The Director of Jesuit Refugee Service International, Fr Peter Balleis SJ, has called on Australia to live up to its reputation as a tolerant and multi-cultural nation by showing compassion to boat people, writes Catherine Marshall in Province Express.
Visiting Sydney on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of JRS, Fr Balleis said although Australia receives relatively small numbers of refugees, it is important that JRS Australia keeps their cause on the agenda, particularly on behalf of boat people.
"Something I’d like to say explicitly is that those people who risk their lives on these boats, they are the more desperate and poor. Asylum seekers don’t generally come by boat, they come through the airport. [Boat people] cannot get a plane ticket, cannot get a visa, they are desperate."
Fr Balleis said it was inhumane for the media and public commentators to portray the weakest and the poorest of people as the enemy. These people "have no other option but to flee for their lives'.
"People are stateless in Burma, in Bangladesh – what hope do they have? Sri Lanka is a defeated population; I would probably leave also if I was a Tamil. We have to stand up for them, to be there and plead for their cause. Australia has a lot of space and has always been an immigration country.
"It’s had a much more open attitude and we can build on that. If you lose it, it will send a bad signal to others. You know even from the very first moment that this country has always integrated people. So if you become closed, what can we say about [a country like] Germany which has much more of a monoculture?"
Fr Balleis said JRS was facing a new set of challenges as it entered its fourth decade.