The federal Labor government’s freeze on processing visa applications by Afghan and Tamil asylum seekers is being challenged in many quarters.
Legal advice published by the Human Rights Law Resource Centre on May 23 said many of the factual and legal assumptions of the policy are open to “substantial challenge”.
Lawyers Debbie Mortimer, Chris Horan and Kathleen Foley prepared the report and advised that the freeze breached the United Nations refugee convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.
The suspension could also breach the Australian Racial Discrimination Act and the Migration Act.
Many refugee advocates agree that the combination of geographical isolation, indefinite and prolonged detention, and lack of judicial oversight would seriously impair the mental health of refugees.
But the suspension rule means more refugees will languish in detention — up to six months for Afghans and three months for Tamils — before they even begin the lengthy application process.
The government’s argument for the freeze was that conditions in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan had improved. Recent events both countries contradict this. The United Nations has closed its mission and withdrawn staff from Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan, due to threats to staff safety.
Meanwhile, the death toll from Australia’s cruel border protection policies is rising.
Five asylum seekers are believed to have drowned seeking help for their vessel in the Indian Ocean. The Australian government knew for nine days the boat had run out of fuel and water, the May 9 Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The May 25 Washington Post said Australian Customs and Border Protection Service chief executive Michael Carmody told a Senate inquiry that in October last year Australian and Indonesian authorities knew a boat with 100 asylum seekers was in distress, but did not offer assistance.
The boat disappeared, and may have sunk.
The May 25 SMH said relatives of those on the boat were “demanding to know how a boat could vanish with two governments aware of its existence”.
The same day, six Chinese nationals escaped from Villawood Detention
Centre in Sydney.
Duncan Roden, Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Parramatta, told Green Left Weekly: “The six escaped detainees are in the right place — out of the Villawood hell-hole, and in the community where they belong.”
Fijian-born Roden visited the centre with 17 refugee rights activists to examine conditions. “Villawood is appalling — conditions are inhumane and isolating”, he said.
“We spoke to Sri Lankan men who were already traumatised by government torture in Sri Lanka last year. And yet, after fleeing persecution they face more trauma.
“Five men were rejected by the government last week, despite clearly fitting the refugee criteria under the UN Refugee Convention.
“Just last week in Sri Lanka, six schoolgirls were picked up in a Tamil town and disappeared by paramilitaries — this sort of persecution is common for Tamils, Chinese and Afghans. The breakout from Villawood shows the desperation of these poor people.”
On May 26, Amnesty International released its annual report on human rights abuses in 159 countries, which condemned Australia for the visa freeze.
Not to be outdone in cruelty to refugees, on May 27 the conservative opposition announced its policy on refugees — largely a return to that of the former prime minister John Howard.
Measures include a return to temporary visas, the “45 day rule” (under which refugees who lodge asylum claims after more than 45 days in the country are forbidden to work and ineligible for Medicare) and the processing and detention of refugees in Australian-funded prison camps in other countries.
This would essentially be a revival of Howard’s “Pacific solution”.
The opposition also proposed that any welfare assistance for refugees must be on a “work for the dole” basis.
The growing disgust with bipartisan refugee-bashing is reflected in the rallying cry for the June 26 rally at Sydney Town Hall on World Refugee Day: “Say No to another Tampa election!”