The Uniting Church in Australia has expressed its disappointment in the recommendations of the Houston Committee and called for a new beginning in the national debate on asylum seekers.

“Today’s Expert Panel report is another fork in the road in this vexed debate,” said Rev. Elenie Poulos, National Director of the Uniting Church’s justice unit, UnitingJustice Australia.

“As a representative of a Church that has long advocated for a more compassionate treatment of asylum seekers, we cannot welcome the re-introduction of offshore processing to Malaysia, Nauru or Papua New Guinea where the care of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees cannot be assured.

“What we can do is to urge all parties in this debate to reconsider the principles of compassion and protection in what has been an ugly conversation.

“For too long the debate has focussed on punishment and a false logic of deterrence. The Committee emphasised a ‘no advantage deal’ for asylum seekers arriving by boat. This serves only to punish people based on their method of arrival here – an approach that lacks compassion and breaches our international obligations.”

The Uniting Church in Australia is a long-standing supporter of onshore processing, community placement for people on bridging visas, and an increased humanitarian intake.

“The Report’s focus on ‘regular pathways’ ignores the reality faced by hundreds of thousands of refugees languishing in horrendous conditions in Malaysia.

“While we welcome the Special Humanitarian Program being increased by 4,000 places, removing current family reunion concessions will devastate families who have already endured so much.

“Increasing the Humanitarian Program places to 20,000 will begin to alleviate the pressures on our regional neighbours, but unless we delink onshore refugee claims from the Humanitarian Program, then asylum seekers arriving by boat will continue to be demonised.

“Australia is a safe, secure and wealthy country and it has been a grave moral failure that we have become so intent on punishing vulnerable people.

“Improved protection, processing and resettlement outcomes in Malaysia and Indonesia must be part of any legislative package,” said Rev Poulos.

Rev Poulos visited Christmas Island in May to inspect conditions at the Island’s Detention Centre and the work of a Uniting Church funded chaplaincy position on the Island.