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Ecumenical body condemns latest 'shaming' and punishment of asylum seekers

'Fake refugees' claim unjust and unbecoming of a government minister, says churches' group as Canberra announces deadline

A NSW academic said it was impossible to determine the genuine extent of Australia's commitment to human rights by juxtaposing Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's pitch launching Australia's bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council with Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton's announcement days later.

By Mark Brolly

May 23 2017The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT) has condemned the Federal Government’s “shaming” language and punishment of 7500 asylum seekers yet to apply for protection in Australia and called on Canberra to restore justice and hope to them.

The ACRT said the decision by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Mr Peter Dutton, to threaten asylum seekers who had not yet had the opportunity to apply for protection by using language such as “fake refugees” was “unjust and unbecoming of a Minister in the Australian Government”.

Mr Dutton announced on 21 May that asylum seekers had until 1 October to lodge an application for processing or they would be cut off from Government payments and subject to removal from Australia. He said the 7500 asylum seekers were costing Australian taxpayers about $250 million annually in income support alone and that the 1 October deadline was non-negotiable.

“The Turnbull Government has today set a deadline for thousands of Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) who flooded into Australia under the previous Labor Government to prove they are genuine refugees and owed protection by Australia,” Mr Dutton’s announcement said.

“There are 7500 IMAs who landed in Australia during the Labor years who have failed or refused to present their case for asylum.

“Some of these people have been here for more than five years. Yet they have failed or refused to take any action to present their case for protection.”

Later, he opened his media conference to elaborate on the decision by calling people who were refusing to provide detail about their claim for protection “fake refugees”.

But the Deputy Chair of ACRT, Churches of Christ minister the Revd Mark Riessen, said: “It astonishes me that we have held people seeking refuge in our country in limbo for so many years. We have heaped heavy burdens upon them and they have become captive to punitive measures in an unfair ultimatum.

“The Christian faith calls us to work towards freedom for the captive and advocate for those treated unfairly, not to demonise them and shame them.”

Ms Caz Coleman, the ACRT’s acting Executive Officer, said: “To draw boundaries that sharply delineate between those who are ‘in’ and to whom justice and fairness applies, and those who are ‘out’ and to whom justice and fairness does not, is to deny justice at all.”

The ACRT said many of the people Mr Dutton derided did not even have an option to apply for protection for a number of years until the “fast-track” processing system passed in 2015. During this time, many of them did not have a right to work and they were living in poverty. 

Its statement on 22 May said the process of applying for protection was arduous for those who did not have legal advice, and many were waiting for pro bono advice from overstretched legal services. 

“The 7500 who have not yet applied deserve the same respect as others who have applied before them.

“The ACRT supports the need for all 7500 to be processed in order for them to be able to determine their future.  However, the ACRT believes that shaming and punishing people is not the way to encourage engagement.  The ACRT calls on the Government to provide additional support to this group of people in the form of legal support and positive messaging to resolve the residual caseload.”

Mr Riessen said: “At the core of this process we ask for a reinstatement of hope, and that there will be fairness and justice in this process.”

Mr Dutton quoted statistics from his department that 50,000 Illegal Maritime Arrivals had arrived in Australia between 2008 and 2013 and that the former Labor Government had processed 20,000 of them. Labor, under then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, stopped processing IMAs in August 2012, leaving 30,500 people yet to be processed — this was known as the “Legacy Caseload”:

  • 23,000 of the Legacy Caseload have applied for Temporary Protection Visas or Save Haven Visas;
  • Of those, 6500 had been granted such a visa;
  • 3000 already had been found not to be refugees and must leave Australia;
  • 13,000 were having their claims assessed; and
  • About 7500 remained outside the process and had not presented their case for protection. 

Mr Dutton said Australians had every right to question why an estimated 80 per cent or more of IMAs had arrived without any identity documents.

“In such circumstances processing their claims for protection has proven challenging and complex,” he said. “The Coalition has expedited this process as much as possible.

“The October cut-off for lodgement of protection claims will ensure that Australian taxpayers are not providing financial support to people who have no right to be in Australia.”

Mr Dutton told his news conference that the Government would provide Medicare support, work rights and support if IMAs had children of school age to pay for those education costs.

“But we are not going to provide taxpayer assistance beyond that and the expectation is if people can’t make their claim for protection, then they need to depart our country as quickly as possible,” he said.

“It’s important to recognise that Australia is one of the most generous nations in the world when it comes to providing a home for thousands of refugees each year. On a per capita basis, we are second only to Canada in terms of our generosity.

“But we aren’t going to be taken for a ride by the thousands of people who are refusing to provide details about their protection claims. We are not going to allow, given the level of debt that our country is in, for more debt to be run up paying for welfare services for people who are not genuine. We are not going to allow this situation to continue.”

The Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights at the University of Newcastle in NSW, Dr Amy Maguire, wrote on The Conversation website on 23 May that Mr Dutton’s statement announcing the deadline “reinforces prejudicial tropes that successive governments have used to demonise people seeking asylum in Australia”.

“The subjects of the Government’s announcement are not ‘people’, ‘individuals’, ‘human beings’ – or even ‘asylum seekers’. Instead, they are ‘illegal maritime arrivals’,” Dr Maguire wrote.

“These seemingly non-people did not ‘travel to’ or ‘arrive in’ Australia. Instead, they ‘flooded into Australia’.

“They are the latest group to suffer from the shameful practice of setting human beings apart from others in the community: they are another class threatening peril and menace.”

Dr Maguire wrote that Mr Dutton’s condemnation of “fake refugees” was prejudicial, suggesting that those people now subject to his deadline must not have genuine protection claims or they would have been lodged already.

“Yet Department of Immigration statistics show people who travel to Australia by boat without a valid visa, seeking asylum, are more likely to be genuine refugees than people who travel by air with a visa and seek asylum on arrival. Over the years, between 70% and 100% of people arriving by boat have been assessed as eligible for refugee protection.”

She wrote that the people who were part of the “legacy caseload” had been living for some time in the Australian community in a state of legal limbo imposed when the then Labor Government stopped processing protection visa applications for people who had arrived by boat. This bar on applications was not fully lifted until late 2016.

The Minister’s announcement also failed to mention that the Department of Immigration was unable to process the volume of asylum claims currently lodged, or that an arbitrary deadline for applications from people in the legacy caseload group would force many to apply without proper legal assistance.

“Community legal centres around Australia have thousands of clients on their books awaiting assistance with protection claims. The complex process requires the completion of 184 questions and a detailed written statement, and many applicants will require translation. All ought to receive legal advice.

“The latest development imposes undue stress on an already extremely vulnerable community. Only three months ago, some members of this group received letters from the Department of Immigration, threatening the withdrawal of Medicare and work rights if they failed to lodge applications within a tight deadline.

“That many – if not all – of this group were on waiting lists for legal assistance is seemingly no longer sufficient to explain why they have not yet lodged protection applications.”

Dr Maguire noted that late last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop officially launched Australia’s bid for a 2018-20 seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“It is impossible to determine the genuine extent of Australia’s commitment to human rights by juxtaposing Bishop’s claims with Dutton’s announcement. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires Australia to protect the rights of all people seeking asylum… Article 33 of the UN Refugee Convention prohibits the return of a refugee to a risk of persecution…

“Yet the imposition of the October 1 deadline for applications from those in the legacy caseload group imposes an arbitrary limit on the time available to seek protection. It suggests the Government is willing to violate its international legal option not to deport people who may have genuine claims for refugee status.

“Refugee advocates will feel compelled to challenge the deadline in the courts, if the Government seeks to deport people who have not had adequate opportunity or support to complete protection applications. This would open yet another front of government spending to support a policy and practice that violates Australia’s human rights obligations.”