Asylum seeker boat turn-back questions going unanswered by Government, says UNHCR

April 23, 2014

Image Source: Google Images

The United Nations refugee agency has asked Australia to prove it is not breaching the Refugee Convention with its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

Speaking in Jakarta, the UNHCR’s regional representative says the Australian Government has not responded to the UN’s concerns about the policies.

The request for information was made in January.

UNHCR regional representative James Lynch says people from seven boats that have been returned to Indonesia recently told the UN agency they made it to Australian land or at least its territorial waters.

He says if that is true, Australia’s responsibility is to allow them to be processed as asylum seekers.

Mr Lynch says it is significant that thousands of asylum seekers arrived in Australia until late last year but it is not a crisis by world standards.

I think when you sit and listen to what countries in the region like Iraq are dealing with, or Jordan or Lebanon, it’s hard to see it [Australia's situation] as a crisis.

UNHCR representative James Lynch

“We have in Syria 6 million either internally displaced or refugees and they have found themselves in the neighbouring countries,” Mr Lynch said.

“A country like Iraq, which has its own internal problems, has been able to accept 250,000 Syrian refugees.

“I think when you sit and listen to what countries in the region like Iraq are dealing with, or Jordan or Lebanon, it’s hard to see it [Australia's situation] as a crisis.”

Mr Lynch has been attending a two-day meeting about protecting asylum seekers at sea. It attracted delegates from 13 countries, including Australia, and was co-hosted by Indonesia and the United Nations refugee agency.

He says the UNHCR understands Australia wants to stop people-smuggling networks and prevent deaths at sea but it needs to comply with its international obligations.

“There are obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 protocol, which say: if you intercept in your territorial waters, you should allow those in need of protection to have access to the asylum system,” he said.

Questions over boats turned back

Mr Lynch says the UNHCR has been told seven boats have been turned back.

“People on the boats have said to us that they either landed or were in Australian territorial waters,” he said.

“We have written to the Australian Government, expressing our concern, and would like to hear their side of the story.

“We don’t have evidence on the other side; we only have the accounts that we’ve heard from people who were on the boat that say that they were in Australian territorial waters.”

We’re talking about a secondary movement of [asylum seekers] who are coming from halfway around the world. We’re not talking about people just walking straight across one border.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says he disagrees with the UNHCR’s criticism of the Federal Government’s policy.

“They’ve always opposed our turn-back policy,” Mr Morrison told Sky News.

“We’re talking about a secondary movement of [those] who are coming from halfway around the world.

“We’re not talking about people just walking straight across one border.

“The issue we’ve had with the UNHCR as a Coalition is a lack of action on secondary movement and people taking advantage of the convention.”

But Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles says the UN agency is right to criticise the Government’s turn-back policy.

Mr Marles told Sky News that the Government needs to provide more information.

“We don’t know as an Australian public what is going on on the high seas,” he said.

“It comes back to this question that this is a secretive Government who is not telling the Australian people what their policies are and so we can’t be sure if the Australian Government is engaged in the unauthorised movements of peoples across borders.”

The UNHCR says Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s office has not responded to questions about whether a boat reached Australian territory in January, and if so, when he was made aware of it.

I would think that if you have lived up to your obligations and stand prepared to honour those obligations, you would want to do an investigation to show that you are not in violation.

UNHCR representative James Lynch

“I would think that if you have lived up to your obligations and stand prepared to honour those obligations, you would want to do an investigation to show that you are not in violation,” Mr Lynch said.

“They would want to show that they have not in any way violated their obligations under the convention.”

The official summary of discussions as released by the co-chairs of the meeting recommends that countries “ensure the full promotion and protection of the rights of rescued or intercepted persons at sea and upon disembarkation in accordance with relevant international obligations”.

Indonesia’s director-general of multilateral affairs, Hasan Kleib, says Australia’s policies were not discussed in the workshop as it was focused on protecting so-called “irregular migrants” at sea.

A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison says the Federal Government will continue to use its current border protection policies because they are clearly working.

She says there have been no successful people-smuggling ventures to Australia in four months and the Government’s strong stand is benefiting the region.

Mr Lynch strongly commended Indonesia for holding an international meeting focussed on protecting asylum seekers.


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Christian leaders protesting detention of children arrested at Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office

April 15. 2014

Asylum policy protest

The Christian activists in Julie Bishop’s office with a photograph of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati. PHOTO: Aaron Bunch (

Eleven protesters, including priests and pastors, have been removed by police from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office in Perth.

The group of Christian leaders was protesting about the 1,138 children being kept in detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island.

They said they would not be silent until the government gives a release date for the child detainees.

While inside the office they conducted a prayer vigil around a photograph of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, who who died in a riot on Manus Island in February.

Police said nine men and two women had been taken to the Perth Watch House and would be charged with trespass.

Police allege they refused to leave the premises when asked to do so.

Protesters outside the offices said those inside were happy to be arrested for the cause.

Protester Kris Kingwell said the group feels it is their role as Christians to speak for people who cannot.

“We’re timing it because it’s the beginning of holy week in the lead up to Easter,” she said.

“As Christians we are responsible for loving and caring, for the care of those who can’t care for themselves, and for advocating for those who don’t have a voice of their own.”

Reverend Chris Bedding kept repeating “1,138 children in immigration detention” as he was led to a waiting police van.


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Church-goers, activists come together for Walk for Justice for Refugees rally

April 13, 2014

Rally for the rights of Asylum Seekers.

People march in Melbourne CBD as part of the Walk for Justice for Refugees rally. Photo: Justin McManus

A cluster of choir singers serenaded Sunday city-goers in Melbourne as an enticement to join their rally in support of asylum seekers.

But if that wasn’t enough to get their attention, bells atop four CBD churches were set to simultaneously ring out to mark the beginning of the protest.

A mixed bag of Palm Sunday church-goers joined hundreds of families, union members, activists and community groups for the Walk for Justice for Refugees rally, which kicked off at 2pm outside the State Library for a march stretching past Federation Square.

Georgie Stubbs, from Mornington, joined a church service on Palm Sunday in support of asylum seekers before heading to the rally.

“Whether you believe in Jesus or not, he’s been an amazing example on how to live, and love, and care for others,” she said.

“The least we can do in Australia is love and care for others, especially those who are fleeing for their lives.”
Similar marches are occurring in all major cities, from Perth to Sydney, Brisbane to Adelaide.

Sister Brigid Arthur, of Albert Park’s Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project, said the current treatment of asylum seekers is cruel and neglects Australia’s moral and legal responsibilities.

‘‘People have a right to seek asylum in Australia, regardless of how they travel here,’’ she said.

‘‘We must work closely with other countries not to stop the boats, but to protect vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution.’’

The rally heard from several asylum seekers and refugees, including a letter read out from a young mother in detention.
‘‘Sometimes I think it will be easier to die,’’ she wrote.

A young Kurdish woman from Iran also spoke about the struggles of living on a bridging visa in Australia for the past nine months because she is unable to work or go to school.

‘‘We are depressed. We feel we’re useless for ourselves and society, ’’ she told the crowd, holding back tears.
‘‘Our lives are meaningless. We don’t know how long we should live like this. … In every single moment of this life we are dying.’’

Many supporters in the crowd, which grew from an estimated several hundred people to several thousand, held up banners and signs.

One placard stated, ‘‘No one is illegal’’, while another stated, ‘‘Stop locking up children’’.

The march has been organised by Refugee Advocacy Network and is supported by more than 40 groups, including the Greens, several churches and academics.

It comes after Papua New Guinea’s troubled Manus Island detention camp saw 62 people injured in February riots, which ended in the death of 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati.

Other asylum seekers have claimed Mr Barati was thrown off a balcony and beaten to death, but no one has been arrested over the incident.

The fallout over the death has continued to cause outrage among community groups and refugee advocates.
Earlier on Palm Sunday, a special prayer service was held in support of refugees at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

One prayer told how Jesus Christ was seeking safe passage, a refugee searching for a home, as dozens at the service lit candles.

Bishop Philip Huggins told the congregation that Jesus also identified with those who are in need, who are vulnerable, who are suffering.

Our lives are enriched by welcoming strangers like asylum seekers, he said.

“Our policies are driving people crazy. Intentionally, systematically,  the asylum seekers are being driven crazy,” he said.

“This must change.”


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Losing ground: 30,000 Hazaras fled Balochistan in five years

April 12, 2014

Members of a Hazara community light candles for peace against sectarian attacks in Quetta February 15, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS


With a surge in violence in Balochistan, members of minority groups have increasingly sought shelter in other parts of the country. Nearly 30,000 members of the Hazara community have migrated in the last five years, according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Vice Chairperson Tahir Hussain Khan.

Speaking with The Express Tribune, Khan said the flow of migration increased as nearly 1,000 members of the Hazara community have been killed in targeted attacks since 2009.

Khan, who is also president of the HRCP’s Balochistan chapter, added that more than 10,000 Hindus have also fled the province as abductions-for-ransom have become routine over the last three years here.

Members of the Hazara community leaving Quetta and other parts of the province comprise businessmen, highly educated workers and senior government officials, amongst others, he said. Discussing sectarian violence in the province, Khan warned, “This conflict can turn into a civil war if it is not addressed properly at this stage.”

The Hazara community has been confined to two localities in Quetta, he pointed out – a four-kilometre radius on Alamdar Road and an 11km area within Hazara Town – after the provincial government set up security checkpoints around these residential colonies.

“They are physically isolated from the rest of the city’s population,” he said. “They are not aware of how long they will continue to be confined in such a way.”  He pointed to the growing presence of religious parties in the country as a possible reason for increasing sectarian conflict.

Within classrooms, Khan said school syllabi create rifts between students of different faiths and sects, particularly when religious extremist thought is inculcated in educational institutions.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2014.

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Bogor authorities to evict asylum seekers

April 12, 2014

Hard life: Two Afghan refugees, Ishaq Ali (left) and Qurban Ali, repair water pipes leading to their rented house in Batulayang village, Cisarua district, Bogor, last week. Bogor authorities were to launch raid on illegals living on the Puncak mountainous resort on Monday. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

Hard life: Two Afghan refugees, Ishaq Ali (left) and Qurban Ali, repair water pipes leading to their rented house in Batulayang village, Cisarua district, Bogor, last week. Bogor authorities were to launch raid on illegals living on the Puncak mountainous resort on Monday. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

Bogor authorities are set to crack down on asylum seekers and refugees in the mountainous resort region of Puncak, although many local people have no objection to their presence and activities, which have reportedly caused no trouble for the community. 

Residents of Batu Kasur village in Batulayang said the asylum seekers and refugees, who have left their home countries in the Middle East, should not be removed, but that the relevant authorities should instead help them to solve their problems.

The villagers’ testimonies contradict a recent statement from a Bogor official, which said that the asylum seekers and refugees had caused trouble for local people.

“We want the regency of Bogor to be free of [asylum seekers] due to the trouble they have caused to local communities,” Bogor public security agency head Rizal Hidayat said.

He said last week that residents had complain about unruly behavior from the asylum seekers, such as bringing home sex workers and being rowdy. He added that their presence had become a nuisance.

A large number of asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, are using the Puncak area of Bogor regency as a place of transit while they apply for official refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Jakarta.

Most of them hope to reach a third country such as Australia, due to the peaceful conditions and the perceived job prospects there.

In contrast to Rizal’s statement, 60-year-old vendor Popon said that she did not mind the asylum seekers living in her neighborhood because they all had exhibited good behavior and helped to boost the local economy.

“I don’t know about the asylum seekers in other villages, but over here, they do not cause any trouble,” Popon told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

According to Waspud “Budi”, a Kuningan-born resident who is renting houses to asylum seekers and refugees in Batu Kasur, those living in his neighborhood are abiding by the rules set by the community.

“In order to live in this neighborhood, we give them a set of rules to abide by, including not disturbing the peace of residents, respecting a 10 p.m. noise curfew and not bringing sex workers into the homes. So far, they have not broken the rules,” Budi said on Sunday.

Budi added that the presence of the asylum seekers and refugees had benefitted the neighborhood economically.

“They spend money at our warung [food stalls] and markets, helping to boost the local economy. They are also helpful people, despite not speaking our language,” he added.

The majority of the asylum seekers cannot speak English or Indonesian. Due to the language barrier, many of them do not interact with local residents.

“We rarely interact with the locals directly, but at the mosques we exchange friendly looks,” said Qurban Ali, an Afghan-born refugee from Quetta, Pakistan, who has been living in Batu Kasur for eight months. He has only been learning English for three months and speaks no Indonesian.

Similarly, Ishaq Ali, a 33-year-old former school librarian from Jaghori, Afghanistan, who is fluent in English, said that despite the language barrier, he found the residents helpful.

“The residents here are helpful. Even though I speak very little Indonesian, it seems to be enough for them to understand me,” he said.

Qurban and Ishaq, who are not related, are both Afghan-born asylum seekers. They have applied for official refugee status from the UNHCR office, and each share a house with four or five other Afghanis in Batu Kasur village. 

Qurban, a father of five who was previously a dried fruit merchant in Quetta, received his refugee card from the UNHCR eight months ago. After being granted legal refugee status, the UN said that he would be relocated to Australia. However, Qurban does not know when that will happen.

Ishaq has not yet received his card, due to the fact that he has only been in Indonesia for around a month.

When asked about the prospect of being evicted by the Bogor government, both men were unsure where they would go if they were asked to leave their current homes.

“If the [Bogor] government asks us to leave this area, I don’t know where I could go,” Qurban remarked.

According to the Bogor Immigration Office, 254 refugees are registered in Bogor regency. Over recent years, the administration has sent 257 asylum seekers to detention centers across Indonesia. 

On April 14, the Bogor Immigration Office — along with the Bogor public security agency, the police and the Law and Human Rights Ministry — intends to conduct a campaign to inform local residents, as well as the asylum seekers and refugees, of the plan to eject them from Bogor regency. 

The campaign will involve informing residents that lease their houses to the asylum seekers and refugees of the plan.


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Manus Island refugee applications to be assessed within a month

April 03, 2014

Asylum seekers being held at the Manus Island detention centre will find out this month whether their refugee applications have been approved.

The centre, in Papua New Guinea, is home to over 1,300 asylum seekers who have been intercepted by authorities while trying to reach Australian shores by boat.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has met with his Papua New Guinean counterpart Rimbink Pato in Port Moresby to finalise the details of a resettlement agreement between the two countries.

In a joint statement, the pair said the first tranche of initial refugee assessments will be delivered to asylum seekers at the Manus Island detention centre within a month.

They said asylum seekers who are found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG.

“No-one will be resettled in Australia,” the ministers said.

“A refugee visa has been approved by the government of PNG for those determined to be refugees. The visa will provide for work rights and freedom of movement.”

Asylum seekers who are found not to be refugees will remain in detention on Manus Island until they can be deported.

A review system will be set up for asylum seekers whose refugee applications are rejected.


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Legal aid denied to asylum seekers who arrive through unauthorised channels

March 31, 2014

Immigration lawyers say fulfilling Coalition pledge to axe legal aid scheme may mean legitimate refugee claims are rejected.

Immigration minister Scott Morrison
Immigration minister Scott Morrison. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

The federal government has cut all taxpayer funded legal advice to asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia through unauthorised channels, drawing criticism from immigration law experts who say it will jeopardise thousands of refugee protection claims.

The Coalition pledged to make the cuts to the Immigration Advice and Application Scheme (IAAAS), which will save $100m, before last year’s federal election and it is understood cases have not been referred to the scheme since November.

The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said on Monday cutting legal access to asylum seekers lodging protection claims in Australia did not contravene obligations under international law.

“If people choose to violate how Australia chooses to run our refugee and humanitarian programme, they should not presume upon the support and assistance that is provided to those who seek to come the right way, and they should certainly not receive additional assistance, as they did under the previous government,” Morrison said.

But international standards written by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) say the right to legal advice during the claims process is an “essential safeguard”.

“Asylum seekers are often unable to articulate the elements relevant to an asylum claim without the assistance of a qualified counsellor because they are not familiar with the precise grounds for the recognition of refugee status and the legal system of a foreign country,” the UNHCR says.

Morrison said the government would offer a “small amount of additional support” to those the department of immigration considers vulnerable – including unaccompanied minors.

David Manne, chief executive of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said the cuts could endanger the lives of asylum seekers fleeing persecution.

“This is a complex process and people need legal advice and support to understand what’s required, and present their case in a way which can be properly assessed by the government. Without this advice, people will seriously struggle to understand the system or properly present their case,” he said.

“The bottom line is – it’s about the government getting the right decision on what are often life or death matters so that we don’t reject people whose safety is at risk.”

Morrison said asylum seekers would be free to access legal advice offered on a pro bono basis and would be assisted by the department of immigration.

But Rachel Ball, director of advocacy and campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne, told Guardian Australia the department had already refused an offer to provide asylum seekers with a list of free legal services.

According to correspondence with the department seen by Guardian Australia, the department said it would be inappropriate to provide a list in case it was seen to be “favouring or endorsing particular persons or organisations”. Ball said this response was “nonsense”.

“There is a limited number of services that can provide pro bono assistance and they can’t possibly meet the demand. This is not a case where providers are competing with each other for lucrative business; they’re providing the services for free,” she said.

Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, chief executive of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, which is one of nine groups in receipt of IAAAS funding for boat arrivals, said the cuts would mean more asylum seekers “failed the test” for refugee status.

“Access to justice is a fundamental human right – there’s been a longstanding commitment from successive governments to provide legal assistance to asylum seekers in recognition of this right and that legal assistance assures an effective refugee status determination process,” she said.

Labor’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, described the cuts as “mean-spirited” and “ripping away assistance for people who have been through traumatic experiences and are often vulnerable”.

“This is an unfair and harsh announcement from a government with twisted priorities,” Marles said.


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