Australian clerics are dismayed that the federal government has backed a plan to assess offshore those seeking asylum. They maintain such moves are short of a compassionate response as the government tries to curb people smuggling. The Uniting Church, Australia’s third largest denomination, said on Aug. 17 that the government’s legislative endorsement of 22 recommendations from an expert panel headed by former Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Houston was “dismaying and distressing.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed the panel in June, when parliament failed to pass offshore processing laws after two asylum-seeker boat disasters. In addition there was a successful court challenge to a federal government agreement with Malaysia to deport 800 boat arrivals as a “swap” for the resettlement of 4,000 refugees from Malaysian detention centers. While policies attempt to curb boat arrivals, prevent deaths at sea, and assess asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, Uniting President Rev. Andrew Dutney said such legislation, passed by the Senate on Aug. 17. is “un-Christian” and will punish, rather than welcome, the stranger in need.

“It is a grave moral failure, unworthy of us all as human beings, and especially unworthy of those of us who would follow Jesus,” he said. In addition to offshore processing, the panel recommended an extension of the “Malaysian Agreement” and a doubling of the refugee component of Australia’s humanitarian program. While welcoming the increase of the refugee component, Australian Baptist Ministries national director the Rev. Keith Jobberns said one group of vulnerable and displaced persons will be punished in order to send a message to others without curbing boat arrivals.

“What is the likelihood of it having an impact on the number of boats coming to Australia?” Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office director Fr. Maurizio Pettena also believes offshore processing will not deter those seeking asylum in Australia. Most troubling, however, were proposals preventing family reunions for boat arrivals.

“Preventing vulnerable people from being able to reunite with their families can never have positive consequences for our society,” Pettena said. So far this week, 10 boats and 620 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters.