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Refugee Legislation proves Government's reform desire a sham

  • 18 May 2006
The optimism that many Australians felt following significant reforms to asylum and refugee policy in 2005 has been cruelly dashed by the government’s wretched response to Indonesia’s displeasure at the granting of protection visas to 42 West Papuans in March.

At its core, the Government’s proposal seeks to introduce new laws which would mean that all people who arrive informally (so-called ‘unauthorised’) by boat in Australia will be automatically transferred to ‘offshore’ processing centres to have their claims for refugee status assessed. Offshore processing, most likely in Nauru, would apply to all boat arrivals regardless of where they land in Australia. In practice, all of Australian territory would become excised, and all claims by such people for refugee status would have to be made outside of the Australian legal system.

During 2005, the shocking and tragic circumstances of the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases awakened in Australians a recognition of the scandalous abuse and cruel indifference which the Immigration system was perpetuating on innocent and vulnerable people, including asylum seekers.

A number of significant developments flowed from this. The Government rejected calls for a Royal Commission and instead, established the Palmer Inquiry, which ultimately made findings constituting one of the most devastating indictments of a major government department in Australia’s history. The Palmer Report shaped much of the promised process of ‘wide-ranging, systemic reform’ of the Immigration Department, which commenced in the first half of 2005. Fair and reasonable treatment of those confronting the Immigration system has been part of the new mantra and intended practice.

Another development was the drafting by Liberal MP, Petro Georgiou, of Private Members Bills which sought a serious curtailment of the mandatory, indefinite detention system, and the abolition of temporary protection visas. The compromise deal subsequently struck with the Prime Minister represented a significant, albeit seriously inadequate, set of reforms which had the real potential to limit or end the suffering of many still subjected to the system, if implemented quickly and in good faith. They included provisions for release of children and their families, as well as others from detention centres, quicker processing of refugee applications, and oversight of cases involving over two years of detention by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, and oversight of the reform process by an Inter-Departmental Committee chaired by the head of the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet.

Although none of the reforms announced included reform of the