December 05, 2014 | the guardian
New ‘fast-track’ assessments that have been criticised by the UN will apply to children due for mainland transfer under Senate deal
Detained asylum seeker children released from Christmas Island by the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, will be processed under new “fast-track” assessments, which remove appeal rights. The United Nations has warned the new assessments could lead to people being sent back to be tortured.
The migration and maritime powers legislation amendment (resolving the asylum legacy caseload) bill 2014, passed by the Senate early on Friday morning, establishes a “fast-track” assessment process for boat arrivals who came to Australia after 13 August 2012.
In exchange for Senate crossbenchers’ votes in favour the bill, Morrison has agreed to transfer 468 Christmas Island detainee children to the mainland.
The children’s detention on the island is unrelated to the bill, but the promise of their liberty was used as leverage by the government to secure upper house votes, most notably the assent of the final senator to agree, Ricky Muir.
There are still 167 children on Nauru, unaffected by the bill. But 24 babies born to asylum seekers in Australia will now be sent to the Pacific Island under provisions in the new legislation.
“Fast track” applicants will face an abbreviated refugee assessment process – enhanced screening is already as short as four questions – and they will be forbidden from appealing their refugee determination to the Refugee Review Tribunal.
Instead, they will be entitled to a paper-only review by a new body, the Immigration Assessment Authority, or by the minister’s department.
Last week, the United Nations Committee Against Torture warned the bill could mean asylum seekers, including children, would be forced back to the countries they’d fled to face torture.
“The state party [Australia] should refrain from adopting any legislative or other measures that may lower the existing safeguards and standards of protection which could constitute a violation of its obligations under the convention [against torture].”
Morrison said yesterday Australia would be safer with the passage of the bill, and it would strengthen the government’s ability to deter boats from coming to Australia, and to tow them back to sea.
“By passing this bill it has resulted in stronger borders. By passing this bill … the government has sent another strong message to the people-smugglers about our resolve to end their business forever.”
The minister said he had already started making arrangements to bring the 468 children on Christmas Island, some of whom have been in detention there for 15 months, to the mainland.
“As early as this morning, at about 20 to 1AM, we were in contact with the department to get that process moving, the minute [the bill] passed the Senate.”
But refugee advocates and international lawyers have condemned the new legislation, in particular the reintroduction of temporary protection visas.
Elaine Pearson from Human Rights Watch said the law “made a mockery” of Australia’s obligations under international law to protect persecuted people.
“It is bad not only for those asylum seekers who arrive by boat who now may be forced home risking death or torture, but this sets a terrible precedent to the region, if not the world that the rights of some are worth more than the rights of others.”
Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre said the children removed from Christmas Island would be channelled into a system that would not properly assess their refugee claim, or allow them to appeal.
“While these children are being released from detention, something positive is happening to them now, that comes at an increased risk they could, ultimately, be returned to torture.”
Senior researcher with the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Joyce Chia said while people were focused on the children being released from detention, “it will now be much more difficult for them to qualify as a refugees”.
“It will be especially difficult for children, who are often unable to articulate their claims, particularly at the very beginning.”
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said the government could expect its new “fast tracking” assessment to be challenged before the courts.
“When the first person is screened out under this new system, I believe there will be a legal challenge.”
The government has already spent much of this year in the high court defending its existing asylum regime. It is back before the court Tuesday.
The chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis, said the concession by the government to offer a “pathway to permanence” – for boat arrivals to one day be eligible for a permanent visa in the country – was a false offer.
“In remote circumstances, some refugees with in-demand skills, excellent English, a supportive boss and the winds blowing in their favour may jump the hurdles necessary to gain a permanent visa, but this could take up to a decade. During that time, people will be left in anxious limbo, unable to settle properly.”