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Australia wants to know nothing about asylum seekers' torture history

  • 03 June 2015

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