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Human rights going down the pan?

By Judy Cannon - posted Thursday, 20 November 2014


The trouble with human rights is that they can be inconvenient and expensive, so maybe the best idea is to get rid of them? Perhaps that is the political thought bubble being tossed around in a number of countries where, once proud of their HR reputation, human rights apparently are currently under attack. Along for the ride, the Australian Federal Government is introducing sweeping reform legislation, particularly in regard to asylum-seekers.

Refugee advocates have spoken of their alarm at the new legislative reforms currently proposed under a migration amendment bill, calling them 'diabolical' and 'destructive'. Few of the public have a chance to understand the legal complexities involved or what these sweeping reforms actually portend. According to some immigration lawyers, in effect the proposed legislation would withdraw Australia from the international refugee convention, leaving Australia facing isolation. Another danger is that information about asylum seekers often comes in tandem with information about terrorists so the two issues can become conflated in the public's mind.

Under the proposed legislation immigration lawyer Sonia Caton says refugees could be denied legal review assistance or access in person to a review tribunal. Approaches would be restricted to a one-attempt only written statement, with no face-to-face interview. This implies no opportunity for questions or explanation and a lack of transparency. The proposed legislation looks like a plan for genuine refugees to be 'put through such a maze of different procedures they would get fed up and go home,' she said.

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The breadth of the proposed powers to be given to the immigration minister have been described as 'extraordinary' - no similar powers are held by ministerial counterparts anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the new wide-reaching legislation appeared to be a part of a much larger fight; so much so, the community needed to safeguard society for 'ourselves, not for the politicians'. She was speaking at a Brisbane meeting organised by the Refugee Action Collective. Hers is only one voice. There are others, even though Fairfax Media reported on May 20 2014 that after Immigration Minister Morrison learned that half a million dollars of funding had been allocated to the Refugee Council of Australia in the budget he moved immediately to axe the funding.

But the government is not getting it all its own way. Increasingly protest marches are well supported representing deep concern about Australia's treatment of refugees, something that does not go unnoticed internationally. Countries such as Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia no doubt welcome the money offered to accommodate asylum seekers but RAC spokesperson Ian Ritouli, another speaker at a Brisbane meeting, questioned whether these countries have any real intention of settling refugees permanently. Advocating strongly against the proposed legislation, he said there already had been a backlash against a refugee presence.

In addition, there were suggestions of other pressures on the government's refugee policy coming from Coalition members. Who can forget the courage of Liberal MPs Bruce Baird, Russell Broadbent, Petro Gergiou, Judy Moylan and Senator Troeth who once challenged PM John Howard over his refugee policies? Or that for similar reasons former PM Malcolm Fraser resigned, after many years, from the Liberal Party in 2010.

The Guardian (18/11/14) reported this week that refugees on Nauru had been threatened again by locals, told to stop stealing jobs, having affairs with local women, and to leave the island or face 'bad things happening'. It seems a menacing anonymous letter was left at the houses of all resettled refugees on Nauru, the 'Youth of Republic of Nauru' warning refugees would continue to be attacked if they stayed on the island.

Deportations back to home countries have also echoed around the media. The Saturday Paper reported (8/11/14) that Minister Morrison is to launch 'appropriate inquiries' into the claimed torture of Afghani Zainullah Naseri following his forcible deportation from Australia to Afghanistan. Another Hazara Sayed Habib Musawa has been killed. He was on a bus travelling along a road to Kabul officially assured as 'safe'. The bus was stopped and Musawa was called out of the bus by name by a group of Taliban. Writer Abdul Karim Hekmat states that someone had tipped off the Taliban that Musawa was on the bus. He believes, 'what killed him was his Australian citizenship'.

The UN Committee Against Torture has told the Australian Government that conditions on Manus Island and Nauru – the island states to which Australia sends asylum seekers – amount to 'cruel, inhuman, and unlawful' punishment, according to the Guardian (11/11/14). The committee was considering Australia's migration amendment bill. It stated that the new laws to make it easier to forcibly return asylum seekers to their homeland could breach the Convention Against Torture. And the Australian parliament's human rights committee – dominated and chaired by Coalition members – has earlier stated the legislation 'was incompatible with Australia's human rights obligations'.

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Pope Francis called on last weekend's G20 leaders to be 'examples of generosity' in meeting the needs of refugees. In a letter to the G20 host Tony Abbott the pope also emphasised the need for efforts to curb climate change, eliminate the root causes of terrorism and prevent financial system abuse, the Guardian reported (13/11/14). Further, a high level roundtable of 35 including former ministers, current politicians, refugee advocates and a former Indonesian ambassador, has produced a report which calls for another approach to the 'toxic' immigration debate, according to the ABC. The report advocates for the increase of Australia's humanitarian intake to be at least 25,000, with arrangements made for processing asylum-seekers in their home countries before they flee. Whether home country assessment could safely take place in practice is quite another matter. As it is, it must be pretty hard to apply for a passport or travel documents when you are about to flee - and if there is an office where you can safely apply.

In a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, a group of Sydney and Melbourne international law academics has recently recommended the immigration amendment bill should not be passed. Their principal concerns include that:

  • the Bill expressly empowers the Minister to detain people on the high seas and transfer them to countries even if this would amount to refoulement, and in circumstances that would also violate the international legal prohibition on arbitrary detention;
  • the Bill authorises other violations of Australia's non-refoulement obligations under international law, including the return of people to persecution or other forms of significant harm;
  • by seeking to remove references to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees from the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), the Bill fundamentally misunderstands the system of international law in general, and treaty interpretation in particular;
  • the Bill's provisions for 'fast tracking' decisions by removing or limiting access to merits review significantly increase the risk of refoulement, and may also constitute an unlawful penalty for asylum seekers who arrive irregularly;
  • the Bill provides for the detention and transfer to regional processing countries of children who are born to 'unauthorised maritime arrivals' and 'transitory persons' in Australia, and also potentially restricts such children's access to immediate birth
  • registration and the acquisition of a birth certificate;
  • by enabling the Minister to 'cap' the number of protection visas, the Bill would allow arbitrary and prolonged detention.

Encouraging news is that there is a plan for Tasmania to become Australia's asylum seeker processing centre, with newcomers living and working freely in the community, under a scheme developed by local leaders and human rights activists, according to the ABC (11/11/14).

'Speakers, including human rights lawyer Julian Burnside QC, said Tasmania offered an alternative to the Federal Government's Sovereign Borders policy, one that was more humane, better value for the Australian taxpayer and of benefit to the local economy'. It suggested the scheme could deliver enormous economic benefit to the state in infrastructure spending, education and training and in business opportunities. The proposal includes allowing people to live and work in the community, receive Centrelink benefits and live where the government determined their money would have the greatest benefit for the local economy.

A positive plan, a glimmer of a practical solution under the prevailing dark sky.

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About the Author

Judy Cannon is a journalist and writer, and occasional contributor to On Line Opinion. Her family biography, The Tytherleigh Tribe 1150-2014 and Its Remarkable In-Laws, was published in 2014 by Ryelands Publishing, Somerset, UK. Recently her first e-book, Time Traveller Woldy’s Diary 1200-2000, went up on Amazon Books website. Woldy, a time traveller, returns to the West Country in England from the 12th century to catch up with Tytherleigh descendants over the centuries, and searches for relatives in Australia, Canada, America and Africa.

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