When Malaysian Flight MH370 disappeared, the Australian Government made a major contribution towards the international search operation. Almost daily there were announcements by Prime Minister Abbott and other Ministers about new information they were checking and hopes of finding the plane. Media accompanied the air force on the search and the Australian contribution was a genuine effort as part of an international search mission.
What a contrast when a boat or two of Sri Lankan Tamils arrives seeking our protection. Minister Morrison refuses to even acknowledge there is a boat or two. The refuses to comment on ‘on water matters’. Then we hear there is a possibility the asylum seekers will be returned to Sri Lanka, after they are asked four questions, three of which are about identity.
Under international refugee law, the worst possible thing you can do is to return someone to a country where they could be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. That is called the non-refoulement obligation. The fact that only one question is asked about why they came to Australia, and done in circumstances not conducive to seeking information but ticking a box so we can send them home, is a serious indictment of how Australia adheres to its international obligations.
We do not know exactly what happened, because it is all too secret. However some information has come out. The Labor party have unclean hands on this because they were using a similar process for ‘enhanced screening’ of Sri Lankans in late 2012.
Many Sri Lankans were returned to Sri Lanka under Labor without a careful and thorough investigation of their case. There is no way you could simply write off someone just because they give a poor answer to the final of four questions. This is about our international obligations, not some pub trivia quiz knockout.
UNHCR has criticised the ‘return oriented environment’ on Manus Island and this process shows the same focus on sending people home and stopping the boats, regardless of the seriousness of the claims. If someone manages to raise strong protection claims, what happens then? Are they taken to Manus, Nauru? Who decides they have raised strong enough claims and what criteria are used? Is there some checking process to ensure no mistakes are made?
The four question quiz seems totally inadequate for assessing someone’s claims for protection, and there are no apparent safeguards. If someone seeks legal advice or help, what happens? It is all too secret to tell us.
The Prime Minister then comes out and tells us how good Sri Lanka is now since the end of the brutal 30 year conflict:
”But I want to make this observation, Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of the ideal society but it is at peace . . . a horrific civil war has ended. I believe that there has been a lot of progress when it comes to human rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.”
Sorry Prime Minister but that is not the correct legal test. It seems DFAT are not aware it is so calm either. The Smart Traveller website warns against travel to Sri Lanka and says:
- We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Sri Lanka at this time because of the unpredictable security environment.
- Security forces maintain a visible presence throughout the country. Military and police checkpoints are present along some roads and road closures can occur without warning.
- You should avoid all demonstrations and large public gatherings as they may turn violent or be a target for politically-motivated attacks. Police have used tear gas in response to protests.
- In the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, which includes Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Kilinochichi and Jaffna Districts, post-conflict security force activity is ongoing.
There are reports from Human Rights agencies and UNHCR about serious human rights concerns in the troubled island of Sri Lanka. These include reports of arbitrary arrest, assault and torture. It is progress from being shot straight away maybe, but still far from a human rights paradise.
Australia has shown it is generous when it comes to helping with disasters such as the tsunami in Indonesia, helping find MH370, and many others. Sadly, when it comes to people arriving by boat seeking our protection we have a major blind spot. Tragically, a country that does have a reasonable record in helping refugees and respecting human rights is trashing its reputation for a three word slogan.
Kerry Murphy is a Sydney solicitor who practices in immigration and refugee law.