Urgent support call for asylum seekers

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Refugees walk to board Pope Francis’ plane to Rome at the international airport in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece in 2018. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

Catholic leaders urged PM to provide safety net

Catholic leaders from across the country have called on the Federal Government to provide urgent support to temporary visa holders and the release of asylum seekers from detention, saying they are at unacceptable risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

On 28 April they made public the concerns they raised in a private letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other relevant decision-makers on 7 April as the Government’s response was “not substantial”.

The 44 signatories included four bishops, leaders of religious institutes, health care providers, charities and refugee advocates.

They included Catholic Religious Australia and more than a dozen heads of religious orders, Bishops Vincent Long OFM Conv, Terry Brady, Greg O’Kelly and Charles Gauci, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the chief executive officers of Catholic Health Australia, St Vincent’s Health and Cabrini Health, Caritas Australia and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

The letter thanks the Morrison Government for “showing leadership and agency in the face of this global pandemic”. However, two groups of people remain on the margins of our community and vulnerable to both the predations of the COVID-19 virus and the despair that comes with such vulnerability,” it read.

“Two groups of people remain…vulnerable to the predations of the virus”

The move comes amid rising concern about the more than 1.5 million temporary visa holders in the Australian community who cannot return home but have no access financial safety nets, Medicare or a variety of support services. The Australian Society for Infectious Disease and the Australian College of Infection Prevention are also urging the Government to release asylum seekers from detention.

Charities, hampered by dwindling numbers of volunteers due to self-isolation requirements, have seen “a surge in homelessness and destitution…a concomitant growth in people who find they cannot meet social distancing and social isolation requirements, and an increase of already sick individuals who without Medicare who are unable to seek timely health care,” the letter read.

In addition, people currently being held in detention in hotels and detention centres around the country are unable to practice social distancing and are vulnerable to contracting the virus.

Justice and Peace Promoter for the Archdiocese of Sydney Fr Peter Smith

Bishop Long, chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, commended the Tasmanian Government for giving $3 million to support migrant workers in their state. “This is not just welcome financial support, it is an act of compassion and solidarity that recognises the vulnerability of these workers and the need to protect all people affected by COVID 19 for public health reasons,” Bishop Long said.

Justice and Peace promoter for the Archdiocese of Sydney Fr Peter Smith said that temporary visa holders are members of Australian communities and congregations who have been “abandoned to their fate”.

“We need to look to Singapore to see what can happen when a wealthy, sophisticated nation cares only for their own citizens and tries to ignore all those in their country,” he said.

“This virus doesn’t recognise passport status, it devastates everyone equally.”

Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia, Carolina Gottardo, said it had delivered emergency food packages to more than 500 refugees, people seeking asylum and vulnerable migrants in the previous fortnight.

“The demand for JRS’s services including emergency relief has also increased twofold. The situation is desperate,” she said.

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