BY SARAH STEPHEN
On March 21, federal Labor and Coalition MPs delivered another blow to the rights of refugees. With Labor's assistance, the government's Migration (Transitional Movement) Bill was ensured speedy passage through the House of Representatives. It was introduced to the lower house on March 13 and was passed by the Senate on March 21.
The legislation removes a grey area relating to the 1500 asylum seekers held in prisons on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. The government's September legislation, which created much of the legal framework for the "Pacific solution", did not provide guidelines for those who were intercepted at sea without reaching Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef.
The law now states that such asylum seekers brought to Australian territory will not have the right to put in a new application for asylum if their initial claim was rejected, or the right to appeal their initial rejection through the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT).
Labor made much of the fact that the Coalition accepted one of its proposed amendments — to allow asylum seekers who are brought to Australia from Nauru or Manus Island, and are detained for more than six months pending deportation, to request that the RRT make a primary decision on their refugee status "provided that during the six month period the asylum seeker has cooperated with the return process".
However, non-cooperation (which prevents a new assessment taking place) is defined as such if it has occurred at any time, including initial contact with the defence forces or the immigration department. The assessment by the RRT would be a new decision, and would not take into account the original decision made offshore. However, the immigration minister will determine what visa a successful claimant can apply for — there is no guarantee it will be a protection visa.
Labor opposition leader Simon Crean hypocritically moved an amendment to the legislation which included condemnation of the "haste with which this legislation has been introduced and passage requested without the government providing any policy justification for such haste".
Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett told Green Left Weekly that Labor was eager to help the government pass the legislation before parliament finished sitting on March 21. So eager, in fact, that they agreed to support the government sitting through the weekend, although this proved unnecessary. Bartlett added that Labor also cooperated to prevent a full Senate committee examination of the legislation.
Mindful of the disquiet at the opposition's refugee policies within the party's rank and file, federal Labor immigration spokesperson Julia Gillard issued a statement, in response to a Democrats' press release, in which she explained, "Labor's approach to this bill has been guided by trying to secure a result that is in the best interests of the asylum seekers who are on Manus Island and Nauru". She argued that refugees would not be able to receive medical treatment in Australia, or be resettled to a third country via Australia, unless the laws were passed. In other words, Labor's total opposition to the legislation would have been counter-productive.
A media release issued by Crean on March 14 crowed about the collapse of the "Pacific solution": "The government's bill, and its acceptance of Labor's amendment, is an admission that its so-called 'Pacific solution' is a failure." Crean heralded the cooperation on the legislation as a "return to bipartisanship".
Labor's main argument against the "Pacific solution" has been its high cost. The party has remained conspicuously silent on the stripping of asylum seekers' rights.
The "Pacific solution" may well unravel, with the proposed centre on Christmas Island set to replace camps on Manus Island and Nauru, but the denial of rights to different categories of asylum seekers, depending on how they arrive in Australia, will remain. This new round of legislation brings the Pacific solution onto Australian soil.
In her March 14 speech to parliament, Gillard said, "Clearly, there will be numbers of asylum seekers who will not be found to be genuine refugees". This indicated Labor's support for their speedy removal. In doing so, Gillard backs a profound denial of justice. Asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island have had no access to lawyers to explain their rights or the appeals process. In Australia, at least 10-20% who fail the government's assessment of their refugee status are accepted after appeals to the RRT or the courts.
Phil Griffiths, convenor of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee, issued a stinging attack on the legislation on March 21. "I cannot see any reason for welcoming this legislation and feel Labor's role is a shameful betrayal of human rights. It prevents these people from applying for refugee status under Australian law, even though are on Australian soil. Labor is portraying this as removing red tape to allow sick people to be treated in hospital. This is rubbish. There is nothing stopping the authorities bringing sick people to Australia.
"This legislation will facilitate the deportation of those whose claims for refugee status have been rejected by the rough justice system used for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Deportation will be much easier to organise via Australia than from the islands directly. This legislation strips most of their rights away while they are being 'warehoused' here. It really is time that the 10 sympathetic Labor MPs got off their butts and spoke out against this new travesty."
From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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