The message is clear. Set them free! Religious leaders from across the faiths are calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese to release refugees and asylum seekers that are still being held in detention. The campaign follows international attention given to Australia’s detained refugees and asylum seekers after Serbian tennis star, Novak Djokovic was detained in the Park Hotel in Carlton after his visa to enter Australia was cancelled.

With religious leaders standing behind him during his speech at the ‘Set Them Free’ launch, campaign spokesperson Baptist Minister Reverend Tim Costello said it was time for the Australian government to show compassion.

‘Compassion is the core of every faith,’ Rev. Tim Costello said. ‘It is significant that religious leaders are urging the Prime Minister, a man of faith, to meet with the Opposition leader and together do something that is ultimately good for all Australians – agree on releasing refugees and asylum seekers held in indefinite detention,’ he said.

Nine years on from the harsh policy changes that saw more than 3,100 asylum seekers sent by Australia to offshore detention in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, there are still 219 held in offshore detention in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and around 70 held in Australian detention centres, after being transferred to Australia for medical treatment not available in Nauru and PNG. The vast majority of those still being held in detention have been recognised as refugees for years.

In Melbourne, there are around 32 men being held in detention in the Park Hotel after being transferred to Australia for medical treatment in 2019 and 14 in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows. Mehdi Ali, an Iranian immigrant has been in detention since he was 16 years old. He’s now 25 and still has no prospect of release. He used the incident with Novak Djokovic in the lead up to the Australian Open to help draw attention to the plight of detainees in the country.

‘There is currently no legislated end to indefinite detention. The refugees have been sacrificial lambs to the politics of border control and immigration for many years. This could be a watershed moment in which Australians can feel good about embracing a kinder approach,’ said Rev. Costello.

‘In his Maiden Speech to Parliament Mr. Morrison said he derived from his faith “the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way”. We call on the Prime Minister to draw on these values now.’

Sister Brigid Arthur csb, a fierce and long-time advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, is the coordinator of Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project (BASP). Established in 2001, BASP is a Brigidine ministry that supports refugees and asylum seekers, particularly when they’re released into the community.

Speaking at the campaign launch, Sr Brigid said, ‘The Prime Minister and Opposition leader have the power to set them free. It is a question of whether they will open their hearts and act, not a question of what to do.

Australia is locking up people for long periods of time in an absolutely arbitrary way. With one stroke of the pen, we could let them out. What we’re doing to people who are just seeking asylum is destroying lives.

‘As they reasonably and often say to me, “you have no idea of what it’s like to be locked up indefinitely”, and I absolutely accept that. Having heard the despair of many people over many years, I think that to take away people’s freedom, to give them no coherent or logical reason as to why we’re doing it and to leave them with no end in sight is just one of the cruellest things you can do to anybody.

‘And they suffer. They suffer because their lives are slipping away, they have no idea when they’re going to see family again or if they’re going to see their family again, particularly their parents. It’s just so hard not to despair.

‘And it doesn’t matter how much you work on it, or how much documentation you provide, these people only get out when the Minister says, “I’ll let you out”, but we don’t know why it’s one person and not the next person, or why it’s that small group and not another small group and so on. It just doesn’t make any sense!’

Sr Brigid emphasised the campaign’s message: ‘Together, with the other multi-faith leaders, we have one message to the prime minister and the government – please set them free. Let these people out.

It’s important to use our voice in every way we can. Talk to people, talk about this in churches, in your local neighbourhoods and schools. Let people know that this message has gone to the prime minister and then send your own message saying, “Yes, we agree – please set them free”.’

Joshua Lourensz, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria attended the launch. He said, ‘A number of our members have been practically supporting refugees and those seeking asylum for years. Through their work and ministries, they are well aware of the ongoing ramifications of being locked up for a very long time. They’re working with people who have gone through a really traumatic experience and needing to flee, which is then compounded by being locked up for a long time, indefinitely.

‘We support the call on the prime minister and opposition leader to end this detention. The people in our services and communities want to wrap around and support these people to live a life that is worthwhile and full of hope.’

Bishop of Parramatta Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv, Chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service recently called on the Australian Government to increase the country’s current overall intake of refugees, particularly following the humanitarian crisis that continues to play out in Afghanistan where the Taliban seized power last year.

‘We need to scale up our practical compassion, not simply adjust priorities within existing plans. That is why the bishops, together with other members of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA) and many other community groups, call once more for the allocation of at least 20,000 additional places,’ Bishop Long said.

Leaders representing a wide cross section of faiths officially launched the campaign last Friday at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne with the release of a short film, #SetThemFree, from acclaimed director Richard Keddie (Ride Like a Girl, Oddball, Little Fish) and narrated by Rev. Tim Costello. The film highlights the plight of refugees still held in indefinite detention, including in Melbourne’s notorious Park Hotel.