Asylum seekers. Don’t let us be diverted from regional arrangements. John Menadue

Jul 5, 2013

Foreign Minister Carr is focusing on whether some asylum seekers are refugees or economic migrants. This is symptomatic of a government that is continually in crisis mode over boat arrivals. It should focus on the strategic issues such as orderly departure arrangements in source countries like Afghanistan and regional agreements with Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In my blog of July 1 I expressed doubt about the arguments of Foreign Minister Carr that we needed to have a ‘tougher and more hard-edged assessment’ of asylum seekers. Understandably officials of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship don’t like their preliminary decisions on refugee status being overturned by the Refugee Review Tribunal.

It is clear that preliminary assessments by Immigration officials are being significantly changed.

Boat Arrivals – March quarter 2013


Primary protection visa grant rate (%)

Finally determined grant rate (%)













Sri Lanka










The figures from DIAC show that the primary protection visa grant rate in the March quarter 2013 was 65%, but on review, the RRT lifted the finally determined grant rate for all boat arrivals to 91%. For a couple of countries the overturn rate by the RRT was spectacular. The primary protection visa grant rate for Iranians was lifted from 55% to 86%. For Sri Lankans the change was even more remarkable from 27% at the primary stage to 75% as finally determined by the RRT.

The Department seems to have a particular worry with Iranian and Sri Lankan asylum seekers. By all accounts the Iranian asylum seekers are middle class, professional, better-off and tough applicants. That should not prejudice their case. They are escaping a brutal theocracy. The civil war in Sri Lanka may have ended but the advice from several human rights agencies suggests that the persecution of Tamils is continuing. Three months ago Canada said that it will not attend the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to be held in Sri Lanka in November this year unless the human rights situation improves.

The Government has announced that it will commission a review of Australia’s refugee status determination system to ensure that acceptance outcomes for asylum seeker claims are consistent with our international obligations and with final acceptance rates for comparable cohorts in other countries. It is to be hoped that this review is not designed to produce what Foreign Minister Carr is hinting at.

It should not be surprising that final decisions by the RRT will be more reliable than preliminary decisions by Immigration officials in the field. Newly arrived asylum seekers are likely to be confused and traumatised because of their escape and flight to safety. It is unlikely that they will have much helpful documentation. They are in an alien environment without much support. They will have to rely on an interpreter they do not know and who may not always be fully professional. The RRT does have the time and opportunity to more carefully and diligently review all the facts.

Denis O’Brien, a leading lawyer who headed the RRT for five years dismissed Foreign Minister Carr’s claim and asserted ‘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 Commission for Refugees”. Several senior and experienced refugee rights lawyers have commented that Foreign Minister Carr’s contention will not work and will be subject to challenge in the courts.

Comments by Foreign Minister Carr have diverted attention from the key issue, regional arrangements. This is where ministers and departments should be energetically applying their energies.

A regional arrangement at the time of the Indochina outflow was successful. Only a similar type of arrangement will work in the future. The key will be burden-sharing – burden sharing by countries providing temporary accommodation for asylum seekers such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and burden sharing by resettlement countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. Nothing else will work.

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