Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Activists Wary of Plan to ‘Export’ Asylum Centres

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Oct 14 2010 (IPS) - As the Australian government steps up its efforts to establish a regional processing centre for asylum seekers in East Timor, refugee advocates remain watchful for signs that any deal could result in the involuntary removal from Australia of people seeking protection here.

Australia’s Immigration Minister Chris Bowen spent this week in East Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia, where he canvassed views on developing a regional approach to managing the continuing arrival of asylum seekers by boat in Australia and elsewhere in the region.

More than a hundred boatloads of asylum seekers have been intercepted by Australian authorities in 2010. Many asylum seekers are believed to have paid substantial amounts of money to people smugglers for the journey to Australian waters, often on crowded, rickety vessels.

“A (Regional Protection) Framework involving our regional partners is the most effective way to holistically address irregular migration in the region and to remove the incentive for people to undertake the dangerous sea voyages that put lives at risk,” said Bowen prior to departing Australia.

While the development of an overall framework for this regional approach by the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard remains at a consultative stage, central to this idea is the establishment of an offshore regional processing centre to be funded by Canberra.

Although East Timor’s Parliament voted in July to reject Australia’s initial proposal for locating such a processing centre on the young nation’s soil, the Gillard government has insisted that interest in the idea remains among the upper echelons of power in Dili.

Addressing the media in the East Timorese capital after discussions with East Timor President José Ramos Horta on Oct.12, Bowen was upbeat. “There have been no points of disagreement between East Timor and Australia on this issue. The President and I had a very constructive discussion,” he said.

Officials from Australia and East Timor will meet in a month’s time to continue developing the idea, with the aim of putting a final proposal to both governments in early 2011.

While negotiations are at an early stage and details of the proposed processing facility are yet to be thrashed out, Australian refugee advocates are keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.

Kate Gauthier from the Refugee Council of Australia, the umbrella body representing some 130 refugee and asylum seeker organisations here, says that a regional approach could be a positive step if it develops a “system that really creates alternative protection options for people that doesn’t require them to go through people smugglers.”

Yet she also remains wary that establishing a holding and processing centre in East Timor could signal a return to similar policies of the past. “If what they’re really doing is simply setting up an alternative to the Pacific Solution where we are just sending people back there as a way of diverting them from Australia, that’s an incredibly negative step,” Gauthier told IPS.

The so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ was introduced by the conservative government of John Howard in 2001 as a deterrent to people seeking to arrive in Australia by boat. Under the policy, asylum seekers apprehended outside Australia’s migration zone were sent to detention centres in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

The policy was scrapped under the leadership of former prime minister Kevin Rudd after the Australian Labor Party swept to power with victory in the 2007 election. But the arrival by boat and subsequent treatment of asylum seekers remains a hot political issue in Australia.

Advocates have long held the view that clamour by the Labor Party and the conservative opposition – as both major parties attempt to outdo each other on “tough” border protection policies – is out of proportion to the number of people seeking refuge in Australia.

Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that Australia received 6,206 new claims for asylum out of a worldwide figure of 1.18 million in 2009. This equates to just 0.5 percent, with Australia ranking 33rd in terms of total number of asylum applications in that year.

Regardless of the relatively small number of asylum claims made in Australia, the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, the incarceration of children and the continuing use of a processing centre on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island – located in the Indian Ocean some 2,600 kilometres north-west of Perth, the capital of Western Australia state – are among ongoing concerns for many Australians sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers.

The idea that the proposed facility in East Timor could result in Australia once again sending asylum seekers to another country to await the processing of their asylum claims would be “inherently unlawful,” according to Amnesty International Australia’s Dr Graham Thom, the organisation’s refugee campaign coordinator.

The involuntary transfer to a third country once people have already entered Australia’s jurisdiction “contravenes the intent and purpose of the right to seek asylum set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the protection regime established by the Refugee Convention,” Thom blogged in an entry dated Oct.13.

Australia was one of eight nations involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and is party to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The refugee convention, as it is widely known, is the key legal document for determining who qualifies as a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states.

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