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Issue #1658      October 1, 2014

Government tightens screws on asylum seekers

Last week the Abbott government made a deal with the Cambodian government to resettle refugees. It also reintroduced the former Howard government’s cruel temporary protection visas, and introduced new legislation removing asylum seeker rights to protection.

The deal is open to corruption and will cause social upheaval. During the agreement ceremony last week hundreds of Cambodians protested outside the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh.

A UN report claims 47 percent of Cambodians live in poverty, and 37 percent of children suffer chronic malnutrition. An official Australian government assessment claims Cambodia endures “high child and maternal mortality rates, inadequate access to clean water and sanitation, gender inequality and marginalisation of people with disabilities”.

Earlier this year the Abbott government criticised Cambodia for “restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, particularly the recent disproportionate violence against protesters, including detention without trial”.

Yet last week Immigration Minister Scott Morrison claimed refugees would “now have the opportunity and support to re-establish their lives free from persecution” in Cambodia.

Under the deal Cambodia would resettle up to 1,000 genuine refugees from among the asylum seekers now held in Nauru. Australia would pay for housing and educating them plus an extra $40 million in aid.

However, the Cambodian government says it will initially only accept four or five refugees, and will decide later whether to accept any more. Apparently it would now be legally entitled to say “Four’s the limit”, in which case the cost of the Cambodian deal would be $10 million per refugee, based on the aid package alone.

Meanwhile, the Nauruan economy has gone into freefall because the government cannot pay US$30 million it owes a US finance corporation. The situation threatens the viability of the detention centre there, and the Australian government may have to bail out the Nauruan economy.

Temporary visas back

Under the new Migration and Maritime Powers Amendment Bill, drafted by the government and approved by politician/mining magnate Clive Palmer, asylum seekers who arrived by sea or air without a prior visa after August 13, 2013, and those who arrived with a valid visa but immediately applied for asylum, would be assessed under a fast track system which limits the applicant’s rights to appeal adverse decisions.

Those deemed eligible for protection would be offered a three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV), entitling them to employment, Medicare, education and other social services. But it would not entitle them to be reunited with their families, and if they left Australia the visa would be cancelled.

TPV holders could apply for a five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa, requiring them to work in a designated regional area for three and a half years. They could then apply for a permanent visa, but their chances of getting one would be very limited.

Christmas Island detainees who arrived between July 19 and December 21, 2013 could be released and could apply for a TPV or SHEV. However, those who arrived in this period but have been transferred to Nauru or Manus Island are not eligible.

The Bill is ideal for regional industries like mining companies that have difficulty attracting employees; Clive Palmer sees them as vulnerable cheap labour. However, it would deny Australian citizenship to asylum seeker children born in Australia. It also violates the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, as well as international law regarding national boundaries.

The Australian Refugee Council notes: “… the Bill would increase ministerial powers to take a vessel or person to a place outside of Australia regardless of whether there is an agreement with the particular country, and prevent the courts from acting if this action does not comply with Australia’s international obligations or the laws or obligations of another country.

“… [the proposed] fast track asylum process … limits access to independent merits review, removes the possibility that children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents could seek Australian citizenship, replaces the Refugee Convention’s definitions with the government’s own interpretations of Australia’s obligations and makes it possible for the government to remove asylum seekers without considering the risk of refoulement.”

Under the Bill the Minister could reject asylum seekers who according to him would “more likely than not” escape significant harm if forcibly deported to their country of origin – i.e. Morrison could deport someone even if he thought they had a 49 percent chance of persecution involving injury or death.

As Greens Senator Sarah Hansen-Young pointed out, the ruling would disproportionately impact women who had fled honour killing or genital mutilation.

International disgust

The government’s moves have been condemned by a coalition which includes Amnesty International, Children’s Rights International, Plan International, World Vision, the Australian Refugee Council and Save the Children. They say children transported to Cambodia would be at risk of involvement in sex and labour trafficking.

The Abbott government did not consult the UN High Commission for Refugees on the wording of the Cambodian agreement, and the Bill removes almost all references to the UN Refugee Convention.

The Cambodia deal was described by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as “a worrying departure from international norms”, and by the president of Cambodia’s Centre for Human Rights as “shameful and illegal”.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy referred to forced evictions, land grabs and the violent suppression of Cambodian workers, and claimed that most of the extra $40 million in aid would be pocketed by government ministers and officials. He declared angrily: “… refugees are not like any ordinary goods that can be exported from one country and imported by another … They are human beings.”

But on October 14-15 the government will face a legal challenge in the High Court, which may find that the government’s forcible transportation of 157 Tamil Sri Lankans to Nauru was wrong, and that the new Immigration and Maritime Powers Act’s ability to deny Australian citizenship to asylum seekers’ children born in Australia or offshore areas is illegal.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition stated: “This Bill must be stopped … it is an attempt to fundamentally change the rights of asylum seekers and to remove human rights obligations under International treaties.”

Next article – Crisis in Australian apprenticeships

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