Law to punish refugees without documents

February 20, 2015
An aeroplane skywrites 'Close Nauru' over Parliament House in Canberra on February 17.

The Refugee Convention and similar international laws exist to protect the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted people. People who flee war zones or are victimised by their governments and communities rely on countries that are signatories to these conventions to recognise their at-risk status and provide safety.

The international laws recognise that a refugee’s journey is unavoidably dangerous, chaotic and fraught with difficult decisions. Their status is transient, hazardous, and full of risks. This is why the refugee convention clearly spells out that signatory countries should not penalise asylum seekers for their method of arrival.

Notably, international law says asylum seekers who arrive without valid visa documents are not unlawful and their protection claims should be accepted.

But Prime Minister Tony Abbott considers this principle of basic human rights to be giving “the benefit of the doubt” to “bad people” who “might be a threat to our country”. He said during an interview on The Bolt Report on February 15 that refugees without documentation should be rejected instantly. People found to have used false documents could also have their citizenship revoked.

Talking tough, anti-refugee nonsense on a right-wing TV show is one of Abbott’s preferred pastimes, but his government’s Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014 will in fact enshrine into law the rejection of refugees without suitable documentation.

It could prove disastrous for people who have valid reasons for holding no papers.

In a submission to a Senate committee inquiry into the bill, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) said the proposed measure “fails to take into account certain fundamental facts about the reality of seeking asylum”.

This includes the fact that “many asylum seekers regularly flee their homes in a hurry, without the time to collect their identity and other documents; that asylum seekers are often forced to flee for their lives by whatever means necessary, including the use of false documents; that governments routinely seek to control minorities and opposition groups by denying them passports; that requesting identity documents after an asylum seeker has fled their country can raise interest in that person and their family members who remain in their home country, making such inquiries too dangerous to carry out; and that asylum seekers are inherently vulnerable.”

Indeed, there are many valid reasons why some refugees cannot give immigration authorities identity papers. Anything from losing them in the rush of leaving or having none to begin with, as is the case in some cultures that do not hold official records, are explanations recognised by international law.

Abbott’s own policies — and those of previous governments both Labor and Liberal — are also a driving factor in false, destroyed, or missing identity papers. Agents who arrange transport for asylum seekers — erroneously labelled “people smugglers” in Australia — confiscate or destroy documents to avoid a paper trail.

This is the result of criminalising the movement of displaced people across borders and forcing them underground to flee danger.

But ultimately, as refugee advocate Pamela Curr says, most asylum seekers — the vast majority — do have papers. It is disingenuous to imply otherwise. Those that don’t can still be vetted by various sophisticated means, all of which are at Australia’s disposal.

ASRC’s submission said this reality makes the proposed amendments unnecessary. “Decision makers at both the departmental and review stage already consider the veracity of identity, nationality and citizenship documents as part of the determination process,” it said.

“This can include requesting a forensic examination of documents, researching particular documents or taking into account the failure to produce documents. The [Refugee Review Tribunal’s] Credibility Guidelines contain several provisions for considering false or other documents.

“The proposed amendment will remove the ability of decision makers to make a considered decision on the provision of false or no documents and the circumstances under which this may have occurred and instead forces them to immediately refuse such applications.”

Australian politicians repeatedly fall back on singling out asylum seekers without documentation, implying they are part of some vast conspiracy to “cheat” the system. It is a low and simplistic political ploy that suits the agenda of Abbott, and one he can play uncritically on Bolt’s odious Sunday morning television show.

Abbott tossed in vague concerns about “national security” as well, to try to pressure Labor into dropping its present opposition to the bill.

Refugees have no reason to “cheat” the system. There is no advantage to arriving without documents.

But Australia long ago abandoned any attempts to observe international laws and conventions regarding refugee rights. It has removed references to the refugee convention from its laws and its policies, including imprisoning refugees in offshore detention camps, creating temporary protection visas, forced deportation and no right to appeal rejection of refugee status, clearly violating the rights of refugees.

Now it is instituting laws that will have long-term and severe impacts on refugees, whose numbers are only growing in an increasingly insecure and dangerous world.

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