June 20, 2013
Labor’s unsuccessful policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers arriving by boat have created a system of disadvantage, destitution and arbitrary detention, probably in violation of Australia‘s human rights obligations, a scathing parliamentary committee report has found.
The report, from a committee chaired by Labor’s former Speaker Harry Jenkins, expresses strong concerns about the human rights of asylum seekers sent for offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and about those released into likely “destitution” in the Australian community on bridging visas without work rights.
It comes as the Coalition continues its attack over the continuing boat arrivals and as the government seeks to force the Coalition to explain how it will make good on its promise to “stop the boats” within the first term of a Tony Abbott-led government.
The Coalition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, left open the possibility of suspending or renegotiating Australia’s commitment to the UN convention on refugees, when he told Sky News on Tuesday that the way it was “woven into” Australian law was “open for discussion”.
Morrison said the previous Coalition government led by John Howard had “stopped the boats” while remaining a signatory to the convention, but asked whether the option was open to suspend or withdraw that commitment. “We have always kept open that option,” he said.
Australia’s representative on the UN human rights commission, Richard Towle, said such a move would send a terrible signal while Australia would still have to process refugees under domestic law.
In late 2012, after receiving a report from an “expert panel”, Labor reversed its previous approach to refugee policy and adopted elements similar to the former Howard government’s regime, including offshore processing and an unspecified “no-advantage test” to make sure asylum seekers arriving by boat were no better off than those who stayed in refugee camps in the region.
But the committee said the test, which leaves asylum seekers with no idea how long they must wait for processing and without work rights, went further than the expert panel had envisaged and actually created “disadvantage”.
The parliamentary joint committee on human rights said it was concerned the no-advantage test was resulting in “either a deliberate slowing down of processing applications for refugee status or deliberate delays in resettlement once a person has been determined to qualify as a refugee, inconsistent with the prohibition against arbitrary detention in article nine of the international covenant on civil and political rights”.
It added: “In this respect the committee notes that as of late May 2013, some nine months after the adoption of the policy, processing of the claims of those who arrived by boat has not commenced in Australia or PNG and that there have been only preliminary interviews of some of those who have been transferred to Nauru.
“A failure to put in place such procedures for persons held in detention for such periods appears to the committee to constitute arbitrary detention of those who have been held for an extended period.
“The government has been unable to provide any details as to how the ‘no-advantage’ policy will operate in practice. It remains a vague and ill-defined principle.”
The report said the removal of work rights for refugees on bridging visas, and the low income support they received (89% of unemployment benefits), “risks resulting in their destitution”.
The Coalition customs spokesman, Michael Keenan, said recently the UN convention reflected the post-second world war world, not the modern world.
“This document just doesn’t reflect the fact that people are now coming halfway around the world to seek asylum in a country of their choice,” he said.
“In times past, if you were seeking asylum then the most likely thing that you would do is just cross over the border into a neighbouring country. You certainly wouldn’t be deciding where you would like to seek asylum and then go halfway around the world to do that.
“The convention as it stands now doesn’t do anything to address that situation. We have been calling for some time for that convention to be overhauled and in government we would like to work with like-minded countries to modernise it.”
Independent MP Rob Oakeshott accused the Coalition of hypocrisy because it had voted down the government’s attempts to send asylum seekers to Malaysia and his his own private member’s bill, on the basis that Malaysia was not a signatory to the convention.