Melbourne. Activists in Australia have expressed concern over a recent decision by the government to reinstate the processing of asylum seekers offshore.
“This policy will see
asylum seekers sent to Nauru [in the Pacific] or Manus Island [Papua New
Guinea (PNG)] before having their refugee status assessed in a move
Australia hopes will circumvent its international human rights
obligations,” Benjamin Pynt, the director of Humanitarian Research
Partners, based in Australia, told IRIN.
“It will deny asylum seekers the right to claim protection in Australia and exclude these people from the justice system.”
386 people are awaiting processing of their claims on Nauru, with
another 47, including 16 children, on Manus Island, which reopened its
doors on November 21.
Most asylum seekers on Manus are Sri Lankan
and Iranian, while Nauru has mainly people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka
and Pakistan, with smaller numbers from Iraq and Iran.
15, the government returned to offshore processing in both locations
after abandoning it in 2007, following heavy criticism by human rights
Close to 1,500 asylum seekers were processed on Nauru
under the previous government’s Pacific Solution, with another 365 on
However, conditions in the two facilities are far from good.
to a November 23 report by Amnesty International, researchers on a
recent three-day inspection of the facility in Nauru found a “toxic mix
of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions creating an
increasingly volatile situation on Nauru, with the Australian Government
spectacularly failing in its duty of care to asylum seekers.”
as “totally inappropriate and ill-equipped,” the facility reportedly
had hundreds of men crammed into five rows of leaking tents and
suffering from physical and mental ailments.
Current capacity in
Manus and Nauru is 500 people on each island. However, upon completion,
the combined capacity will exceed 2,000, the government says.
processing on Nauru and Manus Island will only serve to break
vulnerable people in these ill-conceived limbo camps, who have fled
unimaginable circumstances,” said Graham Thom, the national refugee
coordinator at Amnesty International Australia.
group has called on the government to immediately cease transfers to
Nauru — a move it sees as penalizing people for seeking asylum.
people are taken to a country, detained, and told if they don’t like it
they can go home,” Thom said, recalling the story of one Iraqi man who,
if returned to Iraq, would have no choice but to flee to Turkey with
“There is no option for most of these people,” the Amnesty official said.
“No Advantage” principle
to Canberra, the government’s recent policy response to an issue that
has preoccupied officials and the public for years is simply an attempt
to tackle the growing problem of boat arrivals.
More than 30,000
people have made their way to Australia by boat since 1976, according to
Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
scores of people traveling in overcrowded, dilapidated boats lose their
lives on the high seas in an effort to reach Australia, often just off
the coast of Indonesia.
In 2011, 69 boats carrying 4,565
passengers arrived in the country, while as of November 30, 256 boats
carrying 15,910 passengers had arrived in 2012, the immigration
Since 2010, the government of Prime Minister
Julia Gillard has sought to renew an offshore processing system for
boat refugees and introduced the prospect of swapping refugees with
other countries in the region.
In 2011 the High Court ruled
against the Malaysia Solution where Australia would effectively send 800
boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for accepting 4,000 refugees
currently in Malaysia over the next four years.
When the return
to offshore processing was announced in August, Chris Bowen, Australia’s
minister for immigration and citizenship, said the policy would
“discourage irregular and dangerous maritime voyages,” and “promote the
maintenance of a fair and orderly refugee program.”
policy, the government adopted the “no advantage” principle, which
effectively means all asylum applications will be processed in the same
time period as those elsewhere, including those in neighboring
Indonesia, and regardless of whether they had arrived in Australia or
“People arriving by boat are subject to this `no advantage’
principle, whether that means being transferred offshore to have their
claims processed, remaining in detention, or being placed in the
community,” Bowen said in a statement.
“Consistent with `no
advantage’, people from this cohort going on to bridging visas will have
no work rights and will receive only basic accommodation assistance,
and limited financial support,” Bowen said.
But despite the government’s position, activists remain concerned.
Australian government must remain focused on building a regional
refugee protection framework and it must meet its responsibilities as a
signatory to the Refugee Convention,” Paul Power, chief executive
officer of the Australian Refugee Council, told IRIN, saying the recent
changes to the country’s asylum policy were “disheartening, unfair and
set a poor example for refugee protection in the Asia region”.
than 7,000 asylum seekers are in immigration detention facilities and
alternative places of detention in the country, including hundreds of
children, the country’s Department of Immigration reported.
government claimed all asylum seekers would be treated the same, but a
small number are being sent to Manus Island and they are being
persecuted with different detention and conditions to those asylum
seekers released in Australia,” said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the
Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch
(HRW) says the transfer of children for offshore processing of refugee
status needs to be addressed immediately. Australia’s policy violates
its obligations to children under the Convention of the Rights of the
Child, which protects all children in Australia’s jurisdiction,
including children of non-citizens, it said.
are often survivors of traumatic journeys to reach Australia,” said
Alice Farmer, a children’s rights researcher with HRW.
is callously disregarding their best interests and failing to provide
them an opportunity for refuge when it pushes them out of Australian
And then there is the whole question of legality.
experts say the recent decision to return to the offshore processing of
refugees is a violation of the international conventions and treaties
to which Australia is a signatory, including the UN Refugee Convention.
is a total derogation of Australia’s responsibility as a signatory to
the Refugee Convention and human rights treaties,” said Susan Kneebone,
an international expert on refugee law based at Monash University,
describing it as Australia’s lowest point in its treatment of refugees.
week, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) raised concerns over the
government’s policy, calling for a “more compassionate and principled
approach to the asylum debate in Australia."
“UNHCR is deeply
troubled that as long as the focus remains primarily on deterrence, the
humanitarian, ethical and legal basis of asylum, and the protection of
refugees, will be seriously undermined,” said UNHCR regional
representative Richard Towle on 23 November.
in Australia, including those transferred to PNG and Nauru, must be
given a full, fair and expeditious assessment of their refugee claims as
soon as possible, it said.
Those found to be refugees should be
given basic human rights and the rights to which they are entitled under
the Refugee Convention, including family reunion, work and freedom of
movement. Those found not to need protection can be expected to leave
the country, the statement said.
UNHCR is particularly concerned
about the decision to transfer families, including children, to Manus
Island, in the absence of any adequate legal framework, procedures or
resources in PNG to assess their claims.
“The current movement of
refugees and asylum-seekers raises many challenges for states but we
encourage Australia to ensure a humanitarian approach that is fully
compatible with the Refugee Convention,” Towle said.
preference remains that all people arriving in Australia be assessed in
Australia under fair, efficient and, as needed, robust asylum
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