Australia excised from its own migration zone

May 17, 2013
Labor wants to 'send a message' to refugees.

It was almost a simple formality. Rejecting any attempt by the Greens to introduce rudimentary protections, the Australian Senate voted on May 16 to excise the entire country from the migration zone.

It will most likely be given approval by the lower house soon. If implemented, it will mean that for all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, Australia -- and by proxy the Refugee Convention -- will legally not exist.

For these asylum seekers, due process, legal counsel and the right to appeal will be harder to access. Being sent to detention camps in Pacific island nations plagued by malaria and illness will be remarkably easier. So will being deported without a chance to make an official claim for protection.

They will be treated the same way as the thousands of boat arrivals who get picked up near Ashmore Reef, the Cocos Island, Christmas Island or anywhere else in the excised area the former Coalition carved off in 2001.

Even John Howard failed to strike Australia as a whole off the asylum seekers' map: a backbench revolt from his party prevented this move in 2006.

But Labor senators have managed to “fast track” the bill, backed by the Coalition.

Many Labor senators gave flimsy and pathetic excuses for their support of the bill. Some said it would stop people smugglers. But “saving lives” was the most popular rhetoric. Senator Matt Thistlethwaite cited the Christmas Island boat sinking in 2010 as reason for his support. “We simply cannot allow, as a nation with a heart, those circumstances to continue,” he said.

Yet human rights and public scrutiny weighed less heavy on the parliament.

Greens Senator and immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young tried to move amendments that would introduce human rights oversight, keep children from being locked up offshore, and allow media access. But all amendments were voted down.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said the move to excise the entire country made May 16, “One of the darkest days for human rights ever in Australia.”

It said the laws meant Australia had “removed itself from the Refugee Convention for all asylum seekers who arrive by boat … 94% of who are found to be refugees”.

It is a frightening advance in Labor's efforts to assault the rights of refugees.

This was displayed spectacularly last month when the immigration department deported 38 Tamil refugees who travelled 5000 kilometres to land on the Australian mainland by boat.

After the group of Tamil asylum seekers, with 28 others, arrived in Geraldton last month, the immigration department used its discriminatory “screening out” process to deny the 38 the right to lodge a formal refugee application.

That is, the men were not allowed to make any claim for protection, they were denied lawyers and community assistance, even refused phone calls. A completely secret and unaccountable decision was made that they did not have a right to apply for asylum, and they were swiftly and forcibly deported.

This “powerful message”, immigration minister Brendan O'Connor says, will convince people to stop fleeing persecution and stop engaging Australia's protection obligations.

Given that more than 1000 asylum seekers have been deported back to Sri Lanka -- more than three-quarters involuntarily -- it appears the message is not going through.

But soon the government will not have to meet its protection obligations.

As the ASRC pointed out, the rate of acceptance for refugees has consistently been over 90%.

But O'Connor and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have foreshadowed exactly how the new excision will be used to discriminate against and refuse rights to refugees.

O'Connor said the much higher numbers arriving by boat “is not acceptable in terms of the risks to human life, or the impact on the budget''. Gillard announced plans to review the refugee status determination process, leading many to suspect approvals will drop.

Again, this will “send a message”.

The message should be clear for every Australian who believes all asylum seekers, no matter how they come to Australia, are entitled to full, fair and just protection under Australia's laws. Labor and the Coalition will continue to attack refugees on all fronts, unless a broad, national campaign unites to stop them.

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