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Embracing new arrivals helps Australia evolve



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.

Palm Sunday rally 2021 (Matt Hrkac/Flickr)

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 ever before. This figure includes some people who have committed serious crimes and who will be returned to their country of citizenship. But it also includes a growing number of people who are in complex situations. Some of them may not be eligible for refugee status but can never be safely returned to their country of origin, yet they pose low levels of risk to the community.


'We experience people seeking asylum, migrants and refugees not as an imposition or problem to be solved, but as sisters and brothers to be welcomed, protected, included and promoted.'


We need to find better ways to resolve their situations. As a community, we should not rush to judgement, presuming that anyone who does not meet the strict Refugee Convention definition of a refugee has no legitimate moral claim on our assistance at all. The reality of contemporary flows of human movement are far more complex than that, and our policy framework needs to evolve to address such situations more effectively, rather than leaving so many people with complex cases to languish in detention, or to appeal to ministerial discretion. It is not simple, but it is also not impossible.

The Catholic Church defends human life. Anyone who is forced to flee to protect their lives or human dignity has a moral claim on our assistance, whether they are a Convention refugee or not. It is what we would want from others if we were in their place.

With the average length of detention in Australia now at an historic high, it is timely to review how immigration detention is used. It should be a last resort that is used for the shortest practicable time so that people who pose little risk to the community are not unnecessarily deprived of their liberty, and that they are able to contribute to the community.

This is not naïve or impractical; Canada’s average length of detention in 2019-2020 was just 13.9 days. Imagine the human and financial costs that could be avoided if our average length of immigration detention was two weeks?

We already have working alternatives to detention. Community detention arrangements and release into the community on Bridging Visa E could be used more extensively. In this regard, the release of the Murugappan family from detention on Christmas Island is a welcome development. International experience may also suggest other workable alternatives to immigration detention.

Migrants and refugees need support to settle into their new home. Here, both the community and government have a role to play. In an example that is close to home for me, the experience of the Vietnamese boat people provides clear evidence that even a highly traumatised group can be integrated in our multicultural society and can make a positive contribution. The fear that our social cohesion might be undermined by newcomers has been proven unfounded again and again by successive waves of migrants and refugees. By embracing new arrivals, Australia has evolved to become a much more dynamic, diverse and prosperous nation.

The Catholic community, through its various organisations and structures, is very active in visiting people in immigration detention, and in supporting asylum-seekers and refugees in the community. Those who are on bridging visas or temporary visas are not eligible for a range of government supports for people facing economic hardship due to the pandemic. Along with other charities and community-based organisations, we are working hard to assist these vulnerable people.

We are ready to work with governments to welcome and include many more of the world’s displaced people. We experience people seeking asylum, migrants and refugees not as an imposition or problem to be solved, but as sisters and brothers to be welcomed, protected, included and promoted.

Our encounter with people seeking asylum, migrants and refugees enriches our lives and provides us with an opportunity to work together for a better world. Their initiative, resilience and creativity make Australia a better place.

As Pope Francis says in his message for Migrant and Refugee Sunday this year — ‘they’ make ‘us’ a greater ‘we’. There are no longer ‘others’, but only a ‘we’ as wide as humanity.





Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv STL DD is the Catholic bishop of the Parramatta Diocese in Western Sydney and Chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service within the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Main image: Palm Sunday rally 2021 (Matt Hrkac/Flickr)

Topic tags: Vincent Long Van Nguyen, refugee, asylum seeker, Australia



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Existing comments

Thank you for your calm, reasoned, factual and faith based reminder of who we can be as compassionate Australians.

Alex Nelson | 24 June 2021  

There is little evidence that Australians have a negative attitude to migrants. The understanding of migration and its impact is deeply understood. Two in three Australians are born elsewhere or the children of people born elsewhere. Nine hundred and twenty thousand refugees have arrived since 1947. Millions of migrants. No country welcomes them more. Numerous evidence of the celebration of migrants. Wherever you look, whatever you look at. Interested in alternatives to detention. Distressed that Covid has impacted movement. Distressed by offshore detention. Unwelcoming to migrants? So many separate, complex issues here.

John | 25 June 2021  

Dear Bishop Vincent, God Bless you on many accounts for this article. Firstly, it has to be evidence that the Catholic Bishops read Eureka Street, since at least one of their number is published in it. I commend this most wholeheartedly: the more we hear from Our Bishops - God Bless Them - the better! Communication provides the key to ironing out misunderstandings and problems! Secondly, I'm regrettably forced to draw your attention to your Brother Bishop next door in the Sydney Archdiocese, who at the last federal election went on record to issue a statement which commended the federal government on its asylum-seeker policy. We Catholics cannot understand the basis of this dissonance, viz. how you mange to promote Pope Francis' message on the asylum-seeker question, while Archbishop Fisher ignores it. I hope it is not the case that, having appointed you to be responsible for this aspect of the overall outreach of the Australian Church, some Bishops somehow manage to act in breach of it! Finally, I thank John for his post. It is true that Australia has been exceedingly generous to settlers from overseas. However, justice requires application to all comers with no quid-pro-quos attached to it!

Michael Furtado | 26 June 2021  

This is heartfelt writing born from personal experience by Bishop Vincent. You have travelled the journey and we see your great contribution to our society. However, it is not only that 'contribution' we need to see so much as your person and the life you bring with you. We have so many talented and compassionate people in our parliament. Let us hope and pray for the ascendancy of that compassion.

Pam | 26 June 2021  

Many thanks for your wise words & empathy for refugees Vincent. Your contribution to Combined Refugee Action Group's forum in Geelong West in 2014 will always be remembered. Contrary to the views of those espousing Australia's welcoming of Refugees & migrants, we have an appealing history of 100 + years of persecuting many migrants & certainly refugees & asylum seekers over the past 11 years - that's why we have hundreds still languishing in offshore & onshore detention despite commiting no crime. The Biloela family is the tip of the iceberg in relation to Sri Lankan Tamils in Australia. Our federal government regards the Rajapaksa government of Sri Lanka as "allies" & open to returning Tamils. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have information which is up to date. DFAT uses information on Sri Lanka dated November 2019.

Peter Coghlan | 27 June 2021  

It is a difficult situation all round. But we must respect the law -render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars etc. Some people are definitely leaving persecution, but many others just want to live in another country like Australia. I am sure there are some Australians that may want to live in another country and these people have to respect the laws of another country as well. So let us respect the laws of this land.

PHIL | 28 June 2021  

There's nothing quite as harsh as the ignorance of the well-modulated, mind-shutting voice, is there, Bishop Vince? Christ weeps with you, Andy, Binoy & Frank as, with each one of you, we collectively gnash our irritated teeth.

Michael Furtado | 28 June 2021  

I suppose we need to remember that you, Bishop Nguyen, are a shining example of a refugee who became a cornerstone of all that's decent in this thoroughly decent country. Your own Vietnamese-Australian community often braved horrific terrors on the high seas, including the threat of piracy and the resultant rape, violence and murder. How many never made it? You were all heroes, like the incredibly brave Maltese who came here after WW 2. Their island was awarded the George Cross for being a bulwark against the evils of the Axis powers. My own family were not refugees per se, but like so many of the European origin community in India and Ceylon (as it then was) , felt nervous at Independence. We had a choice of going 'home' to the UK or coming to Canada or Australia. I'm glad we came here. Winnipeg in winter. Brr! We have mainly 'disappeared' into the general populace. Very few of our descendants 'identify' as Anglo-Indian or Burgher and our offspring marry into the wider community. Bob Birrell, that excellent number cruncher, says 40% of marriages are interracial. That's good! It's a bit like England, where Celt, Saxon and Norman mingled to make the English, a wonderful story.

Edward Fido | 29 June 2021  

Lovely, romantic Edward! You touch many a cultural chord! I hope the memsahib goes well. My salaams to her!

Michael Furtado | 29 June 2021  

Thank you very much indeed, Michael. Rita is physically well in the Dementia Ward but a bit 'lost' up top in that she can't fully remember. She likes people and would appreciate your good wishes, which I will pass on, but they may not register. She is another example of successful migrant integration into this great country. Her father was French and an adolescent courier for the Resistance. Her mother was Russian from the Urals, with what I consider the sexy 'Olga Popovsky' accent, reminiscent of Harry Lime and spies in Vienna. Rita was born in Wollongong and spoke Russian as a first language till 5, when her first full and perfect English sentence, at a birthday party, was 'I'd like a piece of that cake please'. She suffered a bit of prejudice from the apparently brain dead daughter of neighbours. It was those 'New Australian' days where the local yobbos - fortunately a minority - berated Non-Anglo migrants.

Edward Fido | 30 June 2021  

Thank you, Bishop Long, for highlighting critical issues in defining refugees and humane treatment of refugees and detainees. The 1951 UN definition of refugee "Any person who .. owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality.." in addition to not being universally respected, no longer meets today’s needs for displaced persons and economic and climate refugees. In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis says “Ideally, unnecessary migration ought to be avoided; this entails creating in countries of origin the conditions needed for a dignified life and integral development. Yet .. we are obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfilment.” (129). While we look to all governments, including our own, to treat refugees and detainees with the respect they deserve, they should also be seeking, right now, new regional and international agreements to recognise and respond to contemporary migration needs and those to come as climate change wreaks havoc with locational liveability and food production.

Adrian Foley | 30 June 2021  

One of the best ever bishops in the Australian Catholic Church, bar none, was the saintly and well loved Malta born Joseph Grech of Sandhurst (Bendigo), who sadly died prematurely in office. That was real integration. He was in the tent and widely respected by everyone. Unlike many 'nativist' locally born or exclusivist migrants he was for everyone. As the song 'Flower of Scotland' (the Scottish Rugby anthem) goes, we will not see his likes again. Or very rarely. It was a pity Mannix, that increasingly irrelevant cultural warrior, did not stand aside for the decent and pragmatic Justin Symonds, born in Australia to Irish teachers, educated within the state system, finishing off at Sydney High School. Despite fulminations from the pulpit by the local bigots, places like SHS were far from dens of vice and iniquity. They just wanted to maintain power in their own baliwick. Fr Bob Maguire, Old Boy of the excellent CBC St Kilda, believes in integrated schooling. Our hierarchy need to step up to the plate. By and large, they don't. You are an exception, Bishop!

Edward Fido | 02 July 2021  

Olga Popovsky! Edward, you do have a hitherto hidden camp turn of phrase, reminiscent of my dearest friend and favourite sparring partner (before Roy came along ;), the mercurial Greg Jordan SJ. He and I respectively strutted the G&S stage as the Fairy Queen and Strephon, her 'half-a-fairy' son ('From the waist downwards!') in a production of 'Iolanthe'. SUCH gender-bending fun, amidst our resolute theological disagreement; but what a wonderful, understanding and forgiving confessor Greg was! Knowing about your gorgeous Rita, I am reminded of an uncle, also Edward, and my mother's favourite brother, killed in the Japanese bombing of Rangoon. By all accounts, Edward was an excellent tenor, whose thrilling performances with the Windsor Operatic Society were regularly broadcast over All India Radio in the pre-War, pre-Independence era. I attach for you one of Eddie's favourite songs, 'Rio Rita', to play, perhaps sing and maybe even dance to, with your darling wife. Richard Crooks, from the Met, provides this lovely rendition, which I think would eminently suit a shimmy around the Dementia Ward and, God willing, restore a memory or two. I'd imagine, from your time in India, that you'd also know of Bollywood's pre-war links with Hollywood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5_2Vj1mkW0

Michael Furtado | 02 July 2021  

No-one in his or her senses, or of good will, would deny the crucial importance of Pope Francis's and Bishop Vincent Long's call to a more welcoming, fraternal world. Persuading this same world that Christ is necessary for its accomplishment remains the Church's challenge, over two centuries after the French Revolution's rousing cry of "Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!" Benedict XVI was under no illusion of the task before the Christian community of believers in identifying postmodernity's increasingly aggressive and orchestrated "Christophobia".

John RD | 04 July 2021  

Would that John RD knew even the slightest thing about postmodernism and its links with religion and theology. Even sadder to say - for that is regrettably what they are - the main phobias he demonstrates relate to everything that commenced with what is regarded as the modern period. Were we to turn back the clock to his conception of the Universe, even Pope Benedict's mellow conservatism wouldn't get a look in. I recommend that John starts with a reading list the first item on which should be at least one book by Judith Butler, who is an observant Jew. To have such a reactionary masquerading his jaundiced views so persistently in what is increasingly regarded as an eminent Jesuit liberal arts, theology and public policy journal with a highly educated readership is, in my view, a parody, an embarrassment and a tragedy, as well as the kind of sweet humiliation, mortification and penance that can only be good for the soul and, given its importance, nothing else.

Michael Furtado | 05 July 2021