Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Human Rights in Australia - Labor's approach to refugees

The following response to a letter from Amnesty and ACT Refugee Action Committee members was received from the ALP Campaign Information Services. It sets out the current position on asylum seekers.

"Firstly, Labor would end the Howard Government's so called 'Pacific Solution' and shut down the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island (PNG).

The Nauru immigration detention facility is currently costing Australian taxpayers more than $2 million per month. Since its inception, the Nauru and Manus Island centres (known as the ‘Pacific Solution’) have cost Australians more than $270 million.

Previous experience shows us that the vast majority of asylum seekers sent to Nauru end up being brought to Australia anyway, despite this Government’s extreme rhetoric to the contrary. Individuals simply suffer in the interim.

Labor supports the continued use of Christmas Island as an immigration processing facility. Labor believes in an orderly immigration program. It is strongly opposed to any form of people smuggling.

Australia must at the same time honour its international obligations and ensure that we treat people with decency. Labor would maintain the new immigration processing centre being constructed on Christmas Island for the purpose of health, identity and security checks for those seeking asylum. Labor would take action to end the private contracts which run Australia’s immigration detention centres and return the management of Christmas Island and the mainland detention centres to public administration.

Children would not be placed in any immigration detention centre.

As with processing on the mainland, all asylum claims at the Christmas Island facility would be processed within 90 days.

They would be processed, including review, using similar methods of processing as used by the UNHCR. If they are not found to be in need of protection they would be immediately returned. If they are found to be refugees then a durable solution would be provided.

Labor supported for very good reason the excisions of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island because they were in a very different position to every other offshore island and in a completely different position to the Australian mainland. These islands are the nearest Australian land to the areas of Indonesia where the people smugglers operated.

September 2007 was the sixth anniversary of SIEV-X, when hundreds of people drowned on their way to Australia. This was a people-smuggling operation that took advantage of the desperation of those people, in boats filled largely with women and children, headed not to the Australian mainland but to places like Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Island and Ashmore Reef.

Labor supported that excision for one very precise reason: to take action against the people-smuggling operations that were causing such misery and hardship for so many people.

Labor will also end the policy of Temporary Protection Visas (TPV). This change was adopted in pursuance of a very simple principle - that when people fleeing persecution reach Australia, that persecution must end.

Temporary protection visas do not allow the holder to sponsor their spouse or children to reunite or visit them in Australia. Despite its original intention the visa ended up encouraging asylum seekers to approach people smugglers.

When temporary protection visas were introduced the number of boats travelling to Australia actually went up.

In the years since their introduction we have seen that temporary protection visa holders can be emotionally, physically and financially disadvantaged by the temporary nature of their visas. Temporary protection visa holders experience uncertainty and a sense of isolation that can result in deteriorating mental health.

Ultimately the vast majority of temporary protection visa holders eventually gain permanent protection.

A Labor Government would abolish the system of temporary protection visas."

The 16 Indonesians recently plucked from the sea are being held on Christmas Island. The full circumstances of their case are not known, except that they are from a fishing community that has had its livelihood curtailed by Australian action on illegal fishing.

This presents a clear example of how punitive action to protect Australia's interests can have severe social and economic outcomes for neighbouring peoples. It underlines how important it is to take an integrated and holistic approach to issues such as illegal fishing. The downstream consequences of protecting our borders need to be fully understood. Loss of income can have savage consequences for communities largely dependent on subsistence activities. For instance, loans taken to generate additional income from fishing will have to be repaid. Sudden loss of income might have serious implications that are not merely economic and might explain why people would uproot themselves from their traditional lifestyle.

Australia's refugee policy cannot operate in a vacuum if it is to meet the human rights obligations of good international citizenship.

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