Australian church leaders say they will offer sanctuary to asylum seekers facing removal to a remote Pacific camp, vowing to defy the government’s harsh immigration rules.
The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, said on Thursday that he was prepared to face charges of obstruction by attempting to prevent authorities from entering facilities such as St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane to arrest refugees.
The refugees, who were brought to Australia from Nauru mostly for medical reasons, number more than 260 and include 37 babies born in the country and 54 other children, advocates said.
According to Catt, the churches were reinventing the “ancient concept of sanctuary” by opening facilities to the asylum seekers.
Catt told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the concept of sanctuary was not tested under law, “but my hunch is that if the authorities chose to enter the church and take people away, it would probably be a legal action”.
He added: “So this is really a moral stand and it wouldn’t be a good look, I don’t think, for someone to enter a church and to drag people away.”
Asylum seekers, including children, who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they can be imprisoned indefinitely while refugee applications are processed.
They are blocked from being resettled in Australia – even if the country assesses them to be refugees.
However, many of the asylum seekers brought to Australia from Nauru are being held at Wickham Point, a secure facility near Darwin in northern Australia, raising questions about how they would reach churches in Brisbane or elsewhere.
The High Court ruled on Wednesday that the imprisonment of asylum-seekers on Nauru did not breach domestic law, meaning that the refugees could be returned there in the coming days.
Across Australia, thousands of people protested on Thursday against the possible transfer, carrying signs reading “[Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull #LetThemStay”.
Misha Coleman, of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, admitted that it would be difficult to move the imprisoned asylum seekers to the sanctuaries, but said that if they were, the cases would be managed “in a very sort of confidential way”.
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