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Pope's PNG visit can shine light on refugee plight

Giovanni Torre -

St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia has welcomed news Pope Francis is likely to visit Papua New Guinea in August, saying his presence could help resolve "the dire situation" of refugees still held in Port Moresby under a deal the Australian and PNG governments have both kept under wraps.

Vinnie's national president, Mark Gaetani, said that as "one of the world's most prominent advocates for the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers", Pope Francis will "no doubt be well aware of the plight of these refugees in PNG".

"We hope that long before His Holiness arrives these long-suffering people will have been brought to Australia for proper humanitarian care. If not, we hope he will be given the opportunity to see some of the appalling conditions in which they are still living," he said.

"Our position aligns with that of the Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG and the Solomon Islands which In December asked the Australian Government (in a letter to Home Affairs Minister, Clare O'Neil) to end these people's suffering and bring them to Australia urgently."

St Vincent de Paul Society noted on Monday that the refugees held on PNG fled from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and parts of the Middle East, and were previously held in the Australian-run detention facility on Manus Island where a number of detainees died.

Vinnies said the refugees are living in unsanitary conditions, lacking food, electricity and health care, with no official financial support, and that security in Port Moresby has deteriorated since rioting last month.

"St Vincent de Paul Society has long advocated for fair treatment for these refugees, many of whom are now accompanied by family members, including two newborns," Mr Gaetani said.

"In his message for the Catholic World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis invoked the Gospel of St Matthew: 'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me'.

"These are the sentiments that we and our governments should heed. As Pope Francis said, 'the important thing is that there always be a community ready to welcome, protect, promote and integrate everyone, without distinctions and without excluding anyone'."

Mr Gaetani noted that the upcoming visit to Canberra by PNG Prime Minister James Marape offered another opportunity to resolve "the unacceptable situation" affecting the refugees left by the Australian government in his country.

"This has been an issue in the Australia-PNG relationship over recent years, including claims of contractual irregularities and a lack of transparency," he said.

"The media and refugee supporters have highlighted the refugees' dreadful living conditions. A resolution would benefit all parties, not least the refugees themselves whose wellbeing continues to deteriorate as we speak."

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