Australia must not send asylum seekers to places where they risk torture or death

Australia must not send asylum seekers to places where they risk torture or death

This piece was written for the Herald Sun. Daniel was asked to make the case against handing a boat of asylum seekers over to the Sri Lankan Government.

If reports are true, our Government wants to hand 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, including 37 children, over to the very regime they claim they need protection from.

Let’s look at our Government’s own evidence about the things these people might be fleeing.

Last year Australia backed moves at the United Nations expressing deep concern at ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, killings and torture. Our Government’s travel advice for Australians thinking of visiting Sri Lanka warns: “Exercise a high degree of caution ... at this time because of the unpredictable security environment.”

Our Department of Immigration and specialised courts and tribunals have consistently assessed that the majority of Sri Lankans who arrive in Australia by boat genuinely need our protection. So when our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison say Sri Lanka is “a society at peace”, they’re ignoring their own evidence and denying the existence of the same atrocities Australia condemned at the UN.

Of course, we can’t assume everyone on these missing boats genuinely needs our protection. But it’s also wrong to assume they don’t. The only way to know for sure is to properly and fairly assess their refugee claims.

We must remember what’s at stake. The assessment of refugee claims can be the difference between life and death. If we get it wrong, the consequence could be returning a person to death or torture at the hands of the very people they’re trying to escape.

So it’s absolutely vital that the process through which these decisions are made is fair, transparent and accountable. Yet, reports suggest that these asylum seekers have been asked just four questions over Skype. That’s barely enough to establish who they are, let alone why they fled or what harm they might face if returned.

Ticket inspectors ask more questions before fining people. And even then the people can seek legal assistance and dispute the fine in court. Even for such relatively minor matters, our fundamental Australian values of fairness and justice have seen us develop strong safeguards against mistakes.

We can debate exactly what our asylum seeker policies should be and whether we can stop deaths at sea without locking up survivors indefinitely on remote Pacific islands. But, while that debate continues, there are three things all Australians should agree on.

First, we have a right to know what our Government does in our name. That’s the very nature of our democracy. We have the right to judge the politicians we elect to serve us. We can only do that if they are honest and upfront about their actions. Trying to “stop the boats” doesn’t give the Government a licence to keep undemocratic secrets from the Australian public.

Second, we should never return a person to the risk of death, torture or other serious harm. We wouldn’t throw someone back into a burning building. Nor should we return the persecuted to their persecutors.

Third, the only way to ensure we don’t return refugees to harm is to fairly assess their claims.

It’s an absolute tragedy that people are dying at sea trying to get here. We must try to save lives, but we must also ensure we don’t send people back to the risk of death.

Our underlying goal has to be preventing harm, not just shifting its location.

Regardless whether their boat left from Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia or somewhere else, the stakes for these missing asylum seekers couldn’t be higher. The margin for error is nil. We need to assess why they fled and what risks if any they’d face if returned.

Asking them four questions on a boat in the middle of the ocean and then sending them straight back just doesn’t cut it. Mr Morrison loves to talk about protecting us from threats to our borders. But the real threat to the Australia we know isn’t a few people seeking our protection, it’s the undemocratic, unlawful and cruel measures he’s using to stop them.

Daniel Webb is the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. He is on Twitter @danielhrlc