Hypocrisy on refugees

Issue 

Hypocrisy on refugees

Targeted at Indo-Chinese refugees, recent amendments to the legislation covering Australia's migrant intake smack of hypocrisy and disregard for human rights.

In response to the arrival of several hundred Vietnamese-Chinese refugees in December and January, the government is again proposing to change the rules, this time to abolish suffering as a result of China's one-child policy as grounds for granting asylum. It is believed that thousands of women have been forced into sterilisation or abortion to avoid the penalties imposed on families with more than one child.

Australia's acting human rights commissioner has branded the legislative changes discriminatory and "inherently offensive to the principle of the equal protection before the law". The legislation has also been attacked by Michael Posner, executive director of the US-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, who described the refusal to grant refugee status to a whole group as a violation of international human rights law.

In late 1994, the Labor and Liberal parties passed Migrant Legislation Amendment Bills number three and four, which would deny the right to refugee status to anyone who has already applied for refugee status in a third country and would legalise in retrospect the illegal detention of refugees between 1989 and 1992.

Along with these amendments and the proposals to build two new isolated detention centres for asylum seekers, the latest move is an attempt to increase Australia's reputation as a refugee-unfriendly country in the hope that refugees will be diverted to other countries in the region.

The major parties are operating on the basis, already proved ineffective, that making the rules for asylum more restrictive and the process, including extended imprisonment, more difficult and humiliating will stop the flow of refugees. This reveals a callous lack of concern for the reasons that drive people to attempt a dangerous and costly voyage to Australia.

Even more serious is the immorality of the bipartisan position that Australia has a right to refuse asylum to those fleeing political or other persecution, especially at a time when there are a record number of refugees in the world. The official number stood at 19 million at the beginning of 1994, a jump of 2 million since 1991 and double the number of a decade ago. The actual figures are much higher if people who have been made homeless within their own countries are taken into account.

Australia is in a better position than most countries to offer asylum, but many Third World countries have a much better record. Kerry Murphy, of the Christian Centre for Social Research and Action and a former immigration officer, cites Pakistan, which provides asylum to 3 million Afghan refugees, and several African states whose refugee population is 10-20% of their total population. Australia's 1993-1994 migrant intake was a meagre 63,000, including 13,000 places for those who could prove refugee status.

What this attitude means practically is that Australia's underdeveloped neighbours will be expected to make up for Australian government policy. Indonesia — already a country of 200 million people — is often the first stop for Indo-Chinese refugees, despite allegations of corruption in regard to refugees there. Refugees denied asylum there become ineligible to apply in Australia and are returned to refugee camps in Indonesia if they attempt it.

The political use of the issue of refugees, the discrimination particularly against Indo-Chinese refugees, and the hypocrisy of a rich country like Australia refusing to accept refugees should be ended. It is high time that human rights be given some real content by the government; the treatment of asylum seekers would be a good place to start.

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