April 23, 2014
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.