Asylum-seekers will be sent offshore

From: By Patrick Walters and David Nason
April 13, 2006

ASYLUM-SEEKERS who land on the Australian mainland will face deportation to offshore processing centres under tough new rules to be announced by the Howard Government today.

Expanding its controversial regulations that allow islands to be excised from Australia's migration zone, John Howard has decided that even those asylum-seekers who make it undetected to the mainland will be denied generous review process under Australian law. The new rules, signed off by cabinet's National Security Committee yesterday, mean that any claim for asylum will be processed as if the applicant were in an overseas UN refugee camp, joining the worldwide queue.

The move is designed to stem the flow of asylum-seekers from Papua and mend relations with Jakarta.

Under current arrangements - brought in during the 2001 wave of Middle Eastern and south Asian asylum-seekers - if an asylum-seeker reaches an island it is not regarded as Australian territory for the purposes of migration law.

Future asylum-seekers could be sent to Australia's Christmas Island or the Australian-funded centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island for processing.

Until now if an asylum-seeker reached the mainland - as the 43 Papuans who arrived in January did - the law deemed them to be in Australia and the Government had to hear their claim according to Australian rules. Last month, using these rules, the Department of Immigration issued temporary protection visas to 42 of the Papuans, sparking a diplomatic crisis between Australia and Indonesia.

Cabinet is believed to have gone for the idea because it is simple, will work effectively in the Papuan case and does not contravene Australia's international treaty obligations.

The change is likely to placate Indonesian concerns that Australia is treating Papuans more sympathetically than asylum-seekers from other nations.

Last month's decision to grant temporary protection visas to the Papuans sparked a diplomatic row with Jakarta, with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono calling the move "inappropriate and unrealistic".

He said last week relations with Canberra were entering a "difficult phase" and called for serious discussions on the future of the bilateral relationship.

The Howard Government has already tightened maritime surveillance of Australia's northern waters,. involving defence and customs aircraft and ships with a sharper focus on the Torres Strait.

Jennifer Pagonis, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva said last night that any changes by Canberra to its asylum-seeker processes should accord with international treaty obligations.

"The bottom line for us is that they uphold their international obligations," Ms Pagonis said. "We have to see what the review is going to entail and then we'll have a look at it."

Ms Pagonis said UNHCR representatives in Canberra would continue talking to the Government on refugee policy

In Washington, human rights advocacy group Refugees International warned that Australia's asylum-seeker review was threatening to violate the intent of the UN Refugee Convention and all the basic tenets of international refugee law.

"You just can't go around consulting countries of origin about whether asylum-seekers should be granted refugee status," said the group's Joel Charny. "Countries like Australia need to stand for the rule of law. If Australia and others are not willing to stand for the rule of law, even in the context of the war on terror, then we're all in big trouble."

Mr Charny predicted the Indonesian position on future Papuan asylum-seekers would be the same as it was in East Timor and the Indonesian province of Aceh.

"They would argue the situation in West Papua is calm and they are governing the province appropriately," he said.

"They would say there is nothing going on and if there is something going on, they're fighting terrorism."

Mr Charny said Australia's security interest in ensuring Jakarta remained committed to rooting out Indonesian-based terrorists could not justify the concessions being contemplated.

"I know the Australian-Indonesian relationship has been tension-filled over time, but we're at a low point if we have to violate international refugee law to maintain a common stance on the war on terror," he said.

"This is a pattern we are seeing. The war of terror in the US is being used to justify all kinds of things. The Attorney-General has even said we don't have to pay attention to the Geneva Convention in the context of the war on terror."


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