The Edmund Rice Centre welcomes the Expert Panel’s recommendation to lift the humanitarian intake quota to 20,000 (to increase to 27,000 over next 5 years). This is a tacit recognition that there are serious conflicts around the world which force people to flee to escape death and persecution, in some of which conflicts Australia has played a very active role.
John Sweeney, the coordinator of Research at ERC said today, “The Expert Panel’s recommendations have as a central goal moving towards a truly integrated regional response to asylum seekers. According to UNHCR, there were more than 85000 people already recognised as refugees languishing in Malaysia at the end of 2011. And between July 2011 and April 2012, Australia had only accepted 1126 of these, the vast majority being Burmese nationals. Over the 18 months prior to that, Australia had only accepted 518. Over the last decade Australia has only averaged 60 visas a year for those refugees stuck in Indonesia.” Mr Sweeney reflected, “Australia is not in a position to criticise Malaysia and Indonesia unless it seriously attempts to address the backlog. Nor can Australia talk seriously about attempts to prevent people putting their lives at risk while there is no answer to those people already in the region who are already recognised to be fleeing death and persecution.”
However, the proposal to use Nauru and Manus Island is a very negative step. Mr Sweeney said, “Offshore processing on those places in the past was characterised by serious mistakes that pushed people back into danger. ERC research has clearly shown that many people were sent back to face the very real dangers that they had fled from.”, he said. “Nauru is not stopping any boat from embarking on a dangerous journey, it is merely a different destination for those who do. Nauru is not a fit site. There is an extreme scarcity of water and the only site from the last time Australia attempted this is now a school. Its remoteness means that good processing is not possible given the political and resource pressures placed on decision makers. Without appropriate checks and balances, refugee determination processes become perverse: instead of ensuring people’s safety, they begin by punishing them on a tropical island with no water and no advocate and end up sending them back into danger.”
The problem of bad process is still with us onshore. Mr Sweeney also said, “The Department of Immigration is even now engaging in unjust practices by arbitrarily disallowing a whole range of people from being assessed to see whether their claims for asylum are valid. They are merely told after a short initial interview that they are not refugees and they must prepare to go back. The practice, called ‘screening out’, is a violation of the intention of the Refugee Convention by never allowing their claims to be properly assessed. If the Department is attempting this onshore, where there are people watching, how much worse will it be when the ordinary mechanisms of democracy are crippled by distance?”
Mr Sweeney also expressed concern about the discretionary powers of the Deparment and the Minister where children were concerned. “The Expert Panel has signalled that the practice of imprisoning Indonesian children who crew boats must change. But unaccompanied children who have come to Australia asking for asylum are also treated to arbitrary exclusion from assessment and are kept in detention for long periods. We know of quite a number that have been in detention for over 15 months with no resources available to them to help them put their case, tell their story, appeal for their rights not to be locked up.”
Mr Sweeney concluded, “The Expert Panel is right to focus on those countries which are the origins of asylum seekers. But we must be careful to focus on reducing the sources of danger: war, political and other persecution, and not merely attempt to thwart people’s attempts to seek somewhere safe to live. There is evidence that Australia is also focussing on the latter rather than the former. Australia is quite capable of being cruel and cynical. There is no guarantee of humane responses to these problems, there is only our capacity to decide to act like human beings.”