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Editorial

Church's lead on asylum seekers sanctuary a game changer

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The Federal Government's Herodian stance on asylum seekers affected by a High Court decision which has cleared the way to banish almost 270 people, including 37 babies, to off-shore detention needs a serious rethink thanks to the Christian churches.

By offering sanctuary the churches have set the Government on course for an international public relations disaster in the event it holds firm to the hard line taken to date.

Will a government led by Malcolm Turnbull sign off on orders that result in police or immigration officers entering churches to drag women and babies into detention under the eyes of the world's media?

We hope not. Australia would, quite rightly, be the subject of reproach and condemnation by people from around the world if this was to occur.

The issue, in a nutshell, is that there are currently almost 270 people on the Australian mainland who immigration authorities have reluctantly allowed in to access medical treatment due to the paucity of the facilities available on Nauru and Manus Island.

That 270 include 37 babies, many of whom drew their first breaths on the Australian mainland.

These people have, until this week, been in limbo pending the outcome of the High Court challenge against the legality of Australia's offshore asylum seeker processing system.

While the system, which even inquiries conducted on behalf of the Government have concluded led to children being held in conditions that caused them harm, has been credited with "stopping the boats", there have always been questions about its morality.

Those questions, regardless of the High Court's decision, remain in play and have now been highlighted by the principled stance being taken by church congregations which have, in many instances, worked closely with individual refugees concerned.

The burning question remains whether or not it is fair to subject people, including the sick, single women, and children in conditions on a par with those hardened criminals endure, simply to provide a form of deterrence to others?

While the Government has made much of the fact Nauru declared that island's facility an "open detention centre" late last year, even the High Court acknowledged the gates could be locked again at any time.

Contrary to what a succession of Australian Governments, both Labor and Coalition, have appeared to believe, the act of seeking asylum is not a crime.

It is a human right enshrined in the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees which dates back to 1951 and has its roots in the chaos and turmoil that left millions homeless and often stateless in the wake of World War II.

It is timely to note there are now apparently more refugees seeking safe places to begin their lives anew than there were after that conflict.

Coming at a time when the churches have been subject to scrutiny and criticism by a community that had begun to doubt their purpose or relevance, this stance is a refreshing reminder of what Christianity should, and frequently does, represent.

"We're a church, this is our core business," one Canberra religious leader said.

This is one instance where it is not right to render unto Caesar that which Caesar has claimed for his own.