Don’t race to the bottom on asylum seekers!

Kevin Rudd, in your review of asylum seeker policy please don’t let Foreign Minister Carr lead you to a race to the bottom with Tony Abbott.

The media is clearly being briefed that in a revision of asylum policy, the Government is considering tougher new country assessments by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is suggested by the Foreign Minister that this is necessary to exclude persons who are really economic migrants.

In my blog of July 5, I expressed concern that the Foreign Minister was implying that the Refugee Review Tribunal was too soft on refugee determination.

In primary decisions on asylum seekers and according to UNHCR data, Australia is about in the mid-range in refugee determination in the first instance.  The rates for refugee determination that did not go to further review were as follows.

Australia                             46%

Canada                               42%

Denmark                             46%

Germany                             32%

New Zealand                     28%

Norway                               56%

Sweden                               49%

UK                                        37%

It is difficult to compare final refugee determination rates as appeal processes differ greatly between countries. If there is reliable information available on country comparisons I would like to see it. We do know however that the final rate of refugee determination in Indonesia is 94%. This compares with final determination rates in Australia for the March quarter 2013 – 91% for boat arrivals and 65% for air arrivals.

Frankly I would have much greater confidence in the RRT and its processes than the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In the primary process asylum seekers are likely to be disoriented and confused and dealing with a very alien situation. The RRT has the experience and professionalism to sort out the merits of asylum claims. Denis O’Brien who headed the RRT for five years asserted that ‘members of the RRT have to apply the definition … under the Refugee Convention. So I don’t see a lot of scope for tightening up without running foul of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees’.

Today the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Gillian Triggs, said ‘There is no evidence to support the Government’s economic migrant claim … When we were assessing asylum seekers claims up until August 13 last year, approximately 90% of claims for refugee status were found to be valid. So I think that Senator Carr is making an assumption for which there is no evidence.’

In the weighing of evidence, I would place great weight on organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in their assessments of human rights violations and persecution around the world. They are experienced in this field. They get their hands dirty in dealing with the everyday problems of persons facing persecution. By contrast, DFAT officers are relatively inexperienced and live in remote and privileged foreign enclaves. Furthermore DFAT is very keen to maintain good relations with foreign governments and their agencies. These are often the very same organisations that asylum seekers see as their persecutors. I would seriously discount the advice from the governments of Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka and their brutal intelligence and security services. The government of Canada has said that it will not be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November in Colombo this year unless the human rights position in Sri Lanka improves.

I have confidence in the independence and professionalism of the RRT to make just and considered final decisions.

Tony Abbott sheds crocodile tears over asylum seekers drowned at sea. He and Scott Morrison have demonised asylum seekers for years as illegals; they bring disease and wads of cash. Coalition concern for asylum seekers is largely seen as a political opportunity. On the 10th December 2010 the Sydney Morning Herald reported from Wikileaks that a key Liberal Party strategist told a US diplomat in Canberra in November 2009 that the issue of asylum seekers was ‘fantastic’ for the Coalition and ‘the more boats that come the better’. Tony Abbott shows that that still remains the approach of the Coalition.

As Malcolm Fraser said in a guest blog on July15 the plight of asylum seekers and deaths at sea is a world-wide problem that we cannot fix on our own.  He said the only solution is a regional agreement based on two key elements. The first is that regional countries that bear a much heavier burden than we do on asylum seekers and refugees are prepared to hold and process in their country those who claim refugee protection. This must be done in association with UNHCR. The second is that settlement countries such as Australia, Canada, US and NZ must provide finance to regional countries and promptly agree to the resettlement of those that are found to be refugees.

Unilateralism will not work for anyone. The key is burden-sharing. The conference called by President Yudhoyono to build a regional framework must be pursued with urgency. It combines both good policy and good politics. It is to be hoped that the Government will not go down the track that Foreign Minister Carr is suggesting.

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