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Election year open season on refugees

  • 03 July 2013

For refugees election years are like duck hunting season. Even dragon flies tremble. So it is not surprising that Bob Carr brought out the big guns that the Rudd Government will use before the election. He claimed that most asylum seekers are economic migrants, come from majority religious and tribal groups, and are too easily given protection visas by the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Carr's comments should be seen in context. They are a political response to an intractable situation. On the one hand, the vast majority of people who have come to Australia by boat to claim asylum are found to be fleeing persecution and are given protection visas. Their claims are judged under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory. The Convention looks to the situation and needs of the people who seek asylum.

On the other hand both political parties are convinced that they must offer a credible policy to stop the boats. This pressure has been intensified by the need to deal with the vastly increasing number of people seeking asylum after the introduction of the no advantage policy. This pressure has to do with perceived Australian interests.

The challenge is to reconcile Australia's international and humanitarian responsibilities under the Convention with the political imperative to stop the boats. The Coalition policy rests in part on turning back the boats before they enter Australian waters and can make a claim for protection.

The alternative solution is to redefine the people who come to Australia in such a way that they are not entitled to protection. This is the point of Carr's speech. If the people who seek asylum are economic migrants they are not entitled to protection on the grounds of persecution. But that blanket description may not persuade members of the Refugee Review Tribunal who must judge each case on its merits. So the members of the Tribunal may be directed to accept rulings given by the Department of Foreign Affairs on the reality of persecution in the local areas from which the people who seek asylum come. Persecution is redefined.

Once people who seek asylum and the persecution they claim to flee are redefined, the boats might stop, particularly if conditions in Australia for those seeking asylum are made increasingly difficult. And if that does not work, the commitment to protection can also be given a special narrow Australian sense.

That is the