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

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Australia finds no deal to help asylum seekers

The Senate upheld a High Court’s decision to scrap an extra-territorial solution to  people smuggled by boat into Australia in a dramatic vote, 39 against 29.

This is a nail in the coffin of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s benchmark policy to solve human smuggling. It also puts to rest Gillard’s “Malaysian Solution”—a deal that allows Australia to take in 4,000 genuine refugees from Malaysia in exchange for the deportation and processing of 800 boat arrivals within four years.

The High Court ruled out the deal in August last year on the grounds that Malaysia has no legal obligation to protect asylum seekers, a requirement under Australia’s Migration Act.

Refugee coalition groups in Australia also noted Malaysia rejected any responsibility in the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

In Malaysia, the Lawyers for Liberty based in Selangor earlier supported a memorandum endorsed by various organisations against Australia’s “misguided refugee outsourcing deal.”

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, wish to express our opposition to the proposed Australia-Malaysia bilateral agreement, in principle, to transfer the next 800 asylum seekers seeking asylum in Australia to Malaysia.

Although the terms of the joint agreement remain vague, we are of the view that the Australian Government is making a mistake in arranging this joint agreement with the Malaysian Government which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention”). This proposed exchange is a misguided approach in dealing with a complex issue that will cause serious ramifications as Malaysia has a long record of abuse and mistreatment of people seeking protection. This arrangement, if implemented, may lead to the violation of the rights of transferred individuals to Malaysia.

Two boatloads of asylum seekers arrived on Christmas Island, north off Australia in just 10 days.  Media reports counted about 130 people were rescued, one body was recovered and three people went down with the vessel. Wednesday’s incident came just days after another boat capsized, with 110 people saved but an estimated 90 killed.

Toddlers are among the latest boat arrivals. (Photo: Danile Wilkins)

The twin tragedies alerted the Federal government. The Lower House convened and passed a bill on Wednesday to allow offshore processing of asylum seekers. However,  the breakthrough was immediately dashed off by the Senate on Thursday. Heated debates lasted up to the wee hours of Friday morning.

The bill authored by Independent Rob Oakeshott is called the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. It allows Australia to send asylum seekers to Malaysia and the island of Nauru in the South Pacific for processing.

The Opposition reached a compromise, but the Australian Greens were against the proposed deal and therefore voted against the bill in both houses.

The Parliament will go into a winter recess while more boats are expected to arrive within the next few weeks.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen pronounced a macabre prediction that more boat people are expected to die while politicians are having a 6-week holiday break, the SBS reported.

A boatload of people is spotted approaching Christmas Island. (Photo: Express MV Bison)

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie also said parliamentarians should not be going into recess when such an important matter remained unresolved.

“We should be sitting today, we should have continued sitting last night, we should sit next week, we should sit until we get a solution,” he told state broadcaster ABC.

“I think there is every chance in the world that more people will die during this six-week recess,” he said.

Gilliard earlier blamed the High Court for Australia’s failure to deal with human smugglers. She said the High Court-Senate is sending a message to people smugglers to load more people to come to Australia.

Amid prolonged parliamentary processes, Gillard announced the formation of a panel composed of “experts” such as former defence chief Angus Houston, former top diplomat Michael L’Estrange and refugee advocate Paris Aristotle. She said the panel will assess all asylum policy options. The “Multi Reference Group of MPs” will also work in consultation with the panel.

Since 1976, more than 27,000 people have risked their lives on boats in a desperate bid to arrive in Australia, a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Alternatives to the Ill-fated Malaysian Solution

Holidays rush in and with the latest boat people tragedy, the government is re-thinking what went wrong. The ruling party is coming to the roundtable to consider the alternatives. News Limited has this illustrated summary:

And here’s the link to the Care Factor: Missing the boat of an ssylum seeker solution. The Journo will endeavour to review the report.

Prosecute people smugglers, but how?

Shipwrecks will not deter refugees or asylum seekers to take the boat off to Australia- the metaphorical Utopia or Promise Land where people can play cricket or surf the net all day.

About 200 people or more from Arab countries, are feared dead at sea 200 km off Java Island of Indonesia when the overloaded boat they boarded sunk on Saturday. Only three dozens of survivors are so far accounted for, but do not rely on numbers which government statisticians can easily tweak. These people are reportedly come from Dubai and flew into Jakarta to be transported to Australia by boat.

A survivor wails after being rescued

Depending on which media you are reading, each Arab paid $500 each to Indonesian airport authorities and $6,000 each to board an Australian-bound boat. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Editorial wonders if the Indonesian authorities did not notice these Arab-looking people entering Jakarta without valid visas. Then all these desperate people queued on a port where they took the boat with a capacity of 100– there were 200 passengers.

The ABC reports that this latest tragedy costs over $600,000, a hefty amount which went into the pockets of people smugglers.

The boat captain and crew members are said to be safe. Before the boat sank, they grabbed their life vests and swam away.

Australian media say this exemplifies another well-organised people smuggling stirring further debates on Australia’s immigration policies.

This latest tragedy also coincides with the first death anniversary of about 50 asylum seekers who were shipwrecked on the stormy waters off Australia’s Christmas Island. Two weeks ago, another boat tragedy took place nearby.

A statistics from the Australian Parliament House shows that this year, 28 boats carrying 1675 people have been intercepted on Australian waters (as of June)– a sifnificant decrease from 124 boats loading 6879 people in 2010.

Earlier this year, the Julia Gillard Government approved the so-called Malaysian Solution, a policy to process asylum seekers offshore in exchange for the intake of genuine refugees. Gillard pinned hopes that this solution will stop people smuggling. The latest tragedy, however, proves she is wrong.

Other survivors receive treatment at a temporary shlter in Indonesia (Photo AFP Getty)

Time and again, boat tragedies tell stories of lost lives and broken dreams. News Limited reports an account of a survivor: 

Esmat Adine, 24, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan said he “tried to find a suitable and legal way” but after being told he wouldn’t be eligible for a student visa to Deakin University until 2013 – and fearing for his life – he fled to Jakarta.

“I was arrested by the Taliban last year and imprisoned for 16 days where they beat me and made me sleep on a dead body,” he said.

“I registered with UNHCR in Jakarta who said it could take one year but I have a wife and three-month-old daughter at home and this is the quickest way.

“We had to go so we decided to go the quickest way. There are many, many people. They are waiting in Jakarta, waiting for the boat. Most of them, they are sure they will get to Australia.

Refugees and asylum seekers have nothing to lose and nowhere to go to. Adine was quoted further by News Ltd as saying, “If Australia does not accept our request now, we will do (it) again because we have nothing.”

If the inter-governmental solutions are not workable, can’t the governments arrest and prosecute human smugglers? They should, but how?

News Link: Asian Correspondent