​Citizenship, while important, should not trump human rights in Australia’s treatment of refugees, Archbishop Philip Freier has declared.

Dr Freier said there was “a certain exceptionalism” about Australian attitudes that because Australia had no land borders, it should not be exposed to the realities of people movements and turmoil that existed in other parts of the world.

He said there was “really a different ethical base” underneath recent remarks by the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, that most of the people arriving on boats in recent times were not refugees but economic migrants, and that a real problem lay with the definitions applied by Australian tribunals when assessing arrivals.

“I can understand that the spike in numbers is very difficult for the Government to manage and I think the policies the Government puts in place quickly become exhausted and can’t cope with any extra capacity,” Dr Freier said during a panel discussion on asylum seekers on ABC Radio’s Sunday Nights program, hosted by John Cleary, on 30 June.

The Archbishop referred to a recent Breakfast Conversation he hosted on the issue in Federation Square, saying that the people there “would have had a view very different to the one that Bob Carr has espoused”.

“People were saying in that group that there is a strong moral imperative, and a strong desire that they have, to re-frame the national discourse and to have a very different way of speaking about people who are asylum seekers, a different way of speaking about people who come to Australia on boats and an entirely different way of welcoming them…,” Dr Freier said.

“There’s a kind of an Australian exceptionalism that not having a land border, we don’t expect that we’re going to be exposed to the kind of realities of the people movements… that places like Lebanon was experiencing, Syria was experiencing with a lot of Iraqi Christian refugees until they’ve been plunged back into chaos in their civil war and many other places and nations near the Mediterranean simply because of their proximity to North Africa are getting lots of people arriving on boats with far greater frequency than we are. So we’ve got a certain exceptionalism in Australia that we should be different and not exposed to the turmoil that exists in the world. The world is in turmoil.

“… It’s a very disturbing situation when we decide to deprive people of liberty, to treat them with less compassion than we treat other people. And while citizenship is an important notion, it’s not a notion that trumps human rights.”

Archbishop Freier, asked whether the Refugees Convention was outdated, said it had emerged from the awful situations leading up to and during World War II when Jewish refugees trying the escape the Holocaust were stateless and not being accepted in any ports, “and I think the international community saw the primary inhumanity in that situation and so the Refugees Convention was really brought into being to face a situation which is still an enduring reality”.

“It would be an appalling situation for people simply to be stateless and to have to make the best they could endure in life in some place, having no place where they had any hope or any place to settle,” he said. “So I think any argument… that the Refugees Convention is out-of-date or inappropriate, is quite wrong. It actually touches on a profound moral discovery around the circumstances of the Holocaust and the period, events before, during and after the Second World War that has been properly attended to by the international community. (The Convention) is one we should hold strongly to and not seek to minimise or attenuate its effect.”




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