Friday, March 16, 2007

Australia lays out the unwelcome mat

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has turned down the asylum request of a group of 82 Sri Lankan men and instead sent them to Nauru. An 83rd man remains in hospital in Perth, but is likely to follow the others. The minister said yesterday the move was part of the government's policy to prevent any unauthorised landings on Australian soil. Andrews said the government was committed to “sending the strongest possible message of deterrence to people who would engage in the dangerous and unlawful activity of people smuggling”.

The men were on a boat which originated in Indonesia last month when it was intercepted by the Australian navy in international waters. The Australian Government tried to convince Indonesia to take them back on the condition they not be returned to Sri Lanka. But both Sri Lanka and Indonesia indicated if the boatpeople were sent to Indonesia, they'd be immediately deported back to Sri Lanka, an option Australia ruled out. The men are all Tamils fleeing from the civil war with the ruling Sinhalese. The asylum seekers reputedly paid people smugglers upwards of $US 5,000 each to make the boat journey.

After the boat was intercepted, the Australian navy took the group to a detention centre on Christmas Island. The choice of Christmas Island was deliberate. In 2001, the Australian government redefined Australia’s borders and excised 4,000 of its offshore islands such as Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Cocos (Keeling) island. The effect was to deny “unauthorised persons” the right to apply for an Australian visa unless the Immigration Minister exercises discretionary power.

In addition, Australia implemented its so-called ‘Pacific Solution’. Australia co-opted the impoverished tiny nation of Nauru to keep the refugees in detention beyond the access of the Australian legal system. The detention facility there was first ramped up after Nauru took in the refugees from the Norwegian MV Tampa in September 2001. Then a month later the Australian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Papua New Guinea, to build a refugee processing centre on the remote island of Manus in return for an initial aid package worth AUS $1 million. While the Manus centre remained mostly empty, Australia paid Nauru $20 million to take in over a thousand refugees.

Of an initial group of 1,200 Nauru detainees, 480 were resettled in Australia and another 300 were resettled in New Zealand. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Australia expressed concerns asylum seekers' claims would be processed without the safeguards of Australia's on-shore procedures. The UNHCR said only about 4 per cent of those processed on Nauru and Manus had been accepted by countries including Canada, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. "In our experience they largely only took those cases that already had family links in their respective territories," a UNHCR spokeswoman said. More than 50 asylum seekers spent more than 3½ years on Nauru. Twenty five were resettled in Australia in 2005 after a mental health team warned that several were suicidal.

NGOs such as the UNHCR and Amnesty have claimed that Australia is contravening its international obligations by refusing asylum seekers access to the refugee determination system. UNHCR are particularly concerned by Australia’s latest stated intentions to remove those who land on the Australian mainland – who should normally fall under the migration act and have their claims processed in Australia – and instead take them offshore for further assessment of their claims. This could leave Australia in breach of its requirements under the 1951 Refugee Convention which provides refugees access to a full and fair assessment with no possibility of refoulement.

Taking refugees to Nauru leaves Australia open to the refoulement charge. The cost is also questionable. NSW Greens Senator Kerry Nettles challenged the Government to reveal how much it would cost taxpayers to move the Sri Lankans to Nauru. Nettles quoted Departmental figures that showed the cost of keeping asylum seekers on Nauru was $30 million per year in 2003-04 when the Nauru camp last had a significant number of detainees. If the Sri Lankans are held there for two years it will cost Australian taxpayers at least $60 million, not to mention the long-term health implications to the 83 men.

Meanwhile, the two Indonesian crew members who piloted their boat did make it ashore to mainland Australia. They faced trial in Perth Magistrates' Court on Tuesday charged with people smuggling. ABC’s chief political correspondent Chris Ullman believes that based on similar cases in the past the two men “could face some very long jail sentences”.

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