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Australia supplying alleged refugee persecutors


Scott Morrison sits with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

While Immigration Minister Scott Morrison sits with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and hands over customs vessels to the Sri Lankan Government for use in preventing people escaping Sri Lanka, the High Court is deciding whether a group of 158 Sri Lankans can be returned to the Sri Lankan Government. How did we get to the stage where we are supplying the alleged persecutors with the means of stopping people from escaping and seeking our protection?

The fundamentalist approach to enforcing the slogan ‘stop the boats’ avoids addressing what are some of the key humanitarian issues – protection of refugees and treating asylum seekers with dignity. You can save lives at sea and not set up a system that punishes those you have just saved, the two issues are only connected because of the Government has so demonised asylum seekers arriving by boat, that punishing them seems acceptable to the public.  

The militarisation of the process allows secrecy to prevail and a complete lack of accountability.  It is only because of the High Court that we have any idea what is happening to those intercepted at sea.  Labor introduced the flawed enhanced screening process, which was undertaken onshore.  Thanks to the Coalition we have the new simplified version, which can be done at sea, all trying to avoid the risk that the asylum seekers might actually somehow get some advice about their rights and have a chance to better present their claims.  Even the UNHCR has criticised the process, of enhanced screening at sea.

Since the High Court ruled invalid the declaration by the Minister limiting the number of visas to be granted, the Minister responded by stating he would apply the ‘national interest’ test in the regulations.   This regulation has existed for a long time, but is rarely used.  I have not heard of a single case in 17 years of practice.  There is little if any law on it, and even fewer policy guidelines.  

Asylum seekers will be invited to argue why their receiving a permanent visa is in the national interest.  Given that the Minister has consistently said that no-one arriving by boat would ever get a permanent visa, how genuine and unbiased is the process? 

Meanwhile applicants are in a limbo, where no visas are being issued, some are kept in detention to move them to Nauru or Manus, others exist in a subsistence way in the community without permission to work and without having their cases processed. 

Serious mental health concerns are clearly noticed by those working with the asylum seekers. Levels of stress and anxiety are very high, and even worse in detention.   In January 2010, the newly announced  Australian  of the year, Professor Patrick McGorry, mental health specialist stated: "Detention centres ... you could almost describe them as factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder ... it's an absolute disaster,". That was four years ago before Manus and Nauru were re-opened.  Now the situation is much worse.

Now a leaked report from SERCO, the company managing the detention centres reports a six-fold increase in incidents of self-harm in detention from July 2013 to January 2014.  When it was reported that several women from countries like Syria and Iraq even spoke of extreme self-harm to save their children, the Prime Minister retorts that we will not be held to moral blackmail.  This is not moral blackmail, people are being forced to extremes because the pressure on them is so intense and their only way of protest is self harm.  Our response is  to punish them and vilify them further.

How did we get this far?  The obsession with the stop the boats chant ignores the complexity of the situation of people fleeing and claiming asylum.  The Refugee Convention does not protect everyone in fear of persecution or ill-harm, just a limited class of people, which is still more than 15 million internationally.  An estimated further 35 million may be ‘persons of concern’ but not strictly within the narrow definition.  

Australia is not being asked to deal with all of these people, just a small number are seeking our protection.  Our obsession with people arriving by boats means we are blinded to the genuine human rights and humanitarian issues.  In our bid to ‘stop the boats’ we have a punishment model that is breaking people.  

Kerry MurphyKerry 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, an IARC ambassador, and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers.

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Scott Morrison, asylum seekers, Sri Lanka, High Court, Mahinda Rajapaksa



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Existing comments

Thank you for this very clear article. The return of the 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka a few days ago was one of the most shameful exercises perpetrated by any Australian Government, indeed any Government, for many years. The spectacle of Scott Morrison turning up in Colombo shortly afterwards, to cosy up to the dictatorial Government there, and hand over naval ships to 'stop the boats' before they leave made me feel quite sick. The outrage from within and outside Australia is considerable, but ignored by Morrison and Abbott. These actions will haunt the nation for years, I believe.

Rodney Wetherell | 11 July 2014  

The whole situation continues to remind me of the Titanic disaster. Only the rich and privileged 1st Class Passengers were allowed into the lifeboats, and in the spirit of "We will decide who is allowed to come into our boats", they withdrew, and returned only when those in trouble were all dead...... One spurious slogan that needs scrapping is the concept of "Sovereign Borders", which allows Despots to maltreat and otherwise abuse people with impunity.... It is a world problem, and needs a world solution, but evidently is lodged in the "Too Hard" Basket, as nothing seems to be achieved in settling it.

Robert Liddy | 11 July 2014  

As long as the Sri Lankan government refuses to allow an independent investigation of alleged war crimes reasonable people will continue to assume that they are guilty.

Gavan | 11 July 2014  

I am greatly concerned about the current Government of Sri Lanka for many reasons, not just for its eminently questionable treatment of Tamils. For anyone in the Australian Government to cosy up to it is, I think, a great mistake. There is no doubt that the asylum system in countries like ours can be abused - as for instance in the case of Abdul Nacer Benbrika. This does not automatically mean we treat all asylum seekers harshly or do not comply with recognised international norms. This is another subject we need a reasoned national debate on. Sadly, due to a number of reasons, including political game playing and the 24/7 news cycle, this will not happen. I wish all refugee advocates and supporters were as sane and balanced as you are, Kerry.

Edward Fido | 11 July 2014  

You're not treating refugees "with dignity" if you allow them to pay huge sums to people smugglers to send them off to sea in leaky boats to risk their lives as Rudd and Gillard did

Bill Barry | 11 July 2014  

The policies on asylum seekers of both major parties is utterly inhumane. They seek to punish the people smugglers by punishing the asylum seekers under pretexts which obscure the desperate plight of asylum seekers, such as protecting our borders - against unarmed harmless people?- saving people from undertaking dangerous boat trips - ignoring the desperation of these people trying to escape from often fatal persecution. Those of us who follow the line of the major parties should look behind these smoke screens designed to hide the situations faced by the asylum seekers.

Tony Santospirito | 11 July 2014  

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