RIP Asylum Seekers: Australian Refugees, Tony Abbott and Catholicism



Catholicism has the highest percentage of religious affiliation in Australia according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics[1], with 26.6% identifying with Catholicism.   Additionally, the current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, identifies as Catholic and has even been described as hyper –Catholic[2] in a journal article.  With all these “pro Catholic” ideas, Australia would ideally be one of the most progressive countries to support those that have to flee their home country due to hardship, well, one would hope.  However, this post may not reflect the utopian image that you would expect from such a ‘benevolent’ Catholic country.  Using personal and pastoral experiences for those in Australia I will expose how Australia unfortunately responds to those in the margins, refugees, in a way that may be described as unbecoming of a Catholic participant.

Sign of the Times

In 1951 the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was unveiled.  Australia is one of the 147 signatory countries to the Refugees Convention[3].  13 750[4] places are available each year for the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.  However, Australian politics, in particular the hyper-Catholic Tony Abbott, says to “stop the boats” as “everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong[5].  Like an onion, these few words have many layers.  In regards to the amount of refugees processed by Australia, and the xenophobic attitude the Abbott government has instilled in the minds of uneducated Australians is that these people are taking money and jobs away from ‘everyday Australians’ is unfounded, and untruthful.  The fact is that “an analysis of UNHCR’s 2009 Global Trends reveals that just 0.5% of the 1.18 million new asylum applications in 2009 were lodged in Australia”[6].  Furthermore, Australia stands second to only Norway in the Human Development Index, offering a high rate of life expectancy at birth, a high rate of years at school and a gross national income of $34,340.[7]  For a country with so much to offer, why is that we take only 0.5% of the total population of refugees?  Is this the Catholic notion that our leader of the country wants to present to international relations and the Church?

A xenophobic attitude that some Australians employ is that it is illegal for people to arrive by boat to Australia.  Not only this, but the government enlists powerful marketing campaigns to increase hysteria in the ‘fight against boats’.



Laughland states “Australian authorities have published a graphic campaign, seemingly aimed at deterring asylum seekers. It uses the slogan: “No way. They will not make Australia home”, and shows a map of Australia with a line struck through it. The campaign has also used a graphic novel depicting asylum seekers in distress in an offshore detention centre.”[8]   There are two worrying statements that can be contrived from this.  The first is creating unnecessary propaganda; that asylum seekers are not welcome into Australia by boats, moreover, by any means.  The second and is that the government would even consider to spend millions of dollars on such a campaign.  Why would the Australian Prime Minister, once again described as a hyper-Catholic, decide to spend this money on actively promoting the degradation of a covenant the government has signed to ensure the safety of refugees.  The Australian government even contradicts itself by stating in the report of asylum seekers:

The two possible means of entry to Australia are by air or sea. Organised facilitation of irregular entry occurs via both routes. However, arrival by air, while possible, is more difficult: some form of fraudulent documentation, access to corrupt officials en route, or both, is usually necessary.  It is more common for air arrivals to exploit the visitor visa system, individually or in groups. Boat ventures better suit those without access to air travel. But those who decide to join irregular maritime ventures to Australia take significant risks; since 2001, 964 passengers have died (or gone missing, presumed dead) on irregular maritime ventures.[9]

Not only has the government actively encouraged boats to not arrive in Australia, but they have contradicted themselves by stating in this report that it is openly more fraudulent travelling by air then by sea.  Not surprisingly, the government have actively decided that they are going to give those who come by air (even though most often through fraudulent and corrupt entities) a more serious weight for assimilation into Australia then those by sea.  These stories certainly echo the distaste of when Jesus saw the money changers in the temple, here we see that the high priests can be compared to the politicians of Australia by actively promoting this passage by air, even though more fraudulent.   Moreover the use of tax payers dollars (as a side note there is no documentation on how much was spent on these campaigns, it would most probably be in the millions) to encourage this inhumane and detrimental campaign to the development of peace within the world, really makes you question the legitimacy of the relationship that Tony Abbott has with the Catholic Church.

Heyer discusses the implications to the polemic war on refugees that the Australian government, absentmindedly, reflects when having a leader that identifies with Catholicism:

Detention conditions and the diversion of boat arrivals in Australia have evoked pointed responses from that country’s bishops, who appeal to religious and civic values to challenge deterrence policies that “misjudge the international context of forced migration.”  In response to reports of overcrowding, self-harm, and suicide, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) charges that the arbitrary, prolonged and remote detention of asylum, seekers violates commitments to human and civil rights, which should not end at the nation’s borders.  They add that the nation flourishes peacefully because of welcome extended to a high volume of newcomers, not in spite of it.[10]

In stark opposition to the Abbott campaign, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) openly implores Australian Catholics to open their arms to refugees.  These stark oppositions cause nothing but confusion within a religious setting when an openly Catholic Prime Minister acts in opposition to the views of the Church and Church community.  The Catholic church does not welcome those to partake in the Eucharist if they are divorced, in a same sex sexual relation or had an abortion.  However, if you have actively sent back legitimate refugees against the wishes of the Catholic church, sometimes to their demise in war torn countries, you are welcome to partake in the Eucharist.

This just doesn’t quite add up.

Populorum Progressio in Australia

What is Australia’s response to Populorum Progressio and how do we act upon it in relation to refugees?  As previously discussed, the Prime Minister of Australia actively chooses to not enhance the well being of refugees.  There are however many other people in Australia who oppose this idea.  The ACBC states:

Every person has a calling to be a good citizen, contributing to the life of the nation. Every nation is part of the international community, responsible for the global common good. So a nation is a global citizen, just as a person is, and nations and individual citizens have responsibilities beyond their national borders. What we do increasingly affects what happens to other people and their world. Actions and events outside our borders increasingly affect our lives at home.[11]

The theological foundations for Populorum progression can be seen through the development of Vatican II and the influence of the French Dominican Louis-Joseph Lebret.  Pope Paul VI’s encyclical PP was published in 1967 less than two years after the conclusion of Vatican II.  Vatican II was a breath of fresh air for the modern world.  With the winds of change so came Populorum progression.  Pope John died at the end of the Vatican Council’s fist session and the second session was directed by Montini, taking the name of Pope Paul VI.  As a young priest Montini showed a keen interest in the service of youth and of the poor.  Much of his time was involved in outreach to the poor.  Lebret who edited a review on economics and Christian humanism also made an incredible investment in the publishing of Populorum progression.  Lebret was a spokesperson for the Holy See at the First United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Geneva, 1964).  Alongside Che Guevara he was the most applauded speaker at the plenary session.  At the request of Paul VI Lebret began to write a document on the development of peoples.

Similarly to the disparity that Australia is facing with the refugees, the document Populorum Progressio, published in 1967, emphasized the need for the East and West to develop a way to communicate.In this expanding world, dangers lay in the distinction between the East and West; a result of WWII.  The US and Soviet Union were brought on the brink of nuclear annihilation in the 1960’s as a result of the two cold war confrontations.  Additionally the US and western allies were enjoying economic expansion in industry, science and technology.  However this divide between the East and the West and the expansion of Western economic growth had a huge impact in dividing the world.  The world was divided into thirds: the First World made up of Western Europe, North America, Australia and Japan; the Second World consisting of the Soviet Union, its several Eastern European satellites, and Communist China; and the third world, the so-called developing nations of Aftrica, Asia, and Latin America.[12]

One of the most significant assertions of this encyclical is “there can be no progress toward complete development of man without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity”[13]  Through this encyclical we can see the very need for Catholics to show kinship across the borders.  Furthermore, in this encyclical:

Pope Paul VI criticized a type of tyranny that results when profits and free competition are the guiding norms of economics.  The disparity of wealth among nations, supported by unfair trade agreements that favor wealthier nations and multinational corporations, creates the conditions in which citizens of less developed countries, desperate to gain financial security, often feel compelled by necessity to migrate.[14]

How is Australia acting out Populorum Progressio to enhance the Catholic community towards the eschatological realization?

Australia’s Pastoral Response

Australian Catholics are complicit in the pastoral call to refugees not only coming across by boats, but by planes and any other transportation.  What is our duty and what is our call in this often heated debate?

Just as Mother Teresa modelled it is paramount that we insist “on leaders and pastors who are at home with the powerless as well as the powerful and influential, who possess a passion for justice and peace.”[15]   The Darwin Catholic community in Australia has an engaging community and leaders who exemplify these qualities.  For example my family actively volunteer to help assimilate people that were refugees who are now newly settled in Australia.  Currently they work quite closely with a Congolese family, prior to that an Iraqi man and intially a Sri Lankan man who had his whole family murdered in front of his eyes by the Tamil Tigers.  We are not the only families that work together to help these people who have had to leave everything they know to start again in a new country.  Other families in the area also assist.   Over this time of learning and assisting these families it becomes more apparent that to truly understand the devastation these people go through, is to listen to their stories.  Stories such as Athieng’s from Kenya encourage us to question why Australia would propagate the refusal of entry to asylum seekers?  Athieng was a refugee for nearly twelve years in Kenya and she states, “I was terrified because the robbers were shooting at and killing innocent people. They raped some of the young people, including my cousin. She was only about ten years old at the time. I felt very scared for my own life when I saw what happened to my cousin.”[16]

Another service that is offered by the Church to refugees is the JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service).  They assist by providing accommodation, financial assistance, legal and health referrals.

However these two ways of helping refugees in Australia are not sufficient.  There needs to be more services that help us bridge the gap, not only between refugees and Australians, but also between the affluent West and those that are suffering in the East.  When these refugees arrive on Australia’s soil, I invite you to imagine, what would Jesus do?

I encourage Australian Catholics to educate themselves on the encyclicals of the Church that highlight the needs of those in poverty.  Furthermore, I pose the question to you.  Is Tony Abott really a practicing Catholic, and if so, what of his relationship with ACBC?  Is it ok for Australian Catholics to actively support a Prime Minister that opposes, in deed and word, the active stance of the ACBC?  Additionally, is it ok for the Church to encourage his alignment with the Catholic Church even though the basis of his refugee propaganda is inherently anti Catholic?   We as Australian Catholics need to be sure we educate ourselves on such issues before blindly believe his stance on sending back the boats.  I also want to encourage those who are not Catholic to search for the humane in these situations and imagine what it would be like if you had no choice but to protect your family by seeking asylum in another country.  Australians often practice stating provoking remarks, such as go back to your own country, but we forget that ultimately this isn’t the white man’s country.  This is a country that for over 50,000 years has been our indigenous brothers’ and sisters’ country.  I implore white Australians to really observe their ancestral heritage and to reflect on how their family came to Australia, convict or not, you were still an immigrant and to treat these innocent people the same as they would like their own family to be treated.  Mr Abbott I also request that you start to really explore the possibilities of treating refugees as people considering you yourself were born in London and made your way to Australia on a boat when you were two.  By petitioning and making a stand against policy that not only degrades human beings but the Church I believe that we can make Australia an even better nation that people would feel welcomed in.


Aly, Waleed. “Inside Tony Abbott’s Mind.” The Monthly. July 2013. Accessed June 01, 2014.

“Australian Bureau of Statistics.” 1301.0. Accessed June 01, 2014.

Brigham, Erin. See, Judge, Act: Catholic Social Teaching and Service Learning. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2013.

Cozzens, Donald B. Faith That Dares to Speak. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.

“Fact Sheet 61 – Seeking Protection Within Australia.” Fact Sheet 61 – Seeking Protection Within Australia. Accessed June 08, 2014.

Figueroa Deck, Allan, SJ. “Commentary on Populorum Progressio.” In Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005.

Government, Australian. August 2012. Accessed June 1, 2014.

Heyer, Kristin E. “Reframing Displacement and Membership: Ethics of Migration.” Theological Studies 73, no. 1 (2012): 188-206. doi:10.1177/004056391207300109.

“LATEST NEWS.” Home. Accessed June 01, 2014.

“Latest News.” Refugee Council of Australia. Accessed June 01, 2014.

Laughland, Oliver. “Australian Government Targets Asylum Seekers with Graphic Campaign.” February 11, 2014. Accessed June 01, 2014.

Majak, Athieng. “A Deep Painful Memory.” Refugess: Telling Their Stories, 2005. Accessed June 1, 2014.

Malik, Khalid. Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World.

“Tony Abbott Compares Stopping Asylum-seeker Boats to War.” NewsComAu. Accessed June 01, 2014.


[1] “Australian Bureau of Statistics,” 1301.0, accessed June 01, 2014,

[2] Waleed Aly, “Inside Tony Abbott’s Mind,” The Monthly, July 2013, accessed June 01, 2014,

[3] “Fact Sheet 61 – Seeking Protection Within Australia,” Fact Sheet 61 – Seeking Protection Within Australia, accessed June 08, 2014,

[4] “Latest News,” Refugee Council of Australia, accessed June 01, 2014,

[5] “Tony Abbott Compares Stopping Asylum-seeker Boats to War,” NewsComAu, accessed June 01, 2014,


[7] Khalid Malik, Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, 146.

[8] Oliver Laughland, “Australian Government Targets Asylum Seekers with Graphic Campaign,”, February 11, 2014, accessed June 01, 2014,

[9] Australian Government, August 2012, 75, accessed June 1, 2014.

[10] Kristin E. Heyer, “Reframing Displacement and Membership: Ethics of Migration,” Theological Studies 73, no. 1 (2012): 195, doi:10.1177/004056391207300109.

[11] “LATEST NEWS,” Home, accessed June 01, 2014,

[12] Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, “Commentary on Populorum Progressio,” in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 294.

[13] [13] Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, “Commentary on Populorum Progressio,” in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations 303.

[14] Erin Brigham, See, Judge, Act: Catholic Social Teaching and Service Learning (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2013), 69.

[15] Donald B. Cozzens, Faith That Dares to Speak (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 19.

[16] Athieng Majak, “A Deep Painful Memory,” Refugess: Telling Their Stories, 2005, 6, accessed June 1, 2014,

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Author: Danyelle Kelly

I'm an Australian, studying and living in the US who wants to enhance community and relations throughout the world.

7 thoughts on “RIP Asylum Seekers: Australian Refugees, Tony Abbott and Catholicism”

  1. Excellent but depressing piece. I hate how these politicians use the words ‘refugees’ and ‘illegal-immigrants’ as meaning the same thing. These are people who are desperately fleeing from danger and to stick them on some shitty island or just send them back is barbaric. This Abott guy sounds like a total dick!

  2. You have succinctly summarised my article Mikey. It’s super sad and something that takes away these people basic human rights. Thanks for your comment!

  3. The successful conflation of “illegal arrivals” with “refugees” is the sticking point here. It is inaccurate and pernicious and it is a campaign in which the Australian press has been entirely complicit. As a consequence of the fictional criminalisation of refugees we have created concentration camps for their restraint and torture. Why would we baulk at letting foreign governments save us the trouble and expense of torturing them ourselves?

    Australia as a country is racist, xenophobic and brutal. Worst of all, we are so odiously smug about how wonderful we are.

    1. Thanks for you insight Anthony. I only hope that we can turn this around (the boats and the political war) to enhance the lives of all people, particularly those in the margins.

  4. I just got this response from a man I greatly admire and thought that I would for sure need to share it:

    I enjoyed reading you assignment. It had a lot of passion and conviction.
    However these two ways of helping refugees in Australia are not sufficient. There needs to be more services that help us bridge the gap, not only between refugees and Australians, but also between the affluent West and those that are suffering in the East. When these refugees arrive on Australia’s soil, I invite you to imagine, what would Jesus do?

    Dany, you may not be aware that there are many ways that the Catholic church is responding on many fronts

    – Jesuit Refugee Services, Edmund Rice Centre, Catholic Religious Australia ( representing over 100 religious orders) have all

    – Catholic Bishops Conference Lobbied government for the last 10 years.

    – Catholics both lay and religious visit detention centres in all states.

    – Romero Centre in Brisbane has been the first place for people released from Detention for over 15 years in Brisbane. It is named after a Catholic Bishop

    – and is run by Sister of Mercy.

    – Catholic Religious Australia have run asylum seeker prayer campaigns this and last year in parishes and schools.

    – St Vincent de Paul supports refugees in every state with funds and programs.

    – Catholic parishes and schools in Brisbane run refugee hubs to support refugees.

    – Catholic orders have lobbied on the issue for 10 years. I was part of many campaigns.

    – The Catholic Bishops Conference has released at least 4 pastoral letters in the last 10 years specifically on Asylum Seekers

    – Resources to raise awareness are available from Edmund Rice Centre, Jesuit Refugee Services, Columban priest, ACRMO

    – The Asylum Seekers have been the number one focus in Edmund Rice schools for 5 years with a host of activities that teach and engage students.

    · Edmund Rice schools have many asylum seeker students. St Josephs in Melbourne has over 100 asylum seekers students.

    – Brisbane schools have over 40 asylum seekers students in at least 2 schools. Check out this web-site for heaps of stuff that has been happening

    Migrant & Refugee Week is from August 25 -31. This year’s theme is “Towards a Better World.” Australian Catholic Migration and Refugee Office (ACMRO) has produced a booklet with some good resources that include statistics and a board games “tracks & ladders” MORE

  5. Excellent article. Unfortunately the labor party, which traditionally has upheld human rights, is also guilty of putting asylum seekers in offshore detention reflects the fact that both parties see electoral gain by pursuing such inhumane policies. For this we can thank an uncritical media, largely dominated by Rupert Murdoch.

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