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Refugee Week: Call for compassion and understanding

Centacare New Arrivals Program Family Support Worker Jonathon Ngor
Jonathon Ngor is a Family Support Worker with Centacare’s New Arrivals Program. Photo: Dan McAloon
By Evan Ellis
Catholic Outlook, June 2010

Refugee Week (20-26 June 2010) is a series of events that seeks to inform Australians about refugees and celebrate the positive contributions they have made to our society. It’s a reminder that refugees are people to relate to rather than an issue to be read about in the media.

Nonetheless, it comes as a time when refugees are receiving a lot of attention in the media.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has been vocal in calling for compassion, rather than political expediency, to underlie discussion about the treatment of asylum seekers.

They are echoing the ancient call in Deuteronomy where God appeals to the Israelites for compassion to refugees by pointing to a shared history: “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deut 10:19)

However, while 750,000 refugees have called Australia home since Federation, many Australians cannot recall a ‘flight from Egypt’ experience. For many of us the Parramatta River Cat, the Manly ferry or a Harbour cruise are closer realities than a desperate and perilous boat ride to Australia to escape poverty or war.

Perhaps this explains the tenor of current discussions or how, with so little fanfare, the Rudd Government was able to suspend processing of Sri Lankan claimants by three months and Afghani claimants by six months.

This effectively means that while new arrivals from these countries will continue to undergo health and security checks, once completed they will remain in detention even though under the Government’s own principles, they are entitled to be released.

There are also growing fears that Tamil refugees who fled the extremely violent end of Sri Lanka’s civil war will suffer persecution if forced to return, despite the ‘outbreak’ of peace.

Perhaps if more Australians had an experience of forced migration they might find it easier to ‘love those who are aliens’. Although, perhaps not.  Experience can embitter people as well as help them to become empathetic.

What is important is that we listen. Listen to facts, like those that tell us Australia receives only 1.6% of global applications for asylum in industrial countries. Or that an Afghani asylum seeker is four times more likely to apply for protection in Norway than Australia (source: Edmund Rice Centre).

But also we need to listen to people, particularly the stories of refugees and their experiences. This Refugee Week I invite you to look at what activities are planned around your area and spend time listening. For more ideas go to 

In the Diocese of Parramatta, Centacare Catholic Social Services runs a New Arrivals Program to assist families with social and cultural issues relating to their settlement in Australia. For more information contact the Manager, Remy Mathias tel (02) 9671 2011.

Evan Ellis is the Diocesan Social Justice Co-ordinator
Ph:02 8838 3413


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