International Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December: as Federal Immigration Minister Ruddock attended the ministerial council meeting of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, a wide range of events happened around Australia to address the Australian government's treatment of asylum seekers. Events involving non-government
organisations, former politicians, human rights groups, refugees, actors, universities, authors, broadcasters and Australians from every background.
Refugee and asylum seeker issues continue to dominate international and national political agendas, and will be a key agenda item for the Howard Government's third term.
The Government and Opposition's focus on race in the lead-up to the election provoked condemnation from organisations and individuals around Australia. Australians Against Racism – founded by fashion designer Mariana Hardwick and novelist Eva Sallis – have
gathered public donations for a new television advertisement (now screening), challenging the Federal Government's stance on asylum seekers. Rural Australians for Refugees are selling gift cards and collecting donations for Oxfam Community Aid Abroad and the Ecumenical
Migration Centre's work with refugees.
Melbourne QC Julian Burnside is running a test case on the conditions in which the Federal Government detains asylum seekers. Former Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti said recently that Australia was in "flagrant violation" of international human rights obligations relating to asylum seekers. And former Liberal
Immigration minister Ian MacPhee has described the government as the "most regressive in our history," stating that "the Howard Government has divided Australia and shamed us in the world."
Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is among many agencies and groups pushing for policy change, and working to provide the public with accurate information about asylum seekers. Organisations and individuals are focussing on a number of policy areas including mandatory detention, Australia's international human rights obligations and
refugee intake quotas.
One broad-based organisation working to come up with alternative solutions to the asylum seeker issue is Justice For Asylum Seekers. This is a Victoria-based coalition of about 35 groups, (including Oxfam Community Aid Abroad), jointly convened by the Ecumenical Migration Centre, The Catholic
Commission for Justice, Development and Peace (CCJDP) and the Uniting Church. Justice For Asylum Seekers believes that alternatives to non-reviewable mandatory detention do exist – alternatives that both respect human rights of asylum seekers and maintain the level of security necessary to screen and assess claimants.
Justice For Asylum Seekers has proposed an Alternative Detention Model that includes:
- More humane treatment of people on arrival and when they are in detention, including ensuring that they understand the process and their rights, and have access to appropriate, independent health and legal professionals;
- Greater flexibility in the consideration of a person's individual circumstances when deciding on their status;
- Equity of treatment between those who are detained and those who are not; around 85 percent of detainees are eventually cleared by immigration, yet in detention they are treated as if they are "guilty" until proven "innocent".
- Reducing the time every individual spends in detention, including maximum time limits, thereby making considerable savings and allowing people to live in the community where most eventually settle;
- Through these and other steps, bringing the detention regime into line with Australia's international treaty obligations, and addressing the criticisms of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
The model would be easy to implement, requiring few administrative adjustments to the existing visa, assistance and review framework. Some alterations are proposed for the Refugee Review Tribunal, to ensure its reliability and independence, and that it has the full confidence of the public and claimants. In September this year, the
Federal Parliament passed eight Bills removing the rights of refugees when they seek asylum in Australia. One of these effectively removes the Federal Court's scrutiny of Refugee Tribunal decisions – judicial scrutiny is vital to ensure the integrity and transparency of the Tribunal's administrative system.
Justice For Asylum Seekers also advocates that asylum seekers in the community should have access to basic support services while their status is determined. This includes right to work, access to income support and Medicare for those on a Bridging Visa.
Along with these systematic amendments, changes are needed in Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers. Many organisations around Australia including Justice for Asylum Seekers are working towards eradicating the use of misleading labels such as "queue jumpers" which are used in public debate to justify harsh detention
measures. Comments such as those by Foreign Minister Downer – "These people have behaved abominably right from the start. The disgraceful way they treat their own children. Any civilised person would never dream of treating their children in that way… [they are]… not welcome in our country," (10/10/01) – do little to
advance public debate on the rights of those arriving seeking asylum. Comments alluding to the opening of "flood gates" and the like – used to justify tougher border policing – have lead to misinformed public opinion. In 2000, just 4,174 asylum seekers reached Australia, and we hosted 16,700 refugees in total – a
fraction of those hosted by many other countries, many of which are far less well-off than Australia.
The level of public interest, and the impact national decisions make on our international reputation will ensure that asylum seeker policy remains a key agenda item for the next three years. The challenge for non-government organisations and individuals will be to provide positive alternatives on refugee policy, and to contribute to
informed public and political debate on these issues throughout the Howard Government's third term.
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