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Burying Australia's inhumane refugee laws

  • 19 May 2008

In recent years protection for human rights in Australia has degenerated. This has been especially marked in the area of immigration. Indeed, the refugee regime in Australia may represent the Western world's worst practice. Key features have included mandatory, indefinite, non-reviewable detention, temporary protection visas, the Pacific/Indian Ocean Solutions, naval repulsion of asylum seekers arriving by boat, and 'excision' of Australian territory to prevent people from applying for asylum in Australia.

Although the changes made after the Palmer enquiry mitigated the human suffering, the changes have been largely bureaucratic. The change in Government has opened the way to a more fundamental review of refugee policy and legislation.

The policy of granting only temporary protection visas to on-shore asylum seekers violated many human rights principles and treaty obligations. The policy re-traumatised thousands of recognised refugees fleeing tyranny from places like Iraq, Afghnaistan, Iran and Burma. Refugees were discriminated against according to their way of arriving. They were denied rights to family reunion and travel documents. They were reassessed arbitrarily after three years, and risked losing their refugee status if their visa expires. They lived in a twilight world.

The Labor Government's abolition of TPVs is a commonsense and humane decision. But a more substantial review of immigration policy and legislation is still required. This must recognise that immigration legislation has departed from the application of normal legal principles that lie at the foundation of our legal system, such as access to legal advice and courts, and anti-discrimination principles.

Reform of refugee policy should place within the mainstream Australian legal system and ensure that it meets international human rights obligations. Although this will require new legislation, many abusive practices can be changed within the framework of existing legislation.

The Pacific Solution caused great human suffering. It involved 'excising' Australian territory to prevent claims for protection under the Australian legal system, warehousing asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Nauru or PNG, denying the right to legal assistance, deciding claims for refugee status outside the rule of law, and refusing durable resettlement to those found to be refugees.

The Government has dismantled the Pacific Solution, however it has retained the excision provisions. New arrivals are condemned to detention on Christmas Island, and continue to be denied access to the protection of the Australian rule of law. This risks replacing the Pacific Solution with an Indian Ocean Solution.

The legislation that underpinned the Pacific Solution needs to be reformed in such