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    The letter to Tony Abbott on asylum seekers

    By Sydney Morning Herald 
    November 06, 2013 


    Dear Prime Minister,

    On behalf of the many Australians who believe in the importance of protecting people fleeing persecution, we write to voice our objection to the Australian Government’s recent decision to refer to asylum seekers who enter Australia by boat as “illegal maritime arrivals”.

    You and members of your Cabinet are well aware that seeking asylum is not illegal under Australian or international law. Article 31 of the Refugee Convention makes it clear that contracting states, including Australia, must not impose penalties on people who arrive without authorisation to seek refugee protection. This Article recognises that very few of the world’s refugees get the opportunity to cross borders with prior permission and that rules which regulate normal migration flows must be suspended where those crossing the border believe they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

    The Refugee Convention was drafted in the aftermath of World War II as the world reflected in horror on the fate of people who had their paths blocked as they attempted to flee Nazi persecution in Europe. The fundamental principles of the Refugee Convention are as important today as they were when drafted in 1951. Nations which value freedom must ensure that those fearing persecution have the opportunity to get to a place of safety and have their cases for protection considered fairly.

    When you were sworn in as Prime Minister, it was pleasing to hear you speak about your plans to govern for all Australians, to work for the good of the nation and to do your best not to leave anyone behind. You would be well aware, from your previous experience as a Minister, that the Australian community’s expectations of a Government are far higher than its expectations of an Opposition. A Government’s leadership – whether positive or negative –has a profound impact on the nation.

    While some people may believe there is political value in engaging in negative rhetoric about asylum seekers arriving without valid visas, the long-term implications of this approach must be considered very carefully. We cannot see how the Government’s use of harsher rhetoric against people seeking asylum will assist Australia to remain a cohesive and diverse nation.

    Like many Australians, we have grave concerns that legitimising the use of “illegal” in this context may incite fear and hatred in the community. Already aware of a disturbing number of acts of violence against asylum seekers this year, we are worried by the prospect of intolerant elements of Australian society being emboldened to increase their bullying of vulnerable new arrivals.

    We are particularly concerned to hear that the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection instructed his Department to tell staff and contractors to use the term “illegal maritime arrivals” when referring to asylum seekers who arrived by boat. It is deeply disturbing that people of good conscience should be required, for political purposes, to use such dehumanising language.

    While your Government continues to take a tougher line against asylum seekers, we note a shift in sentiment in Europe towards people fleeing by boat, illustrated by the decision of the Italian Government to declare a national day of mourning after the recent tragic loss of 366 lives at sea. We hope this small shift grows, reversing the strong trend over the past decade of wealthier nations pushing responsibility for the protection of refugees back to poorer nations. Pope Francis succinctly described this phenomenon when he visited Lampedusa in July and warned of a culture of comfort in which we become deaf to the cries of the suffering and part of a “globalisation of indifference”.

    The Australian Government does have a choice. It can listen to the most strident voices in Australian society and implement its policies in a harsh and punitive manner or it can work towards its objectives in ways that place a much higher value on cooperation, diplomacy, respect and honesty. We ask you, for the sake of highly vulnerable people and for the good of our nation, to take the better path.

    This letter is supported by the following organisations:

    Refugee Council of Australia (letter coordinator)
    ACT Council of Social Service Inc
    ActionAid Australia
    Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Australia Ltd
    Anglicare NT
    ANGLICARE Sydney
    Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS)
    Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
    Asylum Seekers Centre of NSW
    Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office
    Australian Catholic Social Justice Council
    Australian Council of Social Service
    Australian Jewish Democratic Society
    Australian Lawyers for Human Rights
    Australian Lutheran World Service
    Australian National Committee on Refugee Women
    Australian Refugee Association Inc
    Australia-Tamil Solidarity
    Ballarat A.R.A. Circle of Friends
    Ballarat Catholic Diocesan Social Justice Commission
    Ballarat Community Health
    Balmain for Refugees
    Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group
    B’nai B’rith Australia / New Zealand
    Border Crossing Observatory
    Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation
    Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project
    Brisbane Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Network
    Buddies Refugee Support Group, Sunshine Coast
    Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia
    Canberra Refugee Support
    CASE for Refugees
    Castlemaine Rural Australians for Refugees
    Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, Office of Justice and Peace
    Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, Justice and Peace Office
    Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, Social Justice Council
    Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, Social Justice Office
    Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba, Social Justice Commission
    Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Archdiocese of Brisbane
    Catholic Religious Australia
    Catholic Social Services Australia
    Centacare Catholic Family Services, Adelaide
    Central Victorian Refugee Support Network
    Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University
    Centre for Refugee Research, University of NSW
    Christian Brothers Tasmania
    Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees (CARAD)
    Communify Queensland
    Companion House Assisting Survivors of Torture and Trauma
    Darwin Asylum Seekers’ Support and Advocacy Network
    Doctors for Refugees
    Edmund Rice Centre, Sydney
    Edmund Rice Network Tasmania
    Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria
    Faithful Companions of Jesus Sisters, Province of Asia-Australia
    Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia
    Footscray Community Legal Centre
    Friends of the Earth Australia
    Geelong Refugee Action and Information Network
    God’s Dwelling Place Bethany City Church
    Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand
    Horn of Africa Relief and Development Agency
    House of Welcome Ballarat
    Humanitarian Crisis Hub
    Humanitarian Research Partners
    Indo-China Refugee Association
    Indooroopilly Uniting Church
    Institute of Sisters of Mercy, Australia and Papua New Guinea
    International Commission of Jurists Australia
    International Society For Human Rights Australia Inc
    Islamic Council of Victoria
    Jesuit Refugee Service Australia
    Jesuit Social Services
    Jewish Aid Australia
    Kommonground Inc
    Lentara UnitingCare Asylum Seeker Program
    Liverpool Women’s Health Centre
    Lutheran Church of Australia
    Lutheran Community Care SA & NT
    Marist Sisters
    Melaleuca Refugee Centre Torture and Trauma Survivors Service of the NT
    Melbourne Zen Group
    Mercy Refugee Services (Mercy Works Ltd)
    Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA)
    Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
    NSW Council for Civil Liberties
    NSW Council of Social Service
    NSW Teachers Federation
    NT Council of Social Service
    Oxfam Australia
    Pax Christi Australia
    Pax Christi Australia (NSW Branch)
    Pax Christi Queensland
    Pax Christi Victoria
    Peace and Social Justice Network, Victoria Regional Meeting, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
    Presentation People for Justice, Ballina
    Presentation Sisters in Western Australia
    Presentation Sisters Lismore
    Presentation Sisters Queensland
    Queenscliff Rural Australians for Refugees
    Refugee Advice and Casework Service
    Refugee Advocacy Network
    Rural Australians for Refugees, Bendigo
    Rural Australians for Refugees, Daylesford and District
    Sanctuary Australia Foundation
    SCALES Community Legal Centre
    Settlement Council of Australia
    Sisters of Charity of Australia
    Sisters of Mercy, Brisbane Congregation
    Sisters of the Good Samaritan
    Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
    Sophia’s Spring, Uniting Church, East Brunswick
    South Australian Council of Social Service
    South Australian Refugee Health Network
    St Anthony’s Family Care
    St Vincent de Paul Society, National Council of Australia
    Surf Coast Rural Australians for Refugees
    Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS)
    Sydney Multicultural Community Services
    Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support
    Tasmanian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission
    Tasmanian Council of Social Service
    Townsville Multicultural Support Group
    Union of Australian Women Victoria
    Uniting Church in Australia, Northern Synod
    Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod
    Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania
    Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Western Australia
    Uniting Church SA
    Uniting Justice Australia
    Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE)
    Welcome to Australia
    Western Australian Council of Social Service
    Western Sydney Community Forum
    Wyndham Community and Education Centre
    Wyndham Legal Service

    A woman holds a poster during a rally in support of asylum seekers in central Sydney July 20, 2013 (REUTERS/Munoz).