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Wednesday, 19 September 2012 10:56

Loreto paper sheds light on Australian refugee policies

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Given the present confusion and controversy surrounding people seeking asylum in Australia the Loreto Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation (JPIC) committee has worked to provide some clarity around issues to do with refugees and asylum seekers.

If we take our signature of this Convention seriously then the starting point for any dialogue regarding asylum seekers and refugees is: How can we best protect and provide for desperate people fleeing persecution? 

Unfortunately, this is not the starting point for much of the present day discussion, rather the conversations are polarised around protecting our borders and deterring people from seeking asylum in Australia.

Events leading up to the present situation 

Increasing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and a civil war in Sri Lanka caused large numbers of people to flee their countries - these are often called push factors. Apart from the huge numbers going to Syria, Pakistan and Jordan thousands came by plane to Malaysia and Indonesia and a few thousand of these took boats to Australia. The Howard government, in an attempt to prevent asylum seekers from coming to Australia, established a number of deterrents including detention centres in isolated parts of Australia and the Pacific (Nauru and Manus Island), excising parts of Australia, rigorous and prolonged processes of security checks and temporary protection visas (tpvs), giving temporary refugee status but requiring that people return to their countries of nationality when the hostilities ceased. TPV holders were not able to leave Australia, bring their families to Australia and, in some cases, were not able to work. On a few occasions the Howard government instituted attempts to tow the boats back to Indonesia. Despite the harshness of these provisions, which caused mental illness, attempted suicides and self-harm, most of the asylum seekers were found to be refugees and given asylum in Australia.  

The Tampa affair focused public attention on the situation of asylum seekers and a strong public reaction developed in response to the isolation of asylum seekers in remote refugee camps and, particularly, to the incarceration of children. In response to this public outcry the Howard government and then the Rudd/Gillard modified some of the harsher requirements - women and children could live in the community, efforts were made to shorten the processing times and temporary protection visas were abolished under the Rudd government.

The harshness of the Howard government measures, the cessation of the civil war in Sri Lanka and a range of other factors did reduce the number of boats coming to Australia. Over the past few years, however, people smuggling operations have become more sophisticated and the Rudd/Gillard government's efforts to provide a more humane environment for asylum seekers has attracted more boats. 

Australians have been appalled by the sinking of boats and the loss of hundreds of lives - something had to be done. 

Present situation

The Government and Opposition in response to the public's increasing demand for some solution to the drownings at sea offered a range of draconian deterrents including the Malaysian solution, the Pacific solution, towing the boats back and the re-introduction of temporary protection visas. In a desperate effort to fix the problem the Government formed the Expert Panel, Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L'Estrange, to advise on processes to deal with and deter boat arrivals. Within a very short space of time the Expert Panel made 22 recommendations which included:

  • having a regional approach to the problem by greater cooperation with Malaysia, strengthening bilateral ties with Indonesia, building regional capacity to deal with people smugglers and ensuring that boat arrivals would not have any advantage by  circumventing regular migration arrangements.
  • increasing the Humanitarian Program to 20,000 with a greater focus on asylum seekers in camps and prisons in SE. Asia. 
  • Parliament putting in place regional processing arrangements, initially in Nauru and Manus Island (PNG). In this arrangement the onus is on Parliament to determine which countries are suitable for processing asylum seekers.
  • removing family reunion  and family sponsorship rights, formerly given to those granted refugee status.

Response

It is no exaggeration to say that most non-government and professional agencies working with refugees have welcomed the increase in the Humanitarian Program and the focus on regional collaboration, but have decried  most of the other recommendations for the following reasons:  

  • by repealing the Migration Act Parliament is allowed to name an offshore processing country without stipulating any criteria and asylum seekers are deprived of the few human rights protections they had.
  • allows Parliament to designate any country for off-shore processing irrespective of their signing the Refugee Convention
  • uses Manus Island and Nauru for assessing asylum seeker applications and ignores past lessons regarding the mental and physical health impacts of keeping people for prolonged periods in isolated places
  • the situation of children and unaccompanied minors is unclear  - who will be their guardians? Who will have their best interests at heart?
  • deprives traumatised people from proposing family members for the Special Humanitarian Program - this frequently leads to increased mental illness and self-harm while providing greater incentive for whole families to undertake the perilous voyage.  

As long as there are violence, conflict and persecution in the world there will be people seeking safety and a chance to bring up their children in peace and stability. There is no simple solution. The challenge for all of us is to stand in the shoes of any asylum seeker and ask: 

What would I do if my life and the lives of my family were in danger?   How we respond to asylum seekers is essentially a moral question not a deterrent mechanism. It is immoral to use vulnerable people to send a stay away message to others. As Fr. Frank Brennan s.j. wrote in a recent article deterrence should not be bought at the price of decency and accountability in the protection of asylum seekers.

Read the original document from the Loreto JPIC.