Refugee policy still broken after Rau scandal fix


Refugee policy broken after Rau scandal fixAustralian treatment of refugees has been out of the headlines for some months. That may suggest that the changes introduced to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship after the Cornelia Rau scandal have eradicated abuses. But despite some improvements, Australian refugee policy is still destructive.

Let us begin with the improvements. The most encouraging changes have been to the detention regime. The conditions under which detainees live have generally improved, children are not detained, and the government may allow some detainees to live, although under harsh conditions, outside detention centres.

The Department, too, treated with exemplary speed and professionalism the claims for asylum of the first group of West Papuans to arrive by boat.

These improvements are welcome. But Australian policy towards asylum seekers continues to be vitiated by an internal contradiction that expresses itself in the cruel and disrespectful treatment of those who are its objects. It also weakens in Australia the principles on which this nation was built.

The contradiction is this. The only point of signing the refugee convention, as Australia has, is to construct a policy that ensures that those whose human dignity is at serious risk in their own nations find protection. But in reality Australian policy is designed to ensure that asylum seekers who arrive by boat, regardless of the justice of their claims, can make no claim on Australia for protection. Nor, if it can be avoided, will they find protection in Australia. By the treatment meted to those who manage to arrive, too, others will be deterred.

The workings of this policy have been most evident in the travails of the Burmese asylum seekers sent to Nauru. They claimed protection from the persecution they say they have suffered both in Burma and in Malaysia. Australian representatives told them that they would never be allowed to live in Australia, and encouraged them to return to Malaysia without any guarantee that they would not be persecuted there or that they would find any meaningful resettlement to future safety. In effect, Australia was denying them protection and was working for their repatriation to an unsafe place, in contradiction of the Convention.

Refugee policy broken after Rau scandal fixGovernment representatives also insisted that their claims for protection would only be heard by Australian officials in a process whose justice and freedom from bias was not reviewable by Australian courts (nor, for that matter, subject to scrutiny and safeguards under any legal system at all).

Understandably, they had little trust in the fairness of this process. They have legitimately lodged visa applications under the Australian legal rules, and insisted on being interviewed under these rules, not outside them. Their appeal to have their applications adjudicated under the rule of law has been taken to the High Court of Australia. The case was adjourned when the Minister's representative guaranteed that departmental officers and interpreters would travel to Nauru to interview the men between July 12 and 20. A delegate of the Minister would then decide on the applications.

Similar issues have arisen in the case of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who have also been sent to Nauru. They have been put under additional pressure to take part in an extra-legal process, by the announcement that they may be eligible for settlement in the United States. An agreement between the United States and Australia might in return allow some Haitian or Cuban asylum seekers to be resettled here. Even those Sri Lankans found to be refugees under this arbitrary process, however, have no guarantee of resettlement. Their treatment does not reflect a commitment to protect refugees but a determination that they will not be resettled in Australia.

The treatment of the two groups illustrates the destructive nature of Australian refugee policy. It claims to support the international community in ensuring that refugees are protected, but simultaneously removes them from the protection of law and works to repatriate them. It is Australia’s version of the Guantanamo Bay solution. Both allow national representatives to decide the fate of other nationals outside the rule of law.

The hypocrisy involved in this conflict between humanitarian commitments and brutal practice inevitably affects a nation's sensitivity to human dignity. In particular, it makes it more tempting for a government to exclude other aspects of its own citizens' lives from the effective protection offered by the rule of law. The changes in Australian security laws reflect this slide.

In the case of refugee policy it also becomes more likely that callousness will infect other decisions and practices. The root of the abuses revealed at the time of the controversy over Cornelia Rau lay less in Department procedures than in Government policy.

This callousness is also reflected in the expulsion from Australia of people without permanent residence who are convicted of serious crime. As with other punitive measures the principle may seem attractive, but the human reality is often pathetic. Young men, for example, who came unaccompanied to Australia as refugee children, form a drug habit that they feed by selling drugs. Their crime is considered serious. So they face deportation back to their own lands despite having no connections with the country, no education, nothing gained from Australia except drug dependence, and no resources to begin a new life. Australia can do better than this.



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Existing comments

Surely Andrew has enough Jesuit nous to understand what is a scandal and a 'con' by the do gooders. Cornelia Rau was wandering in the QLD bush, no identification, spoke and presented herself as a German tourist and continued tha charade until much time later her sister reported her missing !!! Just what could authorities have done ? She refused to co-operate with all goverment authorities and medical professionals.
Even when her charade was discovered and she was found to be schizophrenic, she still played games. where should the unknown and then unco-operative person be held ? In the Hilton ? Even her sister didn't want her.

philip herringer | 28 June 2007  

Philip surely misses the point. No person, citizen or non-citizen, well or unwell, cooperative or uncooperative, should be deprived of her/his freedom by executive act. Only a properly constituted Court should have that power. A basic problem with our legislation is that immigration authorities are able to imprison people without first bringing them before a Court and charging them with an offence.

Warwick | 30 June 2007  

...and Philip, what of the other 246 persons wrongfully detained in custody by immigration officers? All of them without having being brought before a judge or magistrate. Were they also 'playing games'? [for the detail, see ]

Warwick | 04 July 2007  

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