Opposition mounts to proposed immigration changes

Issue 

Andrew Hall, Canberra

Many refugee-rights advocates describe the Howard government's Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 as worse than the policy of mandatory detention introduced by the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s.

The proposed new law would send all unauthorised boat arrivals, including those who reach the Australian mainland, to detention camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea for processing, denying them access to the Australian legal system and dismantling a key change to immigration processing won by Liberal backbenchers last year — keeping children and women out of detention.

Jo Hunt,an ACT Refugee Action Committee (RAC) spokesperson at the June 17 World Refugee Day rally in Canberra, told Green Left Weekly: "While the release of children from detention and the resettlement of all but two of the Nauru detainees were steps in the right direction, they never signified a true change of heart by the government.

"Now, the Howard government is tearing up Australia's obligations under the international refugee convention by hardening its mandatory detention policy and further removing it from public scrutiny."

The government has delayed federal parliament's vote on the legislation until the final week of the current sitting period in the hope of convincing enough Coalition backbenchers to not cross the floor to defeat the proposed bill.

Public opposition to the bill was galvanised by the June 13 release of a report by the Coalition-dominated Senate legal and constitutional committee. The report recommended that the bill be scrapped or substantially changed because of its "broad incompatibility with the rule of law" and its potential breach of Australia's obligations under international law.

Of the 136 submissions made to the committee, the immigration department's was the only one supporting the bill in its entirety. The committee's report criticised the immigration department for failing to make available "crucial information" on key aspects of the proposed new law, stating that it was impossible to conclude how the new system would work, how women and children would actually be treated and whether legal assistance would be guaranteed.

The ACT RAC submission stated: "The practical result of the new legislation for West Papuan refugees and others fleeing persecution is that they would be processed in a system that lacks transparency, that is subject to abuse and political pressure, that has no adequate review or accountability measures, and that is very unlikely to produce a durable solution speedily and fairly if at all."

Barrister Nicholas Poynder, in his submission to the committee, said: "Over the years I have seen various Australian governments tie themselves in knots trying to avoid their responsibilities under the refugees convention. However, I have never seen anything like this unauthorised arrivals bill for such a barefaced and impudent attempt to deny our obligations."

The Greens, Australian Democrats and ALP have all rejected the entire bill. A growing number of Coalition MPs are lobbying their parties to make a number of changes to it — along the line of the policy changes accepted by the government in 2005 following the backbench revolt led by Liberal MP Petro Georgiou. These include setting time limits on processing applications, independent scrutiny by the Commonwealth ombudsman, exemption for women and children, and an independent review process when refugee claims are rejected.

While the ALP has condemned the government's proposed legislation, some opposition MPs, spearheaded by shadow immigration spokesperson Tony Burke, have stoked xenophobic anti-Indonesian sentiment by claiming that the bill is the result of the Howard government's "capitulation" to Indonesian government displeasure at the granting of refugee status to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers who arrived illegally by boat in January.

Commenting on the results of the Newspoll released on June 12, which found that 74% of voters would prefer to keep the current immigration laws, Burke told journalists in Sydney: "It should not be the case that Indonesia now decides who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

However Hunt pointed out that the latest measures are a continuation of Howard's long-term racist immigration policy.

From Green Left Weekly, June 21 2006.
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