Written to mark the passing of the Border Protection Bill, 22 November 1999.
Today is a very sad day for Australia, a country where most of us were once refugees or migrants. Many of our ancestors arrived by boat. It is even sadder that some of us do not know the value of what we are losing and cannot see how we have been conned. It is not only refugees who suffer from this legislation, but all Australian people who do not want to be a part of sending people back to face possible torture and death.
The Government’s legislation and regulations will emasculate significant aspects of Australia’s obligations to refugees. At a time when the Minister should be explaining to the Australian people the minimum international standards which apply to genuine Convention refugees, irrespective of how they arrive, he is instead exploiting the nasty hangover from the race debate and creating panic and fear where none should exist.
The Opposition should also be condemned for failing to hold the Government to account and for pandering to the crude popularism and fear that the Government has created.
Amnesty International is concerned that legislation contained in the Border Protection Bill breaches Australia’s international obligations in quite fundamental ways and, far worse, that it will have extremely harsh consequences for the people it targets who may, as a result of its passage, face torture and death. With laws like these on our books, Australia will be totally hypocritical if it criticises other countries for human rights abuses. Having laws which offend minimum international standards, suspend the rule of law for some, and set a dangerous precedent for attacks on other groups, compromises the quality of citizenship held by all of us.
The Refugee Convention requires Australia to permit anyone in its territory to lodge an application for asylum for the good reason that anyone who demonstrates they are likely to be persecuted in their own country, due to their political opinions, race, religion nationality or membership of a social group, must be provided with protection. Only those who meet this strict definition are granted rights in Australia, the rest are sent home. The proposed legislation will prevent some potential refugees from even applying for asylum.
What will happen to Iraqi and Afghani refugees if they are unable to seek asylum? It will only be when Amnesty International starts documenting cases where returnees have been tortured or killed that Australia will realise what we have been complicit in. By preventing certain groups from even seeking asylum, the draft legislation seriously departs from Australia’s most fundamental obligations under the Convention including "non-refoulement" or non-expulsion if a person faces Convention based persecution.
The Minister constantly speaks of Australia’s "pull factor" for refugees. This totally ignores the "push factor" which explains these people’s presence in Australia, like the fact that these Iraqi and Afghan refugees have often fled from the most serious human rights abuses imaginable, much like the Kosovos and East Timorese who Australia welcomed, albeit temporarily. The genuineness of the Iraqis’ and the Afghans’ fears is recognised by the fact that in 1998/99 about 97% of the Iraqi and 92% of Afghan refugee claimants were found to meet the definition of a Convention refugee.
Some Iraqis and Afghans have already been forcibly returned to Afghanistan and Iraq by Iran, to face likely torture and death. How can refugees be blamed for taking matters into their own hands when their lives are at risk and where regular channels are closed to them? Would you or I behave any differently when faced with the same lack of options? It is the "push" and not the "pull" factor which is clearly relevant here.
Afghans and Iraqis are coming now, not because they see Australia as a soft target and are "queue jumpers" but because Iran, the country of first asylum, which has hosted very large groups of refugees for a long time, has tired of the international community's failure to provide funds or organised resettlement of refugees, and has passed laws to expel refugees by March next year.
Even with the recent boat arrivals and the possibility of more following, Australia simply does not have a "refugee problem." We have very small numbers of people seeking asylum in Australia compared to other countries. We are not "under siege" as the Government would have us believe. Compare the 1998-99 total of 8257 refugee claimants in Australia with Germany’s 98,644, Northern America’s 427,000 or Europe’s 417,000.
The Australian public might be interested to know that the largest group of illegals in Australia is from the United Kingdom. The second largest group is from the United States. Together they form 20.1% of illegals. Where are the "get tough" policies for them?
The Minister emphasises the costs to the taxpayer. Why is Australia spending money on detaining genuine refugees in expensive detention centres, (a policy also at odds with Australia’s obligations), rather than exploring cheaper and more humane alternatives to detention, like release on reporting conditions?
The draft legislation will also affect applications for refugee status already in the pipeline, including the applications of 1650 East Timorese asylum seekers some of whom have been in Australia struggling for refugee status for ten years. The sweeping new "non-compellable" and "non-reviewable" Ministerial discretions purport to remove important refugee decisions from rule of law, setting a dangerous precedent for attacks on other vulnerable groups in the community. We should all be concerned where law is suspended to remove the fundamental rights of some.
The Government is choosing to target the victims of human rights abuses, diminishing their prospects of accessing effective protection, while the world is doing little to prevent the situations that lead them to seek refuge.