Why is Australia still mistreating refugees?


The Rudd Labor government has abolished the hated temporary protection visas (TPVs) that left refugees in limbo for years despite having their refugee status confirmed, and it has scrapped the "Pacific solution" — the shipping of asylum seekers to prison camps on Nauru and Manus Island. However, the bulk of the Howard government's refugee policies remain in place.

A public meeting on June 17 at Melbourne's BMW Edge theatre canvassed the unresolved problems that need to be fixed in order for Australia to have a fair system for asylum seekers. The meeting was endorsed by a broad range of refugees' rights and social justice organisations.

At the meeting, Michelle Foster from the University of Melbourne's International Refugee Law Research Centre argued: "Australia is being put forward internationally as a model for dealing with refugees so our policies have a negative impact on refugee policy internationally. The [Australian] system is based on the discretion of the minister and that decision isn't appealable."

Foster said that the outstanding issues that the federal government needs to address include:

•Ending indefinite mandatory detention.

•Asylum seekers on bridging visas: if asylum seekers haven't applied for a protection visa within 45 days of arriving in Australia they are denied the right to work and access to health, education and housing services.

•People who arrive in "excised" Australian territory such as Christmas Island are not allowed to apply for refugee status.

Refugee-rights advocate Julian Burnside QC agreed that there are many injustices that need to be fixed. He said that indefinite mandatory detention has to go. "There should be a limit of one month on mandatory detention unless there are extraordinary circumstances. After one month, people should be allowed to live normally in the community."

He said that "Bridging Visa E is abhorrent ... You aren't allowed to work or study, you can't use Centrelink or Medicare and you come out [of the detention centre] owing $250,000 for your detention. There are people who have been found to be genuine refugees who are paying $120 a month off their $250,000 debt for their detention.

"Private prison operators like GSL should not be doing the government's dirty work. They have to go." Burnside also argued that the Refugee Review Tribunal is "a deeply flawed system that should be scrapped".

Paris Aristotle from the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture explained that the government "has to deal with family reunion". "When the government abolished TPVs, they didn't allow additional numbers for family reunions. The previous government reduced the number of family reunions from 1000 to 500 and allocated them all to Iraqis who had helped the Australian troops."

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