugee Service, an international Catholic organisation, supports asylum seekers in the community with accommodation, financial assistance, English classes, job search and personal support and accompaniment. It helps those who have been granted refugee status to find employment and offers assistance with their transition to independence.

Topic tags: Jesuit Refugee Services, Director of JRS, Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ, Julia Gillard, asylum seekers



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