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These Nuns Say They'll House Asylum-Seekers If Offshore Camps Are Closed


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Catholic Sisters have written to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull asking him to close the "buckets of misery prison camps" on Manus Island and Nauru and bring the detainees to Australia.


The letter, signed by 180 Sisters from Catholic communities across the country, calls on Malcolm Turnbull to grant a one-off amnesty to the under-2,000 people living in offshore detention camps and resettle them in Australia.

“We want the government to provide amnesty for the 254 men who are on Manus Island, that would mean they could come to Australia on protection visas," Sister Monica Cavanagh, the congregation leader of the Sisters of St Joseph, told BuzzFeed News.

Sister Cavanagh wants the government to close the camps and divert the $1.2 billion it spends running Nauru and Manus Island to support services for onshore processing in Australia.

Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce executive officer Misha Coleman says the church decided to speak up because the leaked Nauru files published by Guardian Australia had haunting similarities to the findings of the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

"The churches have been given direct first hand reports of sexual abuse and assault for more than two years now and we have been giving the details to the government," Coleman told BuzzFeed News.

"We must not stand by again when we know children are being abused and sexually assaulted. We will not be quiet and voiceless again."

Australia's only saint, Mary MacKillop, whose body is entombed in the St Joseph's convent, inspired Sister Cavanagh to speak out about her concerns of the government's treatment of people in detention camps.

"Mary MacKillop was a person who always worked for the rights of people, particularly people treated unfairly," she said. "She had a great dedication to respecting the dignity of all and providing welcome to all."

Australian Human Rights Commission

St Josephs is one of 115 church groups in Australia that formally offered sanctuary and protection to asylum-seekers at the start of the year and say they'd do the same again if detainees from Manus and Nauru are brought to Australia.

But the organisation believes church sanctuary should be a last resort, and instead the detainees should be processed in a similar fashion to the 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia has welcomed.

Western Australian premier Colin Barnett said his state would also be prepared to resettle asylum-seeker families from Nauru if the federal government closes that centre and allows detainees to come to Australia.

"We would certainly accommodate a number of people in Western Australia and we'd certainly support them as a state government," Barnett said on Wednesday.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton confirmed on Wednesday that the Australian government had reached an agreement with Papua New Guinea to close the Manus Island camp.

Eoin Blackwell / AAPIMAGE

There are still no details as to how or when Manus will be shut down, or where (other than "not in Australia") the 854 asylum-seekers detained in the processing centre will be resettled.

“Our position, confirmed again today with PNG, is that no one from Manus Island Regional Processing Centre will ever be settled in Australia,” Dutton said.

He said the men will be transitioned into the PNG community, returned to their countries of origin, or possibly sent to a third country.

The Australian government will provide the PNG government an undisclosed but “substantial” amount to assist in the transition process, although Dutton admitted during an ABC radio interview on Thursday that fewer than 20 of the 850 asylum seekers held on Manus have voluntarily resettled in PNG so far.

Dutton suggested the government could in future use new laws to block resettled refugees from travelling to Australia on PNG passports.

He has always maintained the men were the responsibility of PNG as Australia had paid PNG “a lot of money” to house them.

Sister Cavanagh doesn't accept the argument that it’s impossible to bring people to Australia without the people-smuggling trade restarting.

“We also don’t accept that Australia has to turn people seeking asylum back to the countries from which they’ve fled in order to have a sound policy framework," she said.

Jon Faulkner / AAPIMAGE

"Why does a 16-year-old girl – who is from Afghanistan, who is about to have a female circumcision – why can't she apply to do her high school through a study entrance route instead of being put into a box of 'asylum'?" Cavanagh said. "Why does she have to go through this buckets of misery prison camp instead of coming to Australia?"

Coleman, of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, says Australia is suffering from a "lack of leadership" by the two major parties in considering alternative solutions for processing and housing refugees.

The taskforce wants a bipartisan summit where refugee policy can be debated without political ideology, she said.

"We need a Summit of Solutions now to force our leaders to put safety above politics," Coleman said.

Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

Contact Alice Workman at

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