28 July 2010

What happened to professional public service values?

A paragraph of a news item about asylum seekers in today’s Australian Financial Review caught my eye this morning.  An item by John Kerin headlined Labor accused of dishonesty over boat arrivals commenced with an account of a familiar rant by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott asserting that the Government’s refugee policies were making Australia “a magnet for boat people”.  

The next paragraph read:

The Opposition was responding to reports that the government had been warned in April by immigration authorities that its high success rate for accepting refugees was a significant “pull factor”, with between 5000 and 10,000 asylum seekers expected to reach Australian waters this year.

One must make allowance of course for the possibility that the Opposition Leader is putting his own particular slant on what the Department of Immigration might have told the Government, but this story has a disturbing ring of truth to it, because we know that earlier this year the acceptance rate for Afghan asylum seekers took such a dramatic downturn that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees started asking questions.

If the Immigration Department has indeed advised the Government that the high success rate for refugees is acting as a pull factor, with the implication that the success rate should be reduced, then that would indicate a disturbing lack of professionalism on the part of the Department.  Departments are supposed to administer the law, and advise Ministers on what the law requires, without fear or favour.

Under the UN Refugee Convention, all refugees are entitled to have their individual claims assessed on the merits, without regard to what the act of granting their application might cause other people to do.  A refugee is a refugee. There is no provision for refusing refuge on the grounds that granting it might induce others to come. Accordingly, the advice as reported sounds more like telling the Government what it wants to hear than something in the finest traditions of the Australian Public Service.

It is appalling that the policy positions of both major parties are framed in a legal vacuum, as though the content of the UN Refugee Convention which we signed up to in 1951 did not exist. The only reference to the Convention which I have heard is the Government’s stipulation that offshore processing must take place in a signatory country. The Government is very coy about explaining why this is important, because it denies to asylum seekers important rights which they have under the Convention – the presumption that detention will be a last resort and will be for as short a time as possible, the right to undertake paid work at the going rate, the right to access the legal system. The Government seems to want asylum seekers to have these rights in the offshore jurisdiction, but is unwilling to grant those rights here.

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