UN raises concern on Australia’s new asylum policy

Following Australian Parliament’s passage of a bill to process asylum seekers offshore, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees held a press briefing in Geneva saying the new policy raises complex legal, protection, policy and operational issues.

UNHCR Spokesperson Adrian Edwards welcomes Australia Expert Panel’s Report as it encourages regional cooperation which the UNHRC has long supported. However, the report also emphasises on “strong deterrent elements reflected in the re-establishment of offshore processing in the Pacific raise concerns and many questions.” The briefing said,

The Government’s decision, enabled by legislation passed by Parliament, to allow offshore processing is an exception to this general practice. We do not want to see a return to lengthy delays in remote island centres for asylum seekers and refugees before durable solutions are found. We are also concerned about the psychological impact for those individuals who would be affected.

Edwards concluded the briefing saying UNHRC will study the amendment for possible discussion with the Australian Government.

Australia’s Governor-General speaks at an annual breakfast for UNHCR in Sydney as part of the World Refugee Week in 2011. (Photo: Office of the Governor-General)

Increased boat arrivals and “deaths at sea” sent the Australian Parliament in panic and railroaded the amendment to the Migration Act that officially shuts its borders from people arriving by boat in a heated deliberation Thursday.

The re-invented law tells asylum seekers to go back to third parties in the Asia-pacific region without specific time frames for legal processing. The law is now waiting for a royal assent.

The Coalition Government strongly voted the bill, 44-9 defeating the Greens into smithereens. Senator Christine Milne admitted her “shame” as a parliamentarian. She claimed she has not been provided with the details of the bill while the Government rushed its passage, SBS reported.

The public broadcaster also noted Opposition Leader Tony Abbott cheered to the new law and commended the asylum Panel the Government has appointed in June. The Panel highly endorsed the return of the landmark policy of the former Prime Minister John Howard to detain boat people in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard clenches fists alongside her Immigration Minister Chris Bowen as they meet the press. (Photo: AAP/Lucas Coch)

The Australian Parliament House has compiled statistics on the number of boat people seeking for asylum in Australia since 1976, year-by-year. It shows that the John Howard’s Pacific Solution has deterred boat arrivals in 2002-2008. But when the policy ended 2008 by Howard’s successor Kevin Rudd, massive influx of boats resumed and has dramatically increased from that time on. Latest figure during 2011-2012 shows that 7983 people have arrived in 110 boats.

The Australian Parliament House shows statistics on boat arrivals.

The massive boat arrivals in recent months alarmed the Government. Members of the Parliament have gone through lengthy and tedious deliberations in both Upper and Lower Houses to enact amendments to the Migration Act.

Following release of the asylum Panel’s 22 Recommendation on Monday, however, new boats carrying an estimated number of 200 boat people, more or less, have arrived.

Asylum seekers rallies inside a detention centre. (Photo: NTNews)

The Government has already dispatched a team to Manus Island in PNG to assess the details and magnitude of reconstruction works at detention centres. It is the same detention site used during the Howard’s Pacific Solution.

The Australian Government has recognised the magnitude of these global trends noting that the numbers of people seeking asylum in Australia are small compared to those seeking asylum in Europe and other parts of the world.

In the US, for example, it is estimated that more than 500 000 ‘illegal aliens’ arrive each year. Similarly, parts of Europe struggle to monitor and control the large influxes from Africa and the Middle East each year. In comparison, in 2010 134 boats arrived unauthorised in Australia with a total of about 6879 people on board (including crew). Though considerably more than the 7 boat arrivals in 2008 with 179 people on board, in comparison with Europe and the US this is still a small number.

The APH notes that although Australians in the past offered sympathy to displaced people, the rampant arrivals has now become a matter of concern – including border protection, rising unemployment, and selection of people who would become a member of society, among other issues.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has also launched a campaign to discourage people arriving by boats. It drumbeats a punch line: “No to People Smuggling.”

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Amnesty International

Human rights advocates react with disdain at the reincarnated Pacific Solution.

Dr Graham Thom of the Amnesty International speaks on the boat arrivals. (Photo: Alex Ellinghausen)

Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International’s refugee spokesperson, said the Gillard-Abbott policy delineates Australia’s lack of moral obligation by sacrificing protection in favour of deterrence and punishment.

“If we outsource our international obligations in such a flagrant manner, where refugees are left to languish indefinitely – we send the dangerous message to the region that refugee protection is expendable and avoidable…”

The AIA also submitted proposals for consideration to the Panel, but said it is appalled with the Report.

In response to the offshore processing, AIA came up with an impassioned campaign against the so-called window dressing. The group said the Abbott-Gillard’s claim of “saving lives” is just a political spin.

Howard’s Pacific Solution was condemned and dismantled for a reason – it destroyed the mental health of some of the world’s most vulnerable people; leading to self-harm and suicide. It was estimated to cost taxpayers over $1 billion. It broke international law. And it even failed to “stop the boats….There is no way to dress it up. Warehousing desperate asylum seekers on tiny, impoverished islands with no adequate protection is unacceptable….Join us in telling Abbott and Gillard: your refugee policy does not represent me.

Migration Act stripped of human rights protections

President Gillian Triggs of the Australian Human Rights Commission acknowledged the efforts of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers to respond to the tragic loss of life at sea. She also welcomed the recommendation to encourage regional cooperation to help Australia in resettling refugees.

However, she admits her concern on the Parliament’s act of fast-tracking the amendments giving the High Court no opportunity to review whether the processing will be conducted according to human rights standards. She said it is alarming to note the amendment to the Migration ACT violates human rights protection and non-adherence of Australia to its international obligation.

She noted the principle of “no advantage” which could mean stripping asylum seekers of any protection while they await their fate in third countries. In addition, the new policy does not guarantee the protection of unaccompanied children.

“Australia must also be satisfied that each person transferred will have access to an effective refugee status assessment procedure and won’t be returned to a country where their life or freedom is at risk. These are core obligations under international law and should be respected,” she said.

Relevant links to Australian policies on asylum seekers and refugees:

United Nations Convention and Protocols Related to the Status of Refugees Australian Human Rights Commission

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent


Asylum seekers to experience homestay

Delayed posting of one of the top news stories of the week:

Following the launch of the Community Placement Network (CPN) on May 3, about 5000 asylum seekers will be able to experience a decent life in a homestay program. The 6-week refugee homestay, an initial scheme to ease overcrowded detention centres, is expected to kick off two weeks from now. CPN is designed to accommodate asylum seekers released from detention centres on a Bridging Visa.

Australian Homestay Network (AHN) CEO David Bycroft told ABC more than a hundred applications have been lodged on the first day. Eligible refugees, mostly males of 18-25 years of age, will have the opportunity to stay at accredited Aussie homes. AHN is privately-run homestay accommodation network intended for international students costing $300 per week. Bycrfot said this scheme is the “best model” for processing eligible asylum seekers while waiting for their bridging visas and to eventually transition into community life.

Detainees stage a protest on a rooftop of the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney in March. (Photo: AP)

Australian media, including News Corp, reported that the Australian Government has offered AHN-member home owners $250-$300 a week to accommodate a refugee guest. It will also pay a weekly stipend of between $220 and $300 to families to cover food and board for detainees. Almost 1000 detainees have been released into the community over the past two months, the paper added.

However, the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group website clarified media reports on the costs. Quoting Pamela Carr, campaign coordinator of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, the guest by the Name of G Winston says, asylum seekers will pay$120- $140 per week for board in an Australian home under the CPN for the first six weeks and they will pay extra for food. “They will pay this out of their CAS payment which is around $215 per week. Asylum seekers get a CAS payment for the first 6 weeks when they leave detention. The CAS payment is the equivalent of 89% of Sickness Benefit (the lowest Centrelink Payment).”

The website also said, costs in detention centres range from $160 – $ 850 per person per night depending on the detention centre’s location. Over 90% of asylum seekers coming by boat are found to be refugees, get visas and will settle in Australia, Carr was also quoted as saying while the Amnesty International confirmed, “we have to remember that ultimately 90% of asylum seekers will be found to be genuine refugees.”

Detainees stage a riot at a Christmas Island detention centre last month. (Photo: Seven News)

Praise for homestay

AI welcomes the CPN initiative as a positive shift to more community-based processing of asylum seekers in Australia. Dr Graham Thom, AI’s refugee spokesperson said the scheme will provide refugees with an opportunity to be introduced to the Australian community.

“We are pleased to see these positive steps relating to the processing of asylum seekers in the Australian community…Community processing initiatives like the CPN are much cheaper than detention, and much more humane, giving asylum seekers the chance to start contributing to Australian society while they wait for their refugee status to be assessed,” says Dr Thom.

The AI has done a research trip to some of the most remote detention facilities across the country and found that the detention centres “incredibly difficult for asylum seekers to understand and engage with the system.” Dr. Thom said once the asylum seekers are released from detention, they often feel isolated and disconnected within the community.

“This is a step forward and it honours Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, but the Government must now continue to work towards increasing the number of bridging visa releases.”

A typical homestay student accommodation facility advertised by a private home owner. (Photo: elsa.sa.edu.au)

Opposition slams homestay

While the CPN is fully supported by human rights organisations, the Federal Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison slammed the plan, claiming it shows the Government’s desperation, recklessness of policy and out of control. He said Australians have been complaining about the rising costs of living and Julia Gillard offered to supplement household incomes by offering rent to asylum seekers.

“Labor’s decision to house adult male asylum seekers released on bridging visas in the spare rooms of Australian families is a desperate, reckless policy from a government that has lost control….The fact Australian families are now being asked to house asylum seekers who have arrived illegally by boat, including those whose claims have been rejected, shows just how desperate Labor have become over their failed border protection policies which have seen almost 17,000 people now arrive on 301 boats.”

However, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, said: “This is yet another cheap shot from the Coalition, who like to demonise asylum seeker issues.”

The Refugee Advocacy Network is convinced the CPN will not offer accommodation but also a helping hand to get the refugees start learning the Australian way of life. It said this is a great initiative to complement the Australian Red Cross in its search for short-term accommodation support to eligible asylum seekers coming out of detention

The CPN is an initiative of the AHN to offer short-term homestay accommodation to eligible asylum seekers leaving detention centres on a Bridging visa. The AHN has been commended by both the Senate Inquiry into the Welfare of International Students (2009) and the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into International Student Accommodation (2011). It is the only operating homestay organisation with benchmarked national standards, and is the leading homestay provider within Australia. The CPN operates under these national standards.