By Nigel Tapp
Like many Australians, Misha Coleman is frustrated by the language used to describe those who take to the water to seek asylum in Australia. ‘Queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’ are terms trotted out ad nauseam by political leaders from both the right and left of the divide.
We are encouraged to accept that the only options available to deter others from treading the same path is to either lock them up offshore, forcibly send them home or simply tow their boats back out to international waters.
But it is not illegal to seek asylum and few are ‘jumping a queue’ because no such organised queue exists in most countries.
And if a worldwide queue did exist, the number of people seeking asylum would mean it would take about 170 years to get to the head of it. No one can wait that long.
Ms Coleman is the executive officer of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT). The ACRT is an independent entity supported by the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) and funded by Act for Peace, the overseas aid arm of the NCAA.
Formed in February, it was established as a resource to provide church leaders and congregations with access to factual, faith-based support material which will help them frame their response to the current debate.
The ACRT’s core group consists of leaders from seven Christian denominations and three ecumenical bodies. Ms Coleman said it was about inserting morality, ethics and a Christian voice into the debate.
“Many Christians, their churches and church organisations are trying to assist refugees, either with small acts or through long-term community projects,” she said.
“The ACRT seeks to bring all these people together to collaborate and promote agreed positions.
“Individually, we have many voices, many small contributors. But together, as a movement of people, we can provide immediate, practical and long term support to refugees and advocacy for better public policy.”
The ACRT has representatives in every state except Tasmania. Chairperson is Rev Elenie Poulos, the national director of Uniting Justice Australia. Victoria-based Anglican Bishop Philip Huggins is the vice-chair.
The ACRT had a ‘soft’ public launch during Federal Budget week in May, opposing the federal government’s decision to siphon off more foreign aid money to fund the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in Australia.
Ms Coleman said a third of the cuts made last year were to programs in countries from where many asylum seekers were fleeing.
Ironically, those programs were established to address the very issues which forced people to leave in the first place including poverty, poor health care, inadequate educational opportunities and the loss of land.
She said she believed many Australians considered the approach of both major parties to the issue was intrinsically wrong, but were not being given any ethical alternatives.
“There is no silver bullet but the clergy and parishioners I meet want more options than what they are getting at the moment – which is essentially lock them up, dump them or turn them back.
“The ACRT is promoting the protection of people: in their home countries, in transit countries, or on our shores.”
More information on the ACRT is available on its website www.acrt.com.au