PETER BUGDEN | The Catholic Leader
BRISBANE - A senior priest in Papua New Guinea has turned to Australia seeking compassion for refugees and asylum seekers languishing in our nation’s off-shore detention system.
Fr Giorgio Licini, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG and Solomon Islands, has been in Australia in recent weeks pressing the case for an end to what he calls “a humanitarian crisis”.
Fr Licini has called for the Australian government to resolve the situation on humanitarian grounds.
Speaking as a missionary from PNG – a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions – and as a church man, Fr Licini said “we don’t necessarily question the policies of government in terms of border protection … but in this specific case I would say, see now the humanitarian crisis”.
“Besides what was decided in the past, done in the past, the policies of the past – stopping the boats or whatever – see that, for these few hundred people left (in the off-shore detention system) and those already transferred (to Australia for health treatment), it is a humanitarian issue, it is a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
“Look at it from that point of view and solve it from that point of view.
“As a general teaching I would say try to see the persons behind the policies.
“You may have a policy of stopping the boats, which may not actually be according to international law, but if you want me to understand it I’ll try to understand it because stopping the boats means also stopping deaths at sea.”
Fr Licini said he understood the Australian government’s aim of preventing deaths at sea as a result of asylum seekers drowning.
“I remember in 2011-12, (boat-loads of asylum seekers) were coming to Christmas Island; they were sinking and people were dying,” he said.
“That also is not right.
“But, in any case, see the persons behind the policies. You should make policies that do not destroy persons….
“Don’t put up a policy that destroys persons, (and) sacrifices 100, 200, 1000 people in order to avoid the coming of 10,000 or 20,000.
“It’s not moral, and they do not deserve it. Why should they be the victims?
“Put yourself in their shoes or think of them as your children.”
In February, Fr Licini wrote to then PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill calling for the closure of the Manus Island detention centre.
“It is with heavy heart and an intense sense of sadness that I report to you on my recent visits to Lorengau town in Manus Island and to the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby,” he wrote.
“At the two locations, I had the heartbreaking experience of making contact with an appalling level of desperation in which refugees and asylum seekers live.
“My concern is … about their fast deteriorating health status, which is making now acts of self-harm and attempted suicide a daily occurrence: three cases only for the two days I was in Manus on 20-22 January.”
Fr Licini called on the prime minister to take a look for himself at the PIH’s intensive care unit.
“You will meet about 20 refugees and asylum seekers in a deplorable state of mental health compounded with other ailments affecting their cardiac and respiratory system, kidney failure, fractured bones, etc,” he wrote.
Fr Licini appealed to the PNG prime minister to give a deadline to the authorities in Canberra for the removal of all refugees and asylum seekers from the country.
He said the situation had worsened since then, and the despair and poor health of the asylum seekers was “even more visible” in four main locations in Port Moresby accommodating the most severely ill.
“Uncertainty in life, when it is prolonged that way, leads to people being discouraged, self-harming, trying to kill themselves, desperate, depressed,” Fr Licini said.
“And that is the saddest part, because for sure they arrived in Manus basically healthy.
“They may have had some scars because some were coming from war-torn places, and so on, but basically when they were sent to Manus they were healthy, and when they were transferred to Australia they were broken, and many of them with serious mental health problems that will never recover.
“That is really the dark side of this off-shore processing centre.”
It showed the destructive nature of indefinite detention, Fr Licini said.
“You cannot keep people in those conditions indefinitely … You destroy them, and who allows you to destroy people?” he said. “There is no call for sentencing people to destruction.
“You may send people to life in prison but for a good reason, of course, proven by the courts … but no court, no state, no executive can sentence people to mental destruction or health destruction …
“We are not in war; nobody declared war on Australia.…”