Government has breached its legal responsibilities towards refugees, says JRS

Government breach

One of the most lamentable aspects of current policy is the lack of progress on the creation of a Regional Cooperation Framework – a recommendation contained in the Expert Panel Report (2012) and promoted by the UNHCR through the Bali Process.

The Australian government has breached its legal responsibility towards refugees and committed grave ethical blunders in its application of offshore processing procedures, says Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS).

The comment comes amidst speculation that the government has convinced the impoverished country of Cambodia to host Australian-bound refugees.

One of the most lamentable aspects of current policy is the lack of progress on the creation of a Regional Cooperation Framework – a recommendation contained in the Expert Panel Report (2012) and promoted by the UNHCR through the Bali Process.

Whilst UNHCR has fought hard to incorporate the protection of asylum seekers into the Framework – to be used as guide for states to collaborate on migration issues – the Australian government is actively undermining the process by instead pursuing a model of regional deterrence.

A Regional Cooperation Framework would help transit states in the region to differentiate between asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, says JRS’ Head of Policy and Advocacy, Oliver White.

“We urge the government to collaborate with states in the region to strengthen protection in host and transit countries, and to develop a regional processing system that provides timely, durable solutions for those seeking protection,” he says.

“Cooperation, consistency and subscribing to universally accepted standards of protection are the way forward to ensure more equitable burden-sharing for states and to protect refugees transiting through Asia Pacific. Standardising procedures means refugees will face the same treatment, no matter where they go, and increasing protection in transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will reduce the need for onward movement.”

JRS has also criticised the Australian government for preventing asylum seekers from accessing its jurisdiction – and in so doing its effective systems of processing – by diverting asylum flows to other states, such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru.

“This undermines the essence of the Refugee Convention’s notion of asylum, which upholds people’s right to travel irregularly and choose when and where to flee. It makes no sense to establish offshore processing centres in countries where there are no asylum seekers. If Australia would like to help process the many thousands of asylum seekers left stranded in places like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia then this is where they should start ,” says Mr White.

Although Australia is legally obliged to assess the claims of asylum seekers in a fair, efficient and expeditious manner, very little processing has taken place in the offshore Processing Centres (OPCs), with just one decision handed down on Nauru since the first asylum seekers arrived on the island in 2012 and none on Manus Island. Moreover, the capacity to house asylum seekers in these centres is limited, and Christmas Island is warehousing several thousand asylum seekers who are in limbo.

“Australia already has a robust assessment process in place onshore, but such processes are functionally absent on Manus Island, despite the fact that the Expert Panel recommended ‘capacity be established’ in these places to process asylum seekers transferred from Australia in ways consistent with Australian, Nauruan and PNG responsibilities under international law,” says Mr White.

In particular, JRS holds grave concern for children, who have no access to formal education on Christmas Island – a situation which brings into question the government’s ethical treatment of asylum seekers.

“The punitive treatment of this group of people might assuage conservative voters but it fails to pass the test of principled, ethical policy provision,” says Mr White.

“Rather than being more effective and ethically justifiable when moved from the mainland to a remote offshore destination, Australia’s asylum processing policies are less so.”

Press Contact Information

Oliver White, Head of Policy & Advocacy
Email: oliver.white@jrs.org.au
+61 2 9356 3888

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