News

Caritas Accuses Govt of Siphoning Off Foreign Aid for Asylum Seeker Policy

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
5 Aug 2013

Caritas emergency relief teams help famine starved children of West Africa

Caritas Australia has called on the Rudd Government to stop treating the nation's foreign aid budget like a soft target.

Acting CEO of Caritas, Jamie Davies today called on all political parties to commit to the aid budget rather than continue to raid its coffers.

"Caritas is extremely disappointed the Australian Government is once again taking much needed overseas aid money to fund the growing costs for its asylum seeker processing policy," she said.

The Catholic Church's international aid and development agency, Caritas has joined UNICEF and other Non Government aid agencies in an outcry against the Government's decision to redirect a further $420 million from the foreign aid budget to help finance a $1.1 billion scheme to enlarge the detention centre on Manus Island as part of its so-called "PNG solution."

An impoverished Bolivian village where Caritas is making a difference

This marks the fifth time the Rudd and Gillard Governments have pushed back its promise to increase foreign aid from the current 0.34% of the Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5% of GNI by 2015. This in fact is far less than the 0.07% of GNI Australia along with the world's developed nations pledged in 2000 as part of the Millennium Development Goals.

Many developed nations however have met the target or are on track to do so by 2015. Britain despite being in recession already puts allocates 0.5% of the nation's GNI to foreign aid and is on track to meet its Millennium target of 0.7% of GNI in three years' time with PM David Cameron insisting that he "will not balance the books on the back of the poor."

Yet Australia which is one of the world's wealthiest nations and one of the few to escape recession in the wake of the GFC continues to slash, defer or redirect its foreign aid budget and is unlikely to meet the reduced target of 0.5% of GNI for foreign aid by 2017-2018, the new deferred date announced by the Government.

"Our aid dollars work hard to improve lives of the poorest of the poor by tackling poverty, injustice and stability," says Ms Davies pointing out that these conditions are frequently the ones that cause families to seek asylum in the first place.

"The Australian Government should not be able to break commitments to the world's most marginalised people any time it needs to balance its books," she says.

PM Kevin Rudd's policy on asylum seekers cruel, inhumane and politically expedient

But last Friday this is exactly what the Rudd Government decided to do for the third time in less than two years. Announcing its pre-election budget estimates not only did the Government reveal the $18 billion deficit flagged in this year's May budget had increased to $30 billion, but revealed it had slashed projected overseas aid over the next four years by $966.2 million or almost $1 billion.

Finance Minister Penny Wong insisted difficult decisions had to be made to "ensure we had sensible pathway to surplus." The same song sheet the Government under Julia Gillard used last year when it slashed as well as redirected foreign aid funds in the 2012 budget as well as in the forward estimates towards the end of the year and in Wayne Swan's Budget last May.

Yet despite slashing the foreign aid budget, the Government continues to insist it will meet its target of allocating 0.5% of GNI by 2017-18. To achieve this will mean the foreign aid budget will have to be increased by a whopping $2 billion in that year, which is the first to occur outside the forward estimates and therefore not subject to current budgetary pressures.

Against the backdrop of repeated postponements and the Government's inability to achieve a budget surplus, few believe this will happen.

Funds raised by Caritas go to help the poor in Africa as well as South East Asia and the Pacific

In condemning this latest move by the Government, UNICEF Australia's chief, Dr Norman Gillespie says more than $5.8 million has been cut from the foreign aid budget since 2007.

"The aid budget makes up just 1.5% of the total Commonwealth budget and yet over the last three years the sector has taken cuts of 14%. This big disproportionate cut tells me there isn't any principle behind this, and that foreign aid is just a soft target," he says.

Together with helping the world's poorest communities climb out of poverty through aid programs that teach sustainable agricultural methods, establish schools, help improve health and hygiene, provide access to safe drinking water, build schools and are there in times of disaster such as floods, droughts and other catastrophes disasters, foreign aid also helps create stability and security in the region.

As Caritas points out that when people are able to feed their families and their children are able to thrive, there is less danger of conflict or unrest.

"Modest investments in aid have amazing   results," says Ms Davies and gives the example of work in Timor-Leste where Australian aid helped immunise 500,000 people against measles, provided 77,000 with access to save drinking water and provided 67,000 with improved sanitation.

"All this was achieved with a budget of just $100 million," she says.

Despite the difference even a small amount of foreign aid can make, the Government has once again raided the coffers to suit its own political agenda.

Caritas and other NGO aid agencies help victims of the Philippines typhoon which has left hundreds of thousands homeless

Last year and again in May this year, the Government siphoned off foreign aid money to defray the costs of supporting asylum seekers who arrived on our shores, making Australia one of the largest recipients of its foreign aid program.

Now in the budget forward estimates the Government is slashing almost $1 billion over four years from foreign aid and putting this instead towards building an enlarged Manus Island detention centre to ultimately house as many as 10,000 asylum seekers.

Not only is Caritas, UNICEF and other aid agencies deeply concerned at the Government's latest move but they are equally concerned about how the money taken from foreign aid is to be used.

"We fully support comments from the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office and the Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG and Solomon Islands of the importance of finding humane solutions which maintain the dignity of asylum seekers," the Acting CEO of Caritas, Ms Davies says. "We share the concerns our Catholic network has raised and believe our nation's decision-makers must honour the inherent dignity of all human beings and act as one human family to help others who need our help most."

To find out more about the work of overseas aid and development agency, Caritas log on to www.caritas.org.au