Saturday, July 20, 2013

Is Australia's new Asia-Pacific asylum policy the harshest in its history?

Australian protesters rail against the new Rudd asylum-seekers policy outside the
Sydney Town Hall today. Photo: Peter Boyle/Socialist Action
FOLLOWING Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's announcement, asylum seekers who arrive in Australian waters by boat will no longer have the chance to be settled in Australia.

Instead, asylum seekers arriving by boat will be held in an expanded facility at Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and those who are found to be genuine refugees will be settled in PNG under a surprise agreement with the Peter O'Neill government in Port Moresby.

Announcing the changes yesterday, Rudd admitted it was "a very hardline decision".

 Protests in Sydney greeted the new policy.

The Conversation spoke to three policy analysts for their response to Rudd's announcement:

ALISON GERARD, senior lecturer in justice studies at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's "Pacific Solution #3" is irreconcilable with our international refugee obligations. Like other proposals put forward by this government, it is likely to be robustly contested in court as a breach of basic human rights.

One of the series of adverts about the
new asylum-seekers policy in
Australian media today.

Internationally, it stands out as one of the most reactive and punitive asylum seeker policies, lacking in both compassion and a sophisticated understanding of migration in the Asia-Pacific.

The workability of this framework is doubtful.

It will rely on the cooperation of a web of other countries across the region to volunteer to resettle asylum seekers who have legally arrived in Australia, a notoriously difficult diplomatic task.

This policy supposedly targets people smuggling operations. In the past we have seen people smuggling operations capably shift and adapt to new border security measures introduced by governments.

While ever the need to leave one's country of origin exists, and safer means of travelling directly are restricted (primarily by the use of strict visa requirements barring entry to those from asylum seeker source countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Somalia), people smuggling operations will remain a constant and lucrative part of the migration industry.

Expanding operations in the tiny Pacific island of Papua New Guinea will grow an industry based on what the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has described as "arbitrary detention".

Current reports suggest that the processing of claims is slow. We know that these conditions of protracted legal uncertainty have an impact on the physical and mental health of asylum seekers.

AZADEH DASTYARIA, associate of the Castan Centre for human rights law, lecturer in the faculty of law at Monash University: Today's announcement is perhaps harsher than any asylum policy we have had in our recent history. It attempts to achieve what the Howard government's Pacific Solution could not: that is, to ensure that no refugees are in fact resettled in Australia.

Whether it can achieve this aim is a big question. The success of Australia's plan relies on the ability of PNG to resettle large numbers of refugees.

Given PNG's relative poverty and inte rnational challenges, this will be no easy task. It seems unrealistic to assume that the so called RRA [Regional Resettlement Agreement] can be a sustainable solution to Australia's refugee "problem".

The difference between the RRA and the Howard era "Pacific Solution" as it operated in Nauru is that PNG is a signatory to the UNU refugee convention, where as prior to 2011 Nauru was not.

The announcement that PNG would withdraw its reservations with regards to wage earning employment (Article 17:1), housing (Article 21), public education (Article 22:1), freedom of movement (Article 31), expulsion (Article 32) and the facilitation of the naturalisation of refugees (Article 34) is a welcome development.

PNG must ensure that it abides by its entire set of obligations under the refugee convention and other human rights instruments. What was not discussed adequately in the announcement is the continuing policy of mandatory immigration detention on Manus Island.

Both Australia and PNG are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and under article 9 of that convention are required to refrain from arbitrary detention.

Immigration detention, as it currently exists on Manus Island, is in violation of article 9 of the ICCPR. We also know, from UNHCR reports, that the detention facility in Manus Island is "harsh" and inhumane.

So inhumane and unacceptable in fact, that as acknowledged in the announcement by the Minister for Immigration, children have recently been removed from the centre.

Rudd said that they would need to respond to the UNHCR but there is no reason to believe that conditions in the detention facility can be improved to allow the return of children given the isolation of the centre and the lack of support to detainees.

In any case, the policy of mandatory immigration detention should be abandoned entirely if Australia and PNG are serious about compliance with their international obligations.

KERRY MURPHY, lecturer, migration law program at Australian National University: The Rudd plan for asylum seekers arriving by boat is effectively Australia subcontracting its obligations under the refugee convention to a poor, developing Pacific country in order to resolve a domestic political impasse.

All new arrivals by boat will be sent to PNG for assessment of their claims, and if successful, they will be resettled in PNG. Whilst PNG is a signatory to the refugee convention, it is not a transit country and not really a resettlement country.

The subcontracting of our obligations is a concern because it means that developed countries can pay poor countries to take over their international obligations.

Already most refugees live in poorer under-developed countries, and a minority are resettled in the developed countries.

Already around 1.8 million refugees from Syria are registered in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Jordan has cared for thousands of Iraqis over the years, as well as a large Palestinian refugee population.

Jordan cannot subcontract responsibility for the large numbers of Syrians now arriving. PNG is heavily under-resourced for this task, lacking basic services for many of their own population.

Does the money spent on paying PNG to process the asylum seekers count as foreign aid to PNG?
  • This article was originally published at the Australian academic commentary website The Conversation.

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