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Asylum seekers stiffed by election year spin


Scott Morrison standing in front of a lakeThe rushed and ad hoc nature of arrangements for asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG reveal an eye on election dates rather than respect for human dignity and an adherence to international human rights laws.

While 5000 died in Syria last month, and tens of thousands of Syrians fled to Turkey and other neighbouring countries, Australian politics is dominated by the comparatively small number of arrivals on our coastline of people fleeing countries usually identified as producing large numbers of refugees.

UNHCR released the second of its reports into the processing centres last week. The first on Nauru was critical of conditions, delays and uncertainty for asylum seekers. The latest report on Manus Island is also highly critical.

Last august, the expert panel on asylum seekers report outlined a number of criteria that it said were required if Nauru and Manus Island were to be reopened. These included:

  • treatment consistent with human rights standards (including no arbitrary detention);
  • appropriate accommodation;
  • appropriate physical and mental health services;
  • access to educational and vocational training programs;
  • application assistance during the preparation of asylum claims;
  • an appeal mechanism against negative decisions on asylum applications that would enable merits review by more senior officials and NGO representatives with specific expertise;
  • monitoring of care and protection arrangements by a representative group drawn from government and civil society in Australia and Nauru; and
  • case management assistance for individual applicants being processed in Nauru.

UNHCR notes that none of these has been met. Asylum seekers are languishing in inappropriate accommodation, without any information about what will happen with their cases. No law let alone legal process exists in either Nauru or PNG to assess asylum claims. Even the minimum safeguards of the Expert Panel have not been met.

The major parties show little concern for adherence to international human rights protection, let alone treating people with dignity. The ALP policy of 'no advantage' is based on myth. There are no average processing times for cases and the idea of setting up a fictional queue is ludicrous. The movement of refugees around the world is a complex issue that cannot be solved by simple slogans or subcontracting our obligations to poor Pacific states.

The policies of the main parties are now similar, but a few difference remain. The Coalition favours reintroducing Temporary Protection Visas, though there was never any evidence these had an impact as deterrence. The ALP opposes TPVs but releases people on bridging visas with limited rights to await processing. The 'no advantage' myth means they have no idea how long they'll be in this processing limbo. At least TPVs had a three year limit.

The Coalition would also reduce the resettlement program from 20,000 a year to 13,750. The increase in the resettlement program is one of the few positive developments for refugees since 2010. A decrease in places just puts more pressure on people to try and come by boat.

The Coalition policy of a presumption against refugee status if someone destroys their documents is ill-considered and irresponsible. Sending people to their home countries without determining their claims for protection is a potential breach of the prohibition on non-refoulement provided for in article 33 of the Refugee Convention and similar prohibitions in international human rights law.

It seems that such bedrock provisions are of little interest in the political debate in Australia.

The latest Coalition idea is to interdict boats from Sri Lanka outside our territorial waters and send them back to Sri Lanka. The Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison (pictured) says he has been assured by the Sri Lankan Government that the war is over and these people will be safe. He clearly has not read the December 2012 UNHCR Sri Lankan guidelines which identified eight risk profile categories including political opposition and human rights workers as well witnesses to human rights violations.

Such a policy is wrong regardless of the spin. The focus of both major parties is on the ill-informed fears of the community, rather than looking at the well-founded fears of asylum seekers. 

Kerry Murphy headshotKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. 

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, asylum seekers, Nauru, Manus Island, refugees, UNHCR



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Existing comments

And the MSM have been pushing and whining and nagging about stopping the boats along with the lazy pollies. Now we have Gillard "winning" a human trading scam with New Zealand and the MSM still don't get what she is up to. And the latest DIAC figures show that while DIAC say that only 38% of Sri Lankans are refugees by the time they go to the first review that becomes 78%. So of the 6,000 arrivals last year that would mean that before they ever see a court room 4680 of them were refugees needing protection. And that is the December figure. Doc Evatt and Bob Menzies would be ashamed and embarrassed by the state of affairs we have reached with all law forgotten and discarded in the name of racist lunatics.

Marilyn | 10 February 2013  

Kerry,you have summed up the dismal plight of many of our refugees so accurately, and the inhumane refugee policies of both major parties. The Australian Greens are the only party with a humane policy for the treatment of refugees arriving on our shores. The Greens are the only party that rejects off-shore processing, a practice that is inhumane and grossly expensive and does not deter the boats. The negative, adversarial political approach adopted by Tony Abbot, Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and other Coalition members has ensured that the cooperative, bipartisan approach needed to properly and humanely address the refugee issue has not happened. What a pity that Julia Gillard and her team didn't have the courage,integrity and humanity to stand up to Coalition demands. All that seems to matter to many of our Federal politicians is that they win the next election. Their policies and their rhetoric tell me that they don't care about the suffering of refugees sent indefinately to Nauru or Manus Island. The latest lie is that it's safe for refugees to be sent back to Sri Lanka. How much lower can many of our politicians stoop? Sadly,they are poll-driven at the expense of their humanity!

Grant Allen | 10 February 2013  

The long-running discussion about our dismal treatment of asylum-seekers and already registered refugees waiting in holding camps in Southeast Asia clearly portrays how self-centred we are. Australian politicians of all parties, and most of the Australian media and social commentators traffic the myth of Australian generosity, 'mateship' belief in a 'fair-go' and all the rest of the Australian self-image. We choose to believe all of this self congratulatory back-slapping, ignoring our deep-seated racism which came together with the myth from the late 19th century period of nation-building. Our track record on accepting anyone who is 'different' from the Australian majority demonstrates our defensive insularity. From driving the indigenous people from the most fertile areas of the country, through the emphasis on British immigration until after WW II including rejection of Jewish asylum seekers from 1930s Europe, maintenance of the White Australia policy until the 1970s, to our aggressive attitude to present day asylum seekers. When are we going to grow up and stop telling ourselves how wonderful we are as a nation - or at least start to live the myth we love to believe?

Ian Fraser | 11 February 2013  

Why is it OK for goods, services, and capital to move freely across international borders, but not for people?

Ginger Meggs | 11 February 2013  

Yes Ginger, exactly.

Catherine | 11 February 2013  

The real choice is between Labor's half-baked attempt to 'humanise' the asylum seekers' issue and the Coalition's Stop the Boats At All Cost. Your guess is as good as mine. My choice would be for Labor to go for broke, draw the line in the sand. Never mind appeasing the prevailing xenophobes, they wouldn't know what colour of the day it is anyway. You may lose the election but you'd regain the respect you lost. Small comfort indeed, you'd say. But politics have a strange and inexplicable way of rewarding the true believers in human rights.

Alex Njoo | 11 February 2013  

Any discuusion of refugees should admit that this issue cost the ALP the 2001 federal election and has hurt the ALP ever since, and part of the problem is due to so many refugee activists accusing Australians of being racists, because the majority of Australians do not support their views. Without addressing these dynamics, there is no way that refugee activists can ever gain majority siupport.

peter gavin | 11 February 2013  

But Peter, a substantial proportion of the Australian population - from both left and right - are, if not outright racist, at least xenophobic, and always have been xenophobic. And it only needs one party - in recent times the coalition, but in past times Labor too - to press the button and off we all go getting wound up with fear, and consequently hatred, of 'the other', from wherever they might come. Why, as I asked above, is it OK for goods, services, and capital to move freely across international borders, but not for people?

Ginger Meggs | 11 February 2013  

It is reassuring to read some logical thought. Thank you Kerry.

CHARLIE | 11 February 2013  

What if it was our children? Thank you Kerry for another clearly written assessment of this sad and shameful matter. The perplexing thing is that so many people are in such accord (reading some of the former comments is uplifting), yet we all feel powerless to do anything to change the situation. What will we tell our children when they ask what we did to help people who came to our country, seeking help? And what if it were our own children finding themselves in such a predicament? Never has Burke's comment about evil triumphing when good men do nothing been more pertinent. We cast around looking for solutions - but remember, we have an election in a few months, surely the time has arrived to seek ways to elect a leader who will end the scaremongering and embrace the adventure that is compassionate multiculturalism!

Alison | 11 February 2013  

But Ginger Meggs, people need passport to move freely across international borders.

Ron Cini | 11 February 2013  

Democracy is messy and getting messier. I agree with Peter Gavin that the refugee issue (code for racism) cost Labor the 2001 election, but only in part. What really cost Labor was the misguided strategy of the The Great Wave theory that is a tsunami of disgust was going to wash the Coalition from power. And it very nearly did. But the apparatchiks of the Coalition did their sums. They worked their butts off in marginal seats. They targetted their promises locally. And they managed to hang on. Interestingly it was a bit similar to the way Obama's organisers campaigned locally against Romney who went for The Great Wave strategy. Since Australians in general have little faith in their pollies, and even less love for them, the only attitudes left to exploit are Hope and Fear. Both sides of politics are trying a mixture of both. Only the Greens are appealing to basic decency, which, alas!, can be easily stifled by greed and fear. Your headline sums the situation up succinctly. In the current political game, refugees are stiffed.

Uncle Pat | 11 February 2013  

Refugee advocates have done very poorly and to some extent should shoulder that blame. They cannot go on blaming everyone else. Until they recognise that fact, they cannot hope to convice the majority of Australians, and it would appear they do not wish to.

peter gavin | 12 February 2013  

Ron, passports are a relatively recent innovation. The great flood of nineteenth century migrants from Europe to the 'new worlds' had no passports. In any case, it's not the lack of a passport but rather an inability to get a visa that prevents people moving freely these days. But you haven't answered my question, which I'll rephrase for you. Why shouldn't people be able to travel freely just as capital, goods, and services travel freely (without passports or visas)?

Ginger Meggs | 12 February 2013  

Peter Gavin, why should refugee advocates have to pay? Why should we be demonised for daring to want to protect people we know have been persecuted, seen their families bombed out and murdered, seen their lands invaded by us and others and have nothing much left? Why do you people think refugees should be spurned because they are victims of atrocity? Would you also spurn victims of floods and fires?

Marilyn | 13 February 2013  

Kerry! You are right, unfortunately Asylum seekers are used as political football by both major political parties. they are trying to further their political objectives at the expense of innocent human beings who fled persecution. Sadly, in Australia Political advancement takes precedent over human rights these days.

Yunus | 15 February 2013  

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