This article was first published by New Matilda.
The Federal Government should start tailoring its asylum seeker policies to fit the facts and stop inventing facts to fit its policies.
Last week, the Government finally commenced processing the protection claims of some of the 20,000 or so asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat since August 2012. The resumption of processing immediately follows comments by Foreign Minister Bob Carr that people arriving by boat are “economic migrants”.
Carr’s comments reveal a breathtaking capacity to ignore evidence and sideline truth for the sake of short term political gain. Alarmingly, such false pretences may inform changes to the refugee determination process and taint the fair, objective and individualised assessment of refugee claims.
In 2011-2012, 91 per cent of people arriving in Australia by boat were assessed (pdf) as being genuine refugees fleeing legitimate fears of serious human rights violations.
Individual claims for protection are assessed by Departmental staff and decisions can be reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal. Tribunal Members are independent, impartial and specialised decision-makers, carefully selected and employed by the same Government now lamenting their failure to reject more claims.
As part of its “no advantage” principle, until last week the Government refused to assess the claims of anyone arriving by boat since August 2012. This begs the question, what evidence is Carr basing his statements about boat arrivals on?
In some interviews, Carr has referred to the number of people arriving by boat who have been “screened out” as part of the new “enhanced screening” process, used to hastily return over 1000 Sri Lankans without properly assessing their claims for asylum.
“Enhanced” screening is doublespeak. Under the screening process, asylum seekers are interviewed with no legal advice, no transparency and no independent review. When they are very publicly deported after this secretive process, the government celebrates and the Department’s communication spokesperson tweets #Dontbesorry. On the rare occasion that an asylum seeker manages to make contact with a lawyer, it seems the Government dodges a legal challenge and the asylum seeker is just “screened in” to await the normal assessment.
Even with this dubious process already at the Department’s disposal, Carr claims we need a “tougher, more hard-edged” refugee assessment process. He claims he is right and the courts and tribunals are wrong. It’s not clear what an even more hard-edged assessment process might look like, but you can bet it will involve more creative ways to undermine due process and the rule of law to produce a result that isn’t supported by an objective analysis of the facts.
A key purpose of refugee assessments is to determine whether or not a person will face significant harm if we return them. The stakes are high and the margin for error is nil. The consequence of getting it wrong can be that the persecuted are delivered into the hands of their persecutors.
The type of reforms that Carr’s comments surely foreshadow will heighten those risks.
Carr’s comments also contradict what Australia is saying on the world stage about the human rights situations in refugee producing countries.
In March, Australia told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that it “remains deeply concerned by the human rights situation in Iran”. Our representatives expressed particular alarm at continuing public executions of juveniles, the intimidation and arbitrary arrest of human rights and political activists, the suppression of freedom of assembly and deaths in custody caused by torture and ill-treatment.
Yet Carr singles out recent Iranian boat arrivals as being increasingly economic in their motivations. For decisions made in 2012-2013, 84.7 per cent of Iranians coming by boat were found to be genuine refugees.
Australia also 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.
In maintaining that boat arrivals from these countries are not genuine refugees, Carr denies the existence of the same human rights violations we decry on the world stage. There’s a clear disjunct between what’s being said by our representatives in Geneva and what’s being said by our politicians in Canberra.
Carr would also have us believe that the fact a person used a people smuggler to get to Australia is somehow relevant to the assessment of their protection claim. It’s not. Whatever you think of people smugglers, the strength and sincerity of an individual’s refugee claim has absolutely nothing to do with the ethics of the person who brings them here.
It’s a tragedy that people die at sea attempting to reach a better life in Australia. That reality raises profoundly difficult policy questions. But it’s a great disservice to the importance and complexity of these challenges to poison public debate by peddling deliberate untruths.
Rather than a “tough, hard-edged” assessment process, we need one that’s fair, thorough and objective. Instead of striving for more refusals, we should be striving to simply get it right. Due process is a reasonable and necessary safeguard against mistakes.
Daniel Webb is a Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.