11 April 2010

Shameful policy on asylum seekers

The Government’s announcement that it would suspend processing of asylum claims by Sri Lankan refugees for three months and by Afghans for six months is a national disgrace. As the diplomatic editor of The Age has commented here:

No decency is found in this new policy, dumping people in legal deep freeze for months while the government hopes for a change in the definition of who qualifies as a refugee.

This does not target the smugglers, it is collective punishment of the victims.

The government has now suspended asylum applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans, referring time and again yesterday to ''evolving circumstances'' - a glib and gutless code to disguise what many will find an extraordinary claim: that these are now safe countries.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is just as bad, and appallingly ignorant of the situation these people face. Commenting on recent statements by Abbott, Julian Burnside QC (see opinion piece here), observed :

Perhaps Abbott was simply experimenting with novel ideas, as we have seen with his various attitudes to climate change and paid maternity leave. But more likely he spoke out of ignorance when he said that refugees who pass through other countries on the way to Australia should stop in those countries rather than continuing on. The problem with that solution is simple: Pakistan, India and Indonesia are not signatories to the United Nations refugee convention. Stopping in those countries affords refugees no protection at all. Abbott mentioned the Hazaras from Afghanistan and suggested they would be safe in Pakistan. He is wrong. Hazaras have long been targeted by the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan. The Taliban are mostly Pashtun and have targeted the Hazaras mercilessly. The Taliban now control parts of Pakistan, especially around Quetta, where many Afghan Hazaras have fled for safety. Hazaras in Quetta fear to go into the street. Many of them have been shot on sight by Taliban.

To suggest that Hazaras are safe in Pakistan is either profoundly ignorant or profoundly cynical. It is equivalent to saying that German Jews could have found safety in Austria.

For my part:

(1)   The Opposition is correct when it says that this is a fix for this year’s Federal election, not a solution to the problem of asylum seekers arriving by sea. Not that the Opposition emerges with any credit; its willingness to race for the bottom has contributed very substantially to the redneck atmosphere that now afflicts any discussion of seaborne asylum seekers. As a cartoon in today’s edition of The Age put it, with a caricature of Kevin Rudd speaking into a gaggle of microphones, “The Opposition’s scare tactics will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

(2)   Anyone who thinks that the security situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka, or for anyone in Afghanistan, is improving is dreaming. It is not. The DFAT travel advisories for the two countries say, in part:

We strongly advise you not to travel to Afghanistan because of the extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack. If you are in Afghanistan, you should consider leaving... (see here)

We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Sri Lanka at this time because of the volatile security situation. Sri Lanka remains in a State of Emergency. While the conventional conflict in the north of the country between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has ended with the military defeat of the LTTE, there remains a high risk of politically motivated violence throughout the country. Travellers should exercise extreme caution and maintain a high level of personal security awareness. Attacks could occur at any time, anywhere in Sri Lanka... (see here).

Note that this is advice to people not directly caught up in the conflict; the situation of persecuted minorities like the Hazara in Afghanistan and the Tamils in Sri Lanka would have to be considered more acute than that of common or garden Australian travellers.

(3)   I think that our obligation in dealing with claims for asylum is to deal with them on the basis of the situation which faces the claimant now, not as it might be in six months’ time. When people present here, we should deal with them promptly in the light of the facts on the ground at the time, and we should deal with their claims to finality. If they can establish refugee status at the time their claim is assessed, then that is final. No holding people in suspended animation, no return to anything like the appalling Temporary Protection Visa regime.

(4)   It is inappropriate, and I suspect not in accordance with our obligations under the Refugee Convention, to deal with people on the basis of a generic policy for people of a particular race, religion or country of origin. Our obligation is to deal with the circumstances of the claimant individuals.  There would be many Hazara and Sri Lankan individuals who could establish that they meet the relevant criterion, a well founded fear of persecution.

(5)   That, of course, is why our Government has imposed the freeze. It is because so many of them are genuine refugees. If the Government were confident that numbers among them were not, then it could process them quickly and deport those who do not qualify.

(6)   The Government’s rhetoric is always to the effect of getting tough on people smugglers, which is in fact code for getting tough with asylum seekers, to deter others from coming here. It is entirely inappropriate to allow the way we treat any individual or group to be shaped by a desire to have an impact on the behaviour of other people.  Everyone is entitled to be treated fairly, on their merits.

(7)   Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott both claim to be guided in their political as well as their personal life by deeply held Christian principles.  So did former Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock. They all need a refresher course on the meaning of the New Testament.  

Finally, it is worth noting that every forlorn little atoll over which Australia has recognised sovereignty can be taken into account in establishing the boundaries of Australia’s exclusive economic zone.  The island territories of Christmas Island, Cocos Island and Norfolk Island all have maritime areas around them, much larger than their insignificant landmasses, which are part of Australia’s EEZ.  As a consequence, Australia’s EEZ attributable to the continent and island territories at 8.15 million sq km is larger than Australia’s continental landmass (7.69 sq km).

For this reason amongst others I have always been appalled by the excision of Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef etc from the migration zone. Refugees arriving at these excluded parts of our national territory are considered, for the purposes of our migration laws, not to have made it to Australia; that is why there is so much fuss about removing anyone from Christmas Island to the mainland.

The uncomfortable conclusion to be drawn from this is that we are prepared to enjoy the economic benefits (from a significantly larger EEZ) that are generated by the existence of our island territories and various outlying reefs, but we are not prepared to accept the responsibilities that go with them.  As a matter of both human decency and national dignity I would like to see our migration laws amended to provide that every square centimetre of our sovereign territory is within the migration zone.

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