Friday, August 11, 2006

Human Rights Watch calls for Senate to vote down Migration Bill

The Migration Bill passed by Australia’s House of Representatives on August 10 threatens the fundamental rights of refugees and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the upper house to reject the bill.

“It’s now up to the Senate to ensure that Australia doesn’t shirk its obligations under international law to protect refugees,” said Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Policy Program at Human Rights Watch. “Australia ought to take responsibility when people fleeing persecution land on its shores.”

Under the legislation, all unauthorized boat passengers who arrive at any part of Australia, will be transferred to offshore processing centers – including locations in foreign countries – where they will be detained while their refugee claims are screened. Even those determined to be refugees will still not be allowed into Australia, but rather will have to wait for resettlement offers to other countries.

Australia has been placing asylum seekers picked up at sea or on remote Australian islands in overseas processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea since March 2001. Human Rights Watch determined that this violated international law in its 2002 report, “By Invitation Only.” The new law would expand that practice to include refugees who arrive on Australia’s mainland.

The legislation was drafted after Indonesia reacted angrily to Australia’s decision to grant temporary protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers in March.

“The Australian government is treating respect for human rights as a commodity that can be traded away for better relations with neighboring countries,” said Frelick. “Given the international condemnation of Guantanamo, it’s shocking that the Australian government could be so enthusiastic about establishing detention centers on far-flung islands to try and evade obligations under international law.”

In addition to interfering with the right of refugees to seek asylum, the legislation may also violate the Refugee Convention, which prohibits refugees from being penalized for entering a country illegally. Holding asylum seekers and refugees in processing centers on remote islands would penalize them if their time in custody amounted to arbitrary and indefinite detention.

Detaining asylum-seekers – either in Australia or abroad – also contravenes international standards outlined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which state that asylum seekers and refugees should only be detained in exceptional circumstances. Depending on the conditions of the proposed “group homes” for child asylum seekers, the law could also contravene the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which permits the detention of children only as a last resort.

The bill would also allow Australia to shirk its obligation to share the task of caring for the world’s refugees.

“Australia – one of the world’s wealthiest countries – is seeking to off-load its responsibility to protect and assist refugees onto smaller and poorer nations,” said Frelick. “Nauru, one of the proposed locations, has little experience or infrastructure in the refugee determination process, few resources to accommodate asylum seekers, and isn’t even a party to the Refugee Convention.”

Amen! Never a truer word was spoken, and I know as I oversaw aid to Nauru for a year during this Pacific Solution fiasco. I left in 2004 after 20 years as I could no longer work for a government that had such a blatant disregard for human rights and that routinely bullied neighbouring countries with threats to withdraw aid.

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