‘Screening out’ risks returning genuine refugees to persecution

The decision by the Department of Immigration today to forcibly return 20 Sri Lankan nationals without properly assessing their refugee claims, a process known as ‘screening out’, has drawn strong criticism from the Human Rights Law Centre. The Minister for Immigration has today announced that 20 recently arrived Sri Lankans were flown from Christmas Island to Colombo after the Department concluded that they did not engage Australia’s protection obligations.

Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, said that the practice of screening out recent arrivals deliberately bypasses processes under Australian law designed to safeguard against the return of genuine refugees to places where they face torture and human rights abuses.

“Profoundly important decisions are being made through a process that is informal, secretive and insulated from review, falling a long way short of what is needed to meet our obligations under international law to ensure we don’t return genuine refugees,” said Mr Webb.

People who are screened out are deported at short notice after being interviewed without legal advice. The determination that they aren’t refugees is not subject to independent review. Adding to these concerns are recent statistics revealing that when the Department determines a maritime arrival is not a refugee, those decisions are frequently overturned on appeal.

As Mr Webb noted, “the Department often gets it wrong when they follow a far more rigorous assessment process. Undoubtedly the blunt and speedy screening out process compounds those risks,” said Mr Webb.

In March 2013, Australia co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution that expressed concern at the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture.

“It is well documented that there are ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Before involuntarily returning someone there, Australia has a legal obligation to properly assess whether that person is at risk of serious harm. A failure to do so risks returning genuine refugees into the hands of their persecutors,” said Mr Webb.

“Given the consequences of getting it wrong, Australia must ensure that we are not returning people to torture or persecution. The screening out process just doesn’t cut it,” said Mr Webb.