The coming crisis in refugee camps


By Deepa Fernandes

After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, about 1.5 million Vietnamese left the country. A US-led Western world, still haunted by threats to their material status from the appeal of communism, hailed these refugees as "freedom seekers". Twenty years on, refugees are no longer seen as heroic "freedom seekers". Rather they are branded "boat people" and treated as a burden the world needs to rid itself of.

Currently many of these burdens are hidden away in detention camps in countries of South-East Asia. The Australian government has so far been able to ignore the plight of the refugees, but the situation is reaching a critical stage. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has set a deadline by which these refugee detention camps must be emptied. This will occur at the end of this year.

UNHCR has begun severe cuts to funding in these South-East Asian detention camps. Food rations have been decreased, secondary education cut and medical services drastically reduced. The Council of Vietnamese Refugee Supporting Organisation (CVRSO) says UNHCR reasons that if life in the camps is inhumane and unbearable, then returning to Vietnam won't seem as bad.

An even more immediate problem is the corrupt and prejudicial system of screening that places asylum seekers in these camps. The CVRSO recently placed an advertisement in the Australian newspaper depicting a victim of this corrupt process who had hung himself from a tree. This distressing photograph was aimed at shocking people into awareness.

The method developed by the world to determine whether a person classifies as in danger of persecution, and thus a refugee, was decided in the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). The CPA was a compromise between the first asylum countries, which called for the immediate end to the flow of people seeking asylum, and the other major players in the international community, which pushed for a more gradual approach.

The process is known as "screening". Nguyen Van Thanh, a Vietnamese asylum seeker who was "screened out" in Hong Kong, wrote, "They have put my suffering and efforts to be a human being again floating dangerously in a dull and sombre sea of tricky, unfair and unrelenting policy called 'screening'".

The CVRSO has documented evidence that screening procedures in "first asylum countries", such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines, are fraught with corruption and prejudice. As it stands currently, to be "screened in", and thus granted refugee status, in many cases a person seeking asylum must either have the money to bribe screening officers, or must provide sexual favours.

Former UNHCR lawyer Simon Jeans has provided evidence for the corruption on the part of Indonesian officials. He says, "Several refugees whose status had been accepted by the UNHCR were turned down by Indonesian officials after failing to come up with the cash".

The UNHCR is responsible for overseeing the screening process in these countries. The president of CVRSO, Dr Tien Nguyen, says that the Australian government must compel the UNHCR to identify and correct mistakes in screening. Dr Nguyen cites the UNHCR's power to overturn a decision regarding the refugee status of a person, as the most important of its powers. But the UNHCR very rarely exercises this power.

So desperate is the situation facing the refugees that some have been driven to taking their own lives. The CVRSO claims that already 20 lives have been lost in this cause. The UNHCR in Australia last year said it was sorry that people had committed suicide, but even this did not make them refugees.

Presently Senator Nick Bolkus, minister for immigration and ethnic affairs, is content to accept the word of the UNHCR that all screening procedures are legal. A spokesperson from his office said, "The UNHCR has assured us that no legitimate refugee has been screened out".

The government claims that there are many alleged cases of corruption overseas and it is impossible to deal with all of them. Australia's role in the whole affair is much more critical, however. In October 1994, the government passed legislation that refused to screen people seeking asylum in Australia if they had already been screened in a first asylum country.

Dr Nguyen claims that, should a person seeking asylum be screened in Australia, they would be subject to a much fairer screening. This rarely happens, however, because most asylum seekers are forced to stop in one of the South-East Asian countries first. They are thus registered there first and screened too.

The other obvious flaw of the legislation lies in the fact that if screening is corrupt in first asylum countries, then the refugees who manage to escape the detention camps and come on to Australia, are, for a second time, being denied a fair screening.

When the CVRSO advertisement appeared in the Australian, a spokesperson for Senator Bolkus could only say that the photograph was in "poor taste". It probably ruined his breakfast.

The CVRSO suggests a "final act of humanity" which it calls on Senator Bolkus to enact. First, the government can pressure the UNHCR to correct flaws in screening. Secondly, it can amend the law to permit a second screening of asylum seekers. Thirdly, the CVRSO calls for the government to "foster dialogues and encourage cooperation, instead of using deprivation, coercion and force, so as to make repatriation truly voluntary".