The St Vincent de Paul Society is united across Australia in its mission to welcome and assist asylum seekers who arrive by any means, including by boat. Refugee advocate Tim McKenna is a member of the Caritas Christi Conference, which leads the Society’s support to refugees and asylum seekers in the Canberra Goulburn region. He is also a member of the national Vincentian Refugee Network.
Tim travelled to Manus Island in April, where he met with men who expressed fears for their safety and future, ahead of the island’s detention centre closing in October.
At a time when the federal government has little compassion for asylum seekers, McKenna says it is more important than ever for the Society to remain true to its Christian values and the teachings of the Pope when addressing the mistreatment of desperate people who come to Australian waters by boat.
While the Catholic Bishops’ statement on asylum seekers in 2015 was absolutely clear in rejecting arbitrary and long-term detention, McKenna knows of some Catholic parishes that support the type of harsh border protection and ‘stopping deaths at sea’ rhetoric delivered by Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton.
‘There are many people who are good Catholics but who hold the view that it is OK—because we need to protect our borders or to save people’s lives—to treat innocent people in a bad way, including through indefinite detention,’ he says.
‘If that is the case, we need to acknowledge it. But if there are people being persecuted by the Australian government, wherever that is occurring, it is the role of the Society in Australia to stand by them.’
Aside from issuing statements calling for asylum seekers on Manus Island and at Nauru to be brought to Australia, the Society continues to run a wide range of programs for those on Australian soil including tutoring, settlement assistance of all varieties, material aid, housing, white goods, legal assistance, visits to detention centres and much more.
Although the Society has a presence in Papua New Guinea, McKenna wonders if the Society’s members in Australia could further assist asylum seekers and refugees, by regularly visiting them overseas at places like Manus Island.
In an ideal world, McKenna says processing centres established in our region would be maintained by the UNHCR. That way, he says, there would be a greater likelihood of the claims of asylum seekers being processed faster and most justly. There could also be the possibility of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia becoming a partner organisation, allowing for a fairer and more compassionate approach to those seeking safety within our shores.