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Embracing new arrivals helps Australia evolve

  • 24 June 2021
Concern for migrants and refugees has a been a key theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate — both in word and in action. His first pastoral visit outside of Rome as Pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa. It is the entry point to Europe for many people seeking asylum and migrants arriving by boat without authorisation, seeking safety and a better life.

There Francis lamented the globalisation of indifference to the suffering of our sisters and brothers. He cared more about their suffering than their legal status. More recently, in his encyclical letter, On Fraternity and Social Friendship, Francis described a lack of respect for human dignity at borders as a ‘dark cloud over a closed world’. He called instead for open societies that welcome and include everyone in need or in search of a better life.

Francis believes that we can emerge from this pandemic better than before if we act with awareness that we are one family. The pandemic reminds us that no matter how we arrived in a community, we are all in the same boat. The truth is that no one can be saved alone. We can take this historic opportunity to rebuild better, greener and with greater inclusion. That knowledge equips us to avoid both excessive individualism and the aggressive populism that thrives on identifying enemies at home and abroad. ‘Fraternity,’ the pope insists, ‘is the new frontier’, capable of knitting together the often competing demands of liberty and equality.

Of course, during a pandemic, we cannot always keep our borders open; we can, though, keep our hearts and minds open to the whole world. In fact, pandemic-induced border closures have shown us how much Australians benefit from freedom of movement, and how much migrants contribute to our society and economy. As we miss our freedom to travel, let us think of people whose movement is not so freely chosen.

At present, around 7,000 people who have already been assessed as requiring protection, and granted a visa under the offshore humanitarian program, are currently unable to travel to safety in Australia. Nor are there effective pathways to reach Australia, even with authorisation, to apply for asylum onshore. People seeking asylum and refugees already in Australia also face challenges.

Department of Home Affairs statistics show that, as of 30 April 2021, the average length of detention for the 1,497 people in immigration detention was 646 days. This is higher than