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Issue #1645      July, 2, 2014

Coalition’s war on refugee rights grinds on

On all fronts, the federal government is past caring how raw and vicious its attacks appear to its victims in Australia or to the international community. Its stance on asylum seekers is a prime example. The Coalition’s momentum may have been interrupted by two unanimous decisions of the High Court to slap down Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s attempt to put a cap on the number of boat arrivals to be included in Australia’s refugee intake and to refuse permanent protection visas to them but the strident rhetoric is unchanged.

Morrison finds “shameful and offensive” a lawsuit brought against authorities responsible for the Christmas Island detention centre for failure to be prepared for what became a tragedy involving SIEV 22 in December 2010. Fifty people died that day and the images of the flimsy boat being smashed against the rocks along the shore of Christmas Island shocked the country. The Immigration Minister likens the legal action on behalf of some of the victims to “someone who was saved from a fire suing the fireman”. Mr Morrison’s odd sensibilities would be irrelevant if it weren’t for the role he has in determining the future of so many defenceless people fleeing the world’s trouble spots.

The cumulative effect of policy of the current and previous federal governments has seen Australia’s standing as a sanctuary for refugees slump dramatically. As the number of the world’s refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons tops 50 million, Australia’s has slipped from second to third place (behind the US and Canada) for admissions of refugees under the UNHCR program. But this statistic doesn’t reveal the whole story.

In terms on the intake of all refugees, Australia has fallen from 10th spot in 2010 to 17th by 2013. Fewer than 0.3 percent of the refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate live in Australia. That puts Australia in 48th place out of 187 countries. If the size of Australia’s population is taken into account, it slips to 62nd position and if the country’s wealth is considered it plummets to 74th. This is according to figures from the Refugee Council of Australia.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has praised Australia’s reputation for community integration of refugees but is disturbed by the attitude to boat arrivals. “The problem is when we discuss boats,” he said recently. “And there of course we enter into a very, very, very dramatic thing. I think it is a kind of collective sociological and psychological question.”

The High Commissioner is right – the government’s attitude panders to the most hostile, xenophobic sections of the Australian population, which otherwise is notably very welcoming of refugees. But the Coalition is banking on supporters of “fortress Australia” to continue its domination of public debate. More legislative encouragement to this quarter is on its way.

The size of the small “carrot” on offer to asylum seekers on condition they return to their country of origin is to be increased from the current range of $1,500 - $2,000 to $,3,300 - $10,000. People from Pakistan, Nepal and Burma will be offered $3,000 to return. Afghans will be offered $4,000 while Iranians and Sudanese will be paid $7,000. Lebanese asylum seekers will be given $10,000 once they arrive back in their home country. People wanting to escape long stays in trying conditions on Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island will get cash payments to “voluntarily” go back even to active conflicts zones. They will be taken to the Hideaway Hotel in Port Moresby, flown out and off the Abbott government’s books. That’s the long and the short of it.

The government also wants the threshold for deciding to return asylum seekers to their country of origin drastically reduced. At the moment the decision in favour of asylum seekers is made if there is a “real chance” that they could suffer “significant harm” if they were to return.

The “real chance” is set at a 10 percent likelihood. Morrison recently introduced his Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014, which seeks to alter the “real chance” of harm in current legislation to “more likely than not”, i.e. a greater than 50 percent chance that they may suffer significant harm. Presumably, the Immigration Department will determine the odds before taking this perverse gamble with many people’s lives.

Australia is a signatory to the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It should protect people from the prospects contained in Morrison’s Bill. “The principle of non-expulsion is the crucible of protection and what this does is propose a fundamental deviation from the well-established threshold for assessing someone’s risk of facing life-threatening harm,” refugee lawyer David Mann said recently.

No case has been made for the downgrade of due process, just plain political expediency to the cost of the world’s burgeoning numbers of refugees.

Next article – Cost-cutting review of ABC must become public

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