Thousands of Australians have marked World Refugee Day (20 June) by rallying to demand an end to mandatory detention of asylum seekers - writes David Crampton.
The turnout was sparked by a backlash against a federal government plan to deport 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia as early as next week as a 'swap' for the resettlement of 4,000 refugees from Malaysian detention centres.
Australia's National Council of Churches, Catholic aid agency Caritas, the Uniting Church and 15 human rights groups released a joint statement criticising the policy.
"We call on the Australian Government and Opposition to abandon policies aimed at punishing groups of asylum seekers as an example to others and to work cooperatively on the challenging task of developing a regional framework to protect people fleeing persecution," they said.
The Uniting Church, Australia's third largest, wrote to all Federal Labor parliamentarians expressing its shock over the "cruel and punitive" plan and urged compassion.
Australia is one of a few countries that automatically incarcerate asylum seekers. Almost 8,000 people, including 1,000 children, are detained in Australian mainland and offshore detention centres, many for several years, while visa applications are processed.
Uniting Church President, the Rev Alistair Macrae, said the Malaysian swap plan is an abrogation of Australia's responsibilities under the 60-year-old United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Malaysia offers no legal domestic rights to asylum seekers.
"Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has a record of human rights abuses against asylum seekers and refugees. It is not an appropriate place for us to send traumatised and vulnerable people," he said.
"It is one of the truly low points in Australian politics that a government has made a deal to trade people like commodities," added the Rev Elenie Poulos, the church's national director for justice.
The United Nations and human rights groups have also criticised the deal, particularly as Malaysia refuses to refer to human rights in the swap agreement.
Prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside told 1,000 people gathered at the Melbourne World Refugee Day rally that the deal represented a big step backwards and was worse than the opposition's alternative of reopening a processing centre in Nauru - "only in the sense that garrotting is worse than hanging." Nauru, a small island republic in the South Pacific, signed the UN Refugee Convention on 17 June 2011.
Anglican Primate Phillip Aspinall urged the government to resist the temptation to treat asylum seekers inhumanely, and to proactively undermine people-smuggling. "It cannot be morally permissible to inflict suffering on asylum seekers in order to stop people smuggling," he told reporters.
Lay Catholic organisation St Vincent DePaul's chief executive, John Falzon, acknowledged that while the Australian government has a responsibility to protect its borders, "this does not give it the license to punish innocent people who are legitimately seeking a place of safety. There is no place for such punitive treatment, especially of children, in a progressive society."
The Malaysian plan is already the subject of a court challenge on behalf of a woman and her four-year-old son, on the grounds they should not be separated from the husband and father.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews , formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]