PETER KENNY | Ecumenical News
CHURCHES IN AUSTRALIA AND THE PACIFIC region are concerned about the location of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea for assessment and resettlement.
Critics have lambasted the arrangement as one of shifting humanitarian responsibility offshore.
The president of the Uniting Church Assembly in Australia, Rev Andrew Dutney described the policy as an "abdication of responsibility" by the Australian government.
He said the choice of PNG was "burden-shifting at its most base."
"We now see firmly entrenched in our political system an approach that seeks to circumvent the spirit of hospitality and compassion codified in international treaties and obligations," said Dutney.
In PNG, Christian leaders have asked prime minister O'Neill to reconsider the refugee deal he signed with Australia.
During a press conference in Port Moresby on Wednesday, the PNG Council of Churches, and PNG Christian Leaders Alliance on HIV/AIDS said there needed to be proper consultation with the people through the churches before such deals were signed.
They described the deal as a tool by Australian prime minister Rudd to retain victory in an upcoming Australian election.
"Many groups, NGOs and individuals have spoken against it. We urge the government to hear their voices," PNG Council of Churches chairman Rev Danny Gray Guka said.
Guka, representing the Anglican Church in the council, said churches had given their full support to O'Neill since he was elected to the country's parliament and he should hear their concerns.
Alliance chairman and Catholic Church Archbishop John Ribat said, "The asylum seekers are interested in settling in Australia, not PNG. We have been forced to take in something we are not capable of handling."
Back in Australia, the Uniting Church's Dutney cited recent UN High Commission for Refugees reports criticising the processing centre on Manus Island.
After a second visit in June, commissioners said that the facility still fails to meet the terms of the memorandum of understanding between Australia and Papua New Guinea agreed to when the facility was established.
Currently, about 145 people are housed on the island. The last children were removed in early July following ongoing concerns about the suitability of the accommodation and services.
The new agreement includes a significant expansion of the centre to house 3,000 people, up from the original capacity of 600.
Dutney described the choice of PNG as "burden-shifting at its most base."
"We also know that the ongoing human rights violations and extreme poverty in Papua New Guinea mean it is not a safe option for permanent resettlement of refugees," he said.