From the Archbishop

Tragic irony of Australia's treatment of refugees


November 19 2018The suffering of so many civilian non-combatants and displaced people during the Second World War and its aftermath confronted a world weary of destruction and conflict as it looked towards the future in 1945. On 10 December, many will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

It may seem axiomatic to us that human rights are inherent and absolute but the real-life experience of the decades before 1948 showed this was not so. Genocidal destruction on the basis of race, religion or class had marked the rise of Nazi, Fascist and Communist totalitarian regimes. One of the practical sources of public policy that culminated in the Declaration was the so-called Atlantic Charter forged by Roosevelt and Churchill on board the British battleship Prince of Wales in August 1941 just off the Canadian coast.

The Atlantic Charter arose out of Churchill’s urgent need to sway the United States to give material support for the British war effort and from Roosevelt’s requirement that the aims of the war be articulated, especially the principles that would underlie the rebuilding of society after its conclusion. It was for some contemporary commentators as if Roosevelt’s New Deal was going to shape the entire world after the war.

Australia was one of the eight countries tasked with the drafting of the Declaration, and Dr Herbert Vere ‘Doc’ Evatt was highly influential in the shape of the final draft. He was also to preside at the Assembly when it was adopted.

It is a tragic irony that a country like ours, with such a proud history of asserting the moral truth contained in the Declaration, is responsible for the continued suffering and despair of the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. The bipartisan support for the current policies is a cause for profound dissatisfaction for many of us.

This is a matter that we have been vocal about as a Diocese. In 2014 Synod members gathered on the Cathedral pavement for a photo under what was then the new banner that proclaimed ‘Let’s make refugees fully welcome’. This was an expression of our solidarity with refugees who have found a home here in Australia, those who face an uncertain future in transit countries as well as those stranded in offshore detention.

How sad that four more years have passed with no meaningful change to the prospects of the men on Manus Island and families on Nauru. Our 2018 Synod, only weeks ago, resolved to advocate for the freedom of the children on Nauru.

I think that we have an excellent opportunity to use the occasion of this 70th anniversary to write to our local members of parliament to remind them of the pioneering and even prophetic role our country played in the bringing the Declaration before the UN General Assembly. We must not be silent when suffering continues to happen in our name.

It is time for our federal parliament to put aside the wedge arguments and move decisively to bring the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru to Australia. Sunday, 9 December, is a good time for us to remember this anniversary with thankfulness, and a time to continue in our intercessions for speedy outcome to this drawn-out impasse.

Read more from Dr Philip Freier, Anglican Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne, at