By David Ahern

It is difficult not to be moved by the plight of refugees who have escaped tyranny and injustice only to find themselves locked away on Nauru in the Pacific or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Month after month rolls by and many families languish in stifling conditions, still clinging to hope of a better life in Australia.

The article in this issue on Duc, a Vietnamese asylum seeker, is an example of the difficulties people face. Also, there is the case of Abyan, a 23-year-old from Somali who told authorities that she had been raped on Nauru and was pregnant. Desperate and scared, she pleaded to be flown to Australia so she could have a medical procedure to abort the pregnancy.

Early on the Australian Government seemed to dilly dally around the issue before eventually flying Abyan to Brisbane. No sooner was she in Australia than she was whisked back to Nauru, with the government saying she had changed her mind about having an abortion. Claims she has reportedly denied, though there was a separate report that she still wanted the operation but not in Australia.

Importantly, Australia’s Catholic bishops issued a statement offering support to Abyan and condemning the “victimisation” of women in detention. The bishops have repeatedly called for the end of mandatory detention and for the closure of offshore processing centres like Nauru.

Irrespective of one’s point of view about abortion, Abyan’s predicament again highlighted the lot of the refugee more generally and the pain and suffering many endure. Pictures of fearful, sad faces, watermarked behind razor wire provide vivid imagery of desperation and forlorn hope.

Sure, successive Australian governments have proudly declared they have stopped the boats and therefore prevented more drownings at sea, but the issue of detaining people for months or years on end is harsh. Too harsh. These people are not criminals.

Australia and New Zealand don’t have much to complain about in terms of being swamped by refugees. Both countries receive a trickle compared to the tens of thousands that have flooded into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East over the past 12 months. Germany has been a shining light in that part of the world and deserves great credit for its humanitarian lead in accepting up to 800,000 refugees. It has put to shame some of its European allies, such as Hungary which has been far less welcoming.

The announcement in September to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees was a positive move by the Australian government. Likewise, the NZ government announced it would take in 750 Syrian refugees over three years. But could we be more accepting? I believe we can. God only knows the terror that many of these people have been subjected to as their homes, cities and countries have disintegrated before their eyes.

True, there are no easy answers. And yes, it is easy to criticise governments, especially from the safety of a lap top. They have many things to consider, including homeland security, which in this day-and-age is paramount. It is one of the reasons most often cited by politicians as to why individual checks take so long.

Suitability for re-settlement in countries like Australia and New Zealand must be thoroughly appraised. No one would argue with that but surely we can do better than off-shore detention centres like Manus Island and Nauru. All we are doing is prolonging the suffering and pain of innocent people.

Unfortunately recent events in Paris won’t help the argument for governments to accept more refugees and asylum seekers. Bigots and racists will use the atrocious events in France as an excuse to push western governments not to help those in need.

That is exactly what the terrorists are seeking, to divide Muslims and non-Muslims. It is nothing new. Conquer and divide has been used as a tool for centuries by rogue governments, armies and terrorists. 

That is why it is important to stand united with people of the Islamic faith; a people who have a right to live in peace with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and those who have no faith. It is all about respect. It is not simple but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t persevere.

What would Jesus make of our world if he came back today? His views would probably not have changed in 2000 years. There were big issues in his time. Jesus was often in conflict with the Pharisees, the high priests and the Roman occupiers. In his time there were thieves, murderers and robbers. There was also slavery, injustice and barbaric executions. So, has much changed?

We can only continue to follow Jesus’ example of love, kindness and forgiveness. Those very human feelings and emotions are as relevant today as they were two millennia ago.