Australia wants to know nothing about asylum seekers’ torture history

Being a good international citizen, as Mr Abbott says Australia is, means much more than simply turning a blind eye to suffering in the world (and facilitating it on the quiet).

Torture is one of those crimes which everyone can agree is wrong – and wrong in all circumstances. International law regards it as a matter of ius cogens, something which can never be justified or agreed to, and the suppression of which demands the cooperation of all states.

The flight from torture is one of the commonest features of the refugee experience and past torture is a fairly reliable indicator of the ‘well founded fear of persecution’ which is the test for refugee status.

All this explains why it is disappointing, if scarcely surprising, that Australia has ceased to ask asylum seekers about any history of torture. If one were serious about finding out about genuine refugee claims in an ‘enhanced screening’ or shortened questioning process, then enquiring about any torture at the hands of the people an asylum seeker is fleeing would surely be near the top of the list of cogent questions to be asked.

The fact that asylum seekers now have to wait until further on into the questioning process before being asked about claims based on torture is sold by the Government as a result of sensitivity and the need to ensure a safe environment before discussing such things.

I wish that I could accept that at face value. The fact is that, as asylum seeker advocates have pointed out, many are not given the opportunity to proceed to further stages in the process. Professor Newman, former member of the Immigration Health Advisory Group, provided the Sydney Morning Herald an answer which sounds much more believable when she said:

There was discussion about it and that decision would be against it. From my perspective, there was a political process going on and [some thought] that it was simpler not to get the [torture and trauma] information as there is a moral and ethical responsibility to respond to it.

The idea that we can sidestep our moral and ethical obligations by avoiding asking the questions which would engage them is ridiculous. Indeed, it sounds suspiciously like the kind of passing by on the other side of the road which the Prime Minister engaged in in his response to the pleas from other countries in the region to help shoulder the burden of sheltering the Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing ill-treatment at the hands of the Myanmarese Government.

In answering that the crisis was all the fault of that Government for letting them leave in the first place (without mentioning the appalling human rights situation in Myanmar which might make them want to do so), he effectively subscribed to the same ostrich theory which sees nothing wrong in torture – provided only that we don’t get to find out about it.

This is of a piece with the dirty ‘stop the boats at all costs’ deal made with the Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka and revealed by The Australian earlier this year. It is also not a million miles away from the theory that turning boats back to countries where their desperate passengers might be tortured and making people suffer in off-shore detention centres is acceptable provided only that the Australian citizenry does not get to see and hear what is happening.

Being a good international citizen, as Mr Abbott says Australia is, means much more than simply turning a blind eye to suffering in the world (and facilitating it on the quiet). Not being an international good citizen has a cost which is far greater than a mere image problem. As we have already seen in the case Messrs Chan and Sukumaran, Australia’s ability to plead for the human rights of its citizens abroad is much diminished by its ignoring them closer to home.

More directly still, Australia is a party to the so-called ‘Bali process’, an agreement between 45 countries in the Asia-Pacific Region and major UN organs involved in refugee and migration issues. The purpose of the Bali process is to facilitate the ‘burden sharing’ so hyped by Australia in relation to refugee issues. It is important to Australia because it draws into these burden sharing arrangements a number of countries who have assumed no obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Australia’s attitude to torture survivors and to the Rohingyas tells those to whom it preaches about human rights and burden sharing exactly how serious it really is about these things. Be assured that those countries, whose cooperation is vital to Australia’s own border security, are listening very carefully.

Justin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood, having previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand, with a PhD in administrative and international law.

This article was first published in Eureka Street.

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