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Australia wants to know nothing about asylum seekers' torture history


Man being tortured Torture is one of those crimes which everyone can agree is wrong – and wrong in all circumstances. International law regards it as a matter of ius cogens, something which can never be justified or agreed to, and the suppression of which demands the cooperation of all states.

The flight from torture is one of the commonest features of the refugee experience and past torture is a fairly reliable indicator of the 'well founded fear of persecution' which is the test for refugee status.

All this explains why it is disappointing, if scarcely surprising, that Australia has ceased to ask asylum seekers about any history of torture. If one were serious about finding out about genuine refugee claims in an 'enhanced screening' or shortened questioning process, then enquiring about any torture at the hands of the people an asylum seeker is fleeing would surely be near the top of the list of cogent questions to be asked.

The fact that asylum seekers now have to wait until further on into the questioning process before being asked about claims based on torture is sold by the Government as a result of sensitivity and the need to ensure a safe environment before discussing such things.

I wish that I could accept that at face value. The fact is that, as asylum seeker advocates have pointed out, many are not given the opportunity to proceed to further stages in the process. Professor Newman, former member of the Immigration Health Advisory Group, provided the Sydney Morning Herald an answer which sounds much more believable when she said:

There was discussion about it and that decision would be against it. From my perspective, there was a political process going on and [some thought] that it was simpler not to get the [torture and trauma] information as there is a moral and ethical responsibility to respond to it.

The idea that we can sidestep our moral and ethical obligations by avoiding asking the questions which would engage them is ridiculous. Indeed, it sounds suspiciously like the kind of passing by on the other side of the road which the Prime Minister engaged in in his response to the pleas from other countries in the region to help shoulder the burden of sheltering the Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing ill-treatment at the hands of the Myanmarese Government.

In answering that the crisis was all the fault of that Government for letting them leave in the first place (without mentioning the appalling human rights situation in Myanmar which might make them want to do so), he effectively subscribed to the same ostrich theory which sees nothing wrong in torture – provided only that we don’t get to find out about it.

This is of a piece with the dirty 'stop the boats at all costs' deal made with the Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka and revealed by The Australian earlier this year. It is also not a million miles away from the theory that turning boats back to countries where their desperate passengers might be tortured and making people suffer in off-shore detention centres is acceptable provided only that the Australian citizenry does not get to see and hear what is happening.

Being a good international citizen, as Mr Abbott says Australia is, means much more than simply turning a blind eye to suffering in the world (and facilitating it on the quiet). Not being an international good citizen has a cost which is far greater than a mere image problem. As we have already seen in the case Messrs Chan and Sukumaran, Australia’s ability to plead for the human rights of its citizens abroad is much diminished by its ignoring them closer to home.

More directly still, Australia is a party to the so-called 'Bali process', an agreement between 45 countries in the Asia-Pacific Region and major UN organs involved in refugee and migration issues. The purpose of the Bali process is to facilitate the 'burden sharing' so hyped by Australia in relation to refugee issues. It is important to Australia because it draws into these burden sharing arrangements a number of countries who have assumed no obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Australia’s attitude to torture survivors and to the Rohingyas tells those to whom it preaches about human rights and burden sharing exactly how serious it really is about these things. Be assured that those countries, whose cooperation is vital to Australia’s own border security, are listening very carefully.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood, having previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand, with a PhD in administrative and international law.

Torture image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, asylum seekers, refugees, torture, human rights



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Existing comments

An excellent analysis of the disgusting official position on refugees that our country now holds. On so many issues I have nothing but contempt for Abbott and his supporters. Why is there no decent alternative to vote for?

Eugene | 03 June 2015  

There is no doubt that some of the 'boat people' who have been returned to their countries of origin (mainly Afghanistan and Sri Lanka) have faced further mistreatment, possibly torture, even death, in their home countries. All along Australia has shown little curiosity about the mistreatment from which these people were escaping, just as we show little interest in what the Rohingyas have suffered. Is it 'compassion fatigue' or plain indifference?

Rodney Wetherell | 03 June 2015  

Thank you Justin for keeping us aware.

Brian Boru | 03 June 2015  

Our present government knows no shame. The prime minister speaks with a forked tongue and he uses it to advantage. Although Mr Abbott states Australia is a global citizen, his message to Australians is the opposite. We Australians will keep this country to ourselves at any cost; we don't care about the suffering of asylum seekers because they aren't 'us'. Drastically cutting foreign aid reinforces this message. Europe has received many, many more asylum seekers than we have, yet has declined the advice of our prime minister to follow our example. Many Australians do care, desperately, about the selfish road our government is taking us. It has been a deliberate politician decision which is shared by Labor party.

Anna | 03 June 2015  

"Australia’s attitude to torture survivors and to the Rohingyas" highlights a great weakness in Democracy. Politicians depend on votes from people who in general, are reluctant to share their 'Lot', with those who have 'little'. The divide is deepened when political parties fan the flames of the differences to attract votes and so gain or preserve power, and use spin, concealment and obfuscation to bolster their agenda.

Robert Liddy | 03 June 2015  

Would it be fair and reasonaable to take the attitude that all Rohingyas and Hasaras and Sri-LankanTamils (maybe no longer, with the new government there) and Middle Eastern Christians and women from the Congo, and North Koreans and various other groups that could be named should be assumed to be genuine refugees and entitled to acceptance by countries like Australia and New Zealand unless there is real evidence in particular cases that they are not?

Gavan Breen | 03 June 2015  

Justin Glyn has conspicuously avoided the rather large elephant in the room regarding asylum-seekers. It’s simply that many will tell lies and make false claims about torture and persecution to get asylum in Australia. Such claims were often very difficult to verify so during the 2008-13 influx of asylum-seekers forcing over-whelmed Australian Immigration staff to give them the benefit of the doubt. “I can confidently say that we are approving large numbers of people who are fabricating claims, and indeed the current refugee determination systems works in favour of those most adept at spinning a yarn,” said one former senior Immigration Department official in 2013. (See “’Frauds’ granted refugee status” in the Weekend Australian June 15-16 2013). People who have risked their lives and life savings and begged and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to get to Australia will say whatever necessary to get asylum here. Most of us would do the same in the same circumstances. The asylum-seeker lobby seems oblivious to this rather obvious point.

Dennis | 04 June 2015  

Dennis takes supporters of asylum seekers to task with his final sentence: "The asylum-seeker lobby seems oblivious to this rather obvious point." However, he is the one who misses the obvious: "People who have risked their lives and life savings and begged and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to get to Australia ..." It is reasonable to assume that anyone who invests so much of their lives raising the money and then risks what remains of their lives in the actual journey, must be running from pretty horrific circumstances.

Ian Fraser | 04 June 2015  

There is an Immigration Department policy document on the treatment , Identification and Support for people who have suffered Torture dated April 3, 2009. It was not widely circulated. I recommended among other things that people who had suffered torture should spend as little time as possible in detention because it was known that this exacerbated their suffering and caused further damage. When this policy was raised by advocates on behalf of people falling apart in detention they were ignored. I have seen men who have been brutally and repeatedly beaten, raped and tortured with electricity whose physical scars provide absolute proof, kept in detention under guard to stop them dying. I have seen young women with scars and burns on their bodies who were also ignored. Australia is a cruel country with cruel policies to those we decide are the OUT GROUP. Look at our treatment of Aboriginal people and now we do the same to the Boat people

pamela curr | 04 June 2015  

Ian: It’s not so much “horrific circumstances” but a better life for themselves and their families that most asylum-seekers want who have lobbed in Australia. They come from countries where turmoil, inter-communal violence, political repression and much lower living standards prevail. Peaceful, prosperous countries like Australia would seem a paradise to them. Getting citizenship here would be like winning the lottery. That’s why most are prepared to risk their lives and life-savings etc to get here not to escape persecution for their racial, religious or political allegiances etc. But those that are genuinely facing such persecution would have a further incentive to seek asylum in Australia. Even so, there are many other countries they could easily gain sanctuary in. For example, persecuted Tamils in Sri Lanka can simply head for Tamil Nadu in India if they wish where they would have many ancestral family and kin links. But they don’t just want refuge, they want a better life. That’s perfectly understandable but so do hundred of millions of other people living in Third World countries! HOWEVER, those who really are living in “horrific circumstances” are the millions of refugees rotting in Middle East refugee camps. They have lost everything and subsist on UN rations in plastic tents. THESE are the people we should be worrying about, not those who simply have the monetary resources to seek a better life or who have many other countries. From 2008-2013 up to 50,000 of such people could have been resettled in Australia if had not been for the 51,750 people who got in first – taking up almost all Australia’s humanitarian quota that was normally reserved for genuine refugees and those fleeing persecution. An OBVIOUS policy for the asylum-seeker lobby would be to push for Australia’s humanitarian intake to be increased from 20,000 to 25 or even 30,000! But no, they prefer to bang on about the hyped up plight of mostly self-selecting economic migrants in detention!

Dennis | 05 June 2015  

Dennis Thank you for your responses. It would be good to know your sources for the claim that most asylum seekers are economic migrants, other than the reported opinion of one (unnamed) former immigration officer. The evidence of the number of successful claims by boat arrivals (70-97% when we last processed their claims) vs the (lesser) number of successful claims by those arriving by air provides strong evidence against your theory. (Parliament of Australia Library, "A Comparison of Coalition and Labor Government Asylum Policies in Australia since 2001 " shttp://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/AsylumPolicies#_Toc381358235) Why would fewer air arrivals be accepted if everyone is simply given the benefit of the doubt? I am not sure why someone who gets to a UN resettlement camp would be a genuine refugee but someone making the (more dangerous) journey by sea is not. Surely examining individual claims would be a much better way of telling if they are genuine or not? Even if you are right, why would you NOT ask someone if they had been tortured? I assume that you would agree that proof of torture would be relevant to the question of whether someone were a refugee or not....

Justin Glyn SJ | 05 June 2015  

Further to my response to Dennis, the previous link no longer works - here are DIBP's own figures which, while less comprehensive, mirror the gap between visa grants for those coming by air and boat: http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/asylum/_files/asylum-stats-march-quarter-2013.pdf

Justin Glyn SJ | 05 June 2015  

Justin: The comments made by the “unnamed former Immigration official” were contained in a copy of a written report obtained by The Australian. His views were supported by a former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, current Immigration officials and workers at various detention centres interviewed by the newspaper. The ex-Immigration official said that while he did “deal with people who had been badly affected by generalized violence in countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka … this is quite different from having a credible contemporary claim of persecution.” It seemed to him that most of those he dealt with “had been fed claims which were known to be the sort of statements that were accepted for approval.” He said there was “a small number of claimants who were being honest and often told me quite sad stories of poverty, owing money lenders, being involved in family disputes (or) being threatened because of romantic involvements. Such claims were likely to be refused for being outside the (Refugee) Convention.” But vague stories claiming threats by the Taliban of the Sri Lankan military would most likely be approved, the ex-official said. There was a “benefit of doubt test” in the Convention whereby if asylum-seeker’s claim cannot be disproved they were difficult to reject. The former RRT official quoted in the Australian report, whose job was to review Immigration Dept decisions to not award refugee status, described the pressures “to clear numbers as quickly as possible” to avoid massive backlogs of cases building up. The result was that refugee acceptance rates were “95 per cent and above”, he said. This Justin would largely explain why most asylum-seekers gain sanctuary in Australia, not because they had suffered genuine persecution or even torture. As the ex-Immigration official said from “interviewing many asylum-seeker claimants the overwhelming primary objective was to obtain the right to work in Australia … so they can send money back home to their families and to repay loans which they have taken out for their travel.” Moreover, former Immigration Minister Bob Carr also noted in July 2013 that 90% of asylum-seekers were such economic migrants. ‘They are not fleeing persecution. They’re coming from majority religious or ethnic groups in the countries they’re fleeing, they’re coming here as economic migrants.”

Dennis | 07 June 2015  

Pamela: Those bearing marks of torture on their bodies would have far stronger claim to asylum than those that don’t. But the problem is that many asylum-seekers seem to make such claims. For example, of the 157 Tamil asylum-seekers who left Sri Lanka, via India for Australia in June 2014, 105 reported a history of torture and trauma, said the Sydney Morning Herald (May 15/15). But what proof is there that they were reporting the truth? Considering the endless lies that so many asylum-seekers tell to get sanctuary in Australia how can they be believed – unless they have obvious signs of torture etc. While those who lacked such signs may also have been tortured (not all torture victims necessarily have visible signs of physical and none for psychological torture) how would one ever know they too were telling the truth? But one thing is certain: Claims of torture would enormously strengthen their case for getting asylum. Many asylum-seekers readily lie about being persecuted in their home countries to gain asylum in Australia. Why would they not also lie as well about being tortured to boost their chances of getting asylum?

Dennis | 07 June 2015  

I think its a shame that people don't grasp the tireless work of Australia's border and national security agencies. Asylum seekers (boat people) similar to refugees in camps close to the conflict zone are all assessed for their protection claims equally. Yes Australia's political structure does present an endless cycle for refugees, however most of these people do not meet security requirements, as they have disobeyed the laws of their own and transit countries in their journey to seek sanctuary in Australia. There is a balance dilemma, between securing our borders and adhering to human rights issues and civil liberties. Yes, asylum seekers have to wait, but they receive most of the benefits that an Australia citizenship would receive just without the immigration status of holding a permanent Australian visa. Most have work rights, access to housing, free medical care, free education, access to driving, any most activities that all Australasian are entitled to. Yet I don't understand the concept that they wait onshore aimlessly without a visa. Deu to their circumstances there is no definfitive answer for their visa situations, but these people claim that they have been persecuted, so isn't living free of persecution and access to so many benefits better than nothing at all. Not to mention that most asylum seekers are economic refugees, leaving their country because of the economy...similar to Greece's future.

Sharyle | 06 August 2015  

Thanks, Justin. We live in an Australia led in turn by two sides of the same stinking penny - both of which are wilfully blind to the way those seeking asylum in this land have been tortured and suffered worse - in countries we describe as friends. Abominable really. So different to when I was teaching English to on-arrival refugees (children and adults) in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s! We had leadership in those days - Malcolm FRASER (RIP)! These mean men (almost totally so men) diminish our national spirit! I can't wait for their ending! Please tell those you are defending that this entire country has many far better souls who weep for their mistreatment and abuse from our government/s! And who do their best, too, to help overcome these evil people at our helm!

Jim KABLE | 10 August 2015  


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