Regional Jesuit chief backs Aquino on Australian refugee deal

Father Mark Raper says it's time Canberra developed 'realistic and generous' refugee policies
Regional Jesuit chief backs Aquino on Australian refugee deal

Rohingya migrants retrieve food supplies after jumping from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in May. (Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP)

The leader of the Jesuits in the Asia Pacific region has backed a decision by Philippines President Benigno Aquino to reconsider a AU$150m deal with Australia for resettling refugees now in detention on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, raising concerns about counseling and community support.

On Oct. 27, Aquino told media in Manila that his government was still studying the possibility of hosting refugees from Australia, a deal first reported by ucanews.com earlier this month.

"There is no agreement," Aquino told members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, adding that a proposal by the Australian government is still being "seriously" considered.

Father Mark Raper, president of the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific and an Australian, said that the prospect of release from Manus Island incarceration would be welcome not only for the roughly 1,000 men unjustly imprisoned there, but also welcome for all who favor that Australia cease its punitive and counterproductive policy of offshore detention.

"One can feel profoundly for those who are cruelly and inhumanely detained. All would surely rejoice if they were released. Yet Philippine President Benigno Aquino is well advised to think twice about receiving the detainees," Father Raper, who formerly headed the Jesuit Refugee Service in Asia in the 1980s and globally in the 1990s, told ucanews.com

He added if the whole population from Manus were mandatorily moved to the Philippines, this cannot be a long-term resolution. That may not trouble the Australian government, which since the beginning has never sought anything but short-term arrangements, spending a fortune to paint itself more and more inextricably into a very tight corner with reality-denying asylum policies.

Father Raper also expressed concern that since the Philippine government was in some confusion with elections looming, it is not at all sure that there would be the political will to deliver on any commitment taken now.

 

'There are limitations'

Ucanews.com understands that Aquino originally rejected the deal proposed by Australia outright, which included refugee resettlement in the Philippines. But he was urged to reconsider after Australia took the extraordinary step of taking the matter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

The office for the Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton ignored several requests for comment from ucanews.com.

"The Philippines can hardly provide the counseling and community support that these people will now need," Father Raper said. "Many of the prisoners are severely traumatized by their prolonged incarceration.

"Some 200 are said to have sewn their lips together at different times. As with the failed proposal to relocate the prisoners to Cambodia, also at an astronomical cost, there will be few who will want to stay.   

"While temporary reception facilities could be found, the new arrivals must be offered freedom of movement, work and housing within the Philippines. Local integration will be attractive for the very few whose goal is long-term resettlement in a place that their families will also be welcome."

Aquino said the Philippines is supposed to be a "transit point" for refugees.

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"There are limitations as to how far we can assist," he told reporters.

"There was a general agreement that [the refugees] would move on to third countries," Aquino added.

The Philippine president said Australia has to "recognize that we do have a significantly bigger population than they do."

"We have challenges in meeting the needs of our people right now. We would want to assist but there are limitations," Aquino said.

He added that the Philippines does "not have the capacity at this point in time to afford permanent residency" to refugees.

The Philippines is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the only country in the region apart from Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia to do so.

Father Raper said the country's reputation "will not be enhanced by conniving with Australia to further debase the convention and the international cooperation it requires."

"The world is facing a massive challenge today with the forced displacement of millions of people," he said. "Australia has an obligation to respond to this together with other countries, especially with those in our near region. I am aghast to think that it would consider paying other nations to clean up a mess it has created. 

"It is time that Australia joined the world intelligently, creatively and openly in developing a package of policies that are realistic, generous, just and which can respond appropriately to the present and future movements of people seeking safety. 

"Australia has an obligation to receive and care for the people who rightfully come to it seeking help and whom it has damaged by depriving them of their liberty."

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