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Reflections from PNG

18 February 2020

Seven representatives from the Catholic community in Australia visited Papua New Guinea in November 2019 to listen, pray and express solidarity with men who are languishing there under Australia’s offshore detention program. Here they share their experiences of the visit, their time among the men, and their hopes for a durable solution.


Papua New Guinea has long been on the radar for advocates of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. However, this was the first time a delegation of Catholic leaders has been able to visit the country to see the situation first-hand.

‘Before I left I was talking to someone at the detention centre in Brisbane and I think 12 have recently been sent home, and from the accommodation hostel in Brisbane another 13 have been sent home. You don’t know who they are unless you visit them, so I thought it was important to come here.’
– Fr Gerry Heffernan, St Joseph and St Anthony Parish, Bracken Ridge, Brisbane.

‘I really have feelings of anger, a lot of anger and sadness. I have been working with refugees for almost 20 years. I have seen people transferred from Manus in Australia but I have never been here. And meeting these guys really meant quite a lot for me.’ – Carolina Gottardo, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.

‘Sitting and listening to them was a real privilege – it gave me almost a first-hand experience with the refugees. I am glad we could express our solidarity with them, and convey the support and prayers and good will of people of Australia even though some Australians are in favour of government policy for border protection and stopping the boats.’ – Bishop Vincent Long, Diocese of Parramatta.

Meeting and listening to the men who had been through the ordeal of Manus Island and the continued uncertainty in Port Moresby, the visitors were struck by the care they showed for one another.

‘They had a great comradery amongst themselves, always concerned for each other, and concerned for others.’ – Fr Peter Smith, Promoter of Justice and Peace, Archdiocese of Sydney.

‘The encouraging thing was seeing the enduring humanity in the asylum seekers and the refugees. It hasn’t dehumanised them but made them more deeply human and caring. Their gratitude for what little we can do is overwhelming.’ – Fr Tom McDonough CP, Catholic Religious Australia representative.

‘In spite of the six years spent in PNG, some of these men still do not know if they will be considered refugees or not. Even those who have been recognised as refugees know that title still doesn’t mean much… There seems to be both recognition of the impossibility of the situation for all who have been left here – but also an attitude that no one should be left behind. Their solidarity and mateship has been forged through bonds far stronger than any UN ratified convention or category.’ – Joshua Lourensz, Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum.

Visiting a local hospital, the delegation were able to see some of the man who were seeking transfer to Australia for treatment. The visit took place before the repeal of the Medevac legislation, which offered a pathway of hope for these men.

‘Visiting the hospital yesterday, this man was saying, “Please help me. Please help me.” I was encouraging him to eat so he would get stronger but just looking at him, I thought he was on the pathway to death… I kept thinking, people in our government look after their pets better than they are looking after these human beings who have every right to a roof over their head, nourishment and respect.’ – Sr Mary-Clare Holland OP, Catholic Religious Australia representative.

‘The Medevac transfer process has been difficult. Some have been transported to Australia for treatment, while others I spoke with have been accepted but inexplicably their transfers, sometimes for months, are delayed. Medevac is vital for getting much-needed medical treatment, but it was evident to me that this legislation alone holds no answer for their deeper ailment, which goes beyond solely physical health needs.’ – Joshua.

The group learned of the situation of the men who were indefinitely detained at Bomana Detention Centre. While they were unable to visit the centre, they conducted a prayer vigil outside.

‘We were told that many men indefinitely detained in Bomana were experiencing conditions equivalent to torture – including not getting basic food and losing weight, being unable to contact family members and having no access to medication, legal advice or visitors. These men need to be out of Bomana as a matter of urgency. They, and everyone else in PNG and Nauru, should be allowed to resume their lives, have access to safety, to appropriate healthcare and to complementary pathways.’ – Carolina.

‘Talking to one man the other day he used the word “Powerless”. They are powerless and they are dependent on who they speak to as to a way forward. I think that hope and powerlessness are held in tension. The whole waiting game kills their spirit.’ – Sr Mary-Clare.

Most of all, it was the personal stories that brought the situation home for the delegation.

‘One man was talking about the siege at Manus and everything was cut off from them. They were starving. The text messages of care from strangers was the food that helped them to survive. They are powerless, yes, but we can offer them something that is important.’ – Fr Tom.

‘I remember an Iranian asylum seeker about to be repatriated saying that he would be handcuffed and taken to prison and executed the moment he steps off the plane in Tehran… I thought that would be a very scary prospect but he was very calm. He said he wanted to go back because he did not want to place additional pressure on his family, wife and two young daughters and his parents and siblings. They have been harassed by the Iranian Government, so he thought if he went back the government might relax the harsh treatment on his family. But the more important thing was that he had felt that he had accomplished his mission. He was one of the organisers of the Manus siege and it was because of his action that the government decommissioned Manus and brought them to Moresby. He thought that by his action in Manus he had catalysed the fact of refugees to a new level where they have more chance of being resettled whereas Manus was a hell hole. There was a certain selflessness about that and I would like to highlight that personal story.’ – Bishop Vincent. 


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