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Bishop appeals to Govt on behalf of genuine refugees on Tampa

The Chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Committee for Migrants and Refugees, Bishop Patrick Dougherty, yesterday expressed great distress that the Norwegian ship Tampa has been refused entry to Australia.

He said that "many" of the asylum seekers on the ship are "almost certainly are fleeing persecution in their countries, and have valid claims on Australia's protection".

Acknowledging its readiness to provide considerable humanitarian aid to the stranded ship, Bishop Dougherty sympathised with the difficulties faced by the Australian Government. But he appealed to it to reconsider whether the lives of people, particularly those fleeing persecution, should be put at risk in order to send a message of deterrence to future asylum seekers.

"I note that many Australians who have expressed their views are in favour of the decision to refuse entry to the Tampa", Bishop Dougherty said. "But would they feel the same if they accepted that many of those on board were almost certainly fleeing persecution and seeking Australia's protection?"

He emphasised that the principles of truth, justice and compassion do not permit "an unproven presumption that those on board the Tampa are people who are simply seeking an easy entry to Australia".

Bishop Dougherty quoted the charter of rights of displaced people prepared last year in Rome. The first right in the charter asserts 'that displaced people [should] not be turned back at the borders of the country where they seek protection'.

Meanwhile Bishop William Morris, acting Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, challenged the Federal Government to put political expedience aside and exercise some leadership in the promotion of humanitarian principles.

"There is an impression that the Australian people overwhelmingly support the tough stand taken by the government and supported by the opposition," he said. "Even if this is true, it is time for the major parties to lead the country by showing generosity of spirit and true humanitarian principles towards these fellow human beings."

On behalf of the Council, Bishop Morris called for the "immediate rescue of the people on the Tampa and for an international, concerted effort to solve the extremely complex situation of asylum seekers in our area, always keeping humanitarian principles in the forefront".