Australia's response to asylum seekers continues to generate heated debate and a wide range of views. When the decision to recommence regional off shore processing was announced, The Salvation Army offered to provide welfare and support services to the asylum seekers transferred to Nauru and Manus Island, despite its public opposition to this policy. This decision has been criticised by some commentators such as Bruce Haigh, but it has always been the mission of The Salvation Army to serve in places where people are suffering or in distress.
Mr Haigh praises The Salvation Army for its presence and support of Australian troops during the war, yet fails to recognise that it is the same passion and motivation that leads our organisation to work with asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. Where there is suffering you will find The Salvation Army, whether it is caused by a cyclone, war, poverty, illness or otherwise. We are not an organisation that just demonstrates and debates and discusses. Salvos have always been a people of action, who have been described as " Christianity with its sleeves rolled up." Where people are suffering we are compelled to go.
Our presence on Nauru or Manus Island does not mean that we have endorsed this policy or given it "legitimacy", just as our presence on the front line, serving tea and coffee and offering emotional support to our troops in times of war does not mean we support war or violence, but we cannot walk away from the vulnerable and do nothing.
We have spoken clearly and publicly about our opposition to off shore processing, but as Mr Haigh knows, the implementation of off shore processing was inevitable. It was recommended by the Expert Panel and endorsed by both major political parties. Facilities were being built, and people were being prepared for transfer. Who was best placed to provide humanitarian support and care to these people? A security firm? A facilities management company? Or an organisation that brings to this task over a century of experience and skill in working with distressed, vulnerable and marginalised people, and boundless amounts of faith, hope and love. Our two island managers for Nauru and Manus Island – of which I am one - have well over 50 years' combined experience running humanitarian services and working with refugees and asylum seekers in a number of countries.
We also understand Mr Haigh's point that future generations may well look back on this policy and see it, like the removal of aboriginal children and the care of children in large institutions, as flawed and inappropriate. But concerns for our future reputation should not prevent us now from responding to the urgent need to bring some compassion and humanity to a tough policy. We are content to let the future judge our actions and response.
Mr Haigh also claims that The Salvation Army is not noted for its involvement in the welfare of asylum seekers. This is incorrect. Salvation Army officers have been visiting and supporting asylum seekers in mainland detention centres for many years. We also provide free immigration and legal advice to asylum seekers and others in Australia. The Salvation Army has also conducted holiday programs for families and children in mainland detention centres and is a contracted provider of Community Detention, supporting vulnerable asylum seekers placed in the community with housing and casework services. We know these people well, and understand their journeys, their aspirations and the challenges of their situations.
Mr Haigh 's claim that we have defended conditions on Nauru is also inaccurate. The Salvation Army has supported and endorsed the comments made by Amnesty International and the recent UNHRC report. We recognise that conditions are harsh, and any comments that could be considered as "defending conditions" were simply truthful answers to questions regarding the adequacy of food and water. Not all advocacy happens through the media. The Salvation Army is continually advocating directly to the government for improvement in facilities and conditions, and we have seen positive responses. As of December 17th I appeared to give my testimony to a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Ultimately everyone has to decide what response they will make to an issue they feel strongly about. Some will write to their local MP or a send a letter or article to a newspaper and express their views, some will wave placards and loudly demonstrate their feelings, some will express their opinions through the ballot box, and a few might choose to leave their own comfortable world to stand and work with the people they claim to care so passionately about. That is a costly choice. You are in danger of being misunderstood. You must live in the same environment and endure the same conditions as those who you serve. This is the choice The Salvation Army has made.
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