NSW

St Vincent's and Calvary to support to asylum seekers wanting church sanctuary

Two of Australia's largest Catholic healthcare organisations have offered medical support to hundreds of asylum seekers applying for church sanctuary as they face deportation to Nauru, saying it reflected their "sacred duty" as healing organisations.

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The Anglican Dean of Brisbane feels "so desperate" about the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation he is offering to protect them in the church and resist by closing the building.

St Vincent's Health Australia and Calvary Health Care have offered to provide medical support to any of the 267 asylum seekers facing imminent transfer to Nauru and are encouraging other hospital groups to do the same.

The chair of Calvary Health Care, John Watkins, said the plight of the asylum seekers could not be ignored.

"Let's be clear: Nauru and the conditions in which these people were detained either caused or exacerbated their ill health," he said. "Many of this group are still wrestling with their illnesses or are traumatised at the prospect of their return and need medical attention.

"Sending them back to Nauru will only make them sicker and put them at risk of disease, violence and mental illness. We can't stand by and watch that happen – we have to become involved."

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The offer came after churches around the country took the extraordinary step of offering sanctuary to asylum seekers facing deportation after the High Court upheld the legality of the government's offshore processing regime. Churches invoked the ancient Christian tradition to offer protection to the 267 people - including 37 babies - facing imminent transfer to Nauru. 

However, experts have warned there is no legal basis to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers and church leaders who do could face criminal sanctions.

Calvary has 15 hospitals in NSW, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT, while St Vincent's Health has 14 hospitals in NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

"If any of these individuals pursue the invitation of churches to seek sanctuary in the cities where our organisations have hospitals and healthcare teams, we'll do whatever we can to make sure they receive the medical attention they need," said Mr Watkins, a former deputy premier of NSW. 

The Head of Mission at St Vincent's Health Australia, Jack de Groot, said they had offered their support to the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, which is coordinating the action.

"Our hospitals have sacred duties of care – that we support people who need healing; that we help prevent people falling into ill health or harm," he said.

"The group of 267 asylum seekers affected by Wednesday's High Court decision are all in Australia either receiving or having received medical attention. They are vulnerable. They are at risk."

NSW Premier Mike Baird has supported a call from his Victorian counterpart, Labor's Daniel Andrews, to take in asylum seeker families rather than return them to Nauru, saying NSW was also "prepared to help" if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made the request. 

Mr Andrews has written to Mr Turnbull saying Victoria would gladly take on the asylum seeker families and children rather than have them return to "a life of physical and emotional trauma" in immigration detention.

The trauma suffered by children in detention on Nauru was last week highlighted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, whose president, Gilliant Triggs, has strongly urged the federal government not to return the children to the island nation.

At Darwin's Wickham Point detention centre a medical team led by the commission interviewed children, most of whom had spent several months at Nauru, and said they were among the most traumatised children they had ever seen. Ninety-five per cent of asylum-seeker children who have lived on Nauru were at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, the paediatric specialists found.

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