Sunday, August 15, 2010
By Niko Leka
Immigration officials accept about 99% of claims for refugee status by people who have arrived by boats in Australia. But this hasn’t stopped mainstream politicians from punishing those seeking asylum in this way.

In April, the government announced it would temporarily freeze visa applications from newly arrived Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers. In June, about 70% of Afghan (mostly Hazara) claims were rejected, according to the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC). Such rejection figures have never been seen before.

An editorial in the July 17 Asian Tribune said Sri Lankan police registration of Tamils (used during the civil war to keep tabs on the minority ethnic group) had recommenced, as “an open reminder to them that perhaps they are of a second class citizenship”. Certainly conditions in Sri Lanka are not favourable to Tamil people.

Conditions in Afghanistan have also not improved. Afghanistan expert William Maley said in the July 2 Australian that on June 24, 11 Hazara Afghans were found beheaded in Oruzgan province. This was virtually under the nose of Australian soldiers stationed there.

Maley also said there was a 94% increase in incidents involving improvised explosive devices in the first four months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

An August 10 RAC statement said said the freeze was “simply driven by nasty politics, to show how tough the government could be on refugees”. The electoral competition between Labor and Liberal leaders to be tough on asylum seekers had “thrown a pall of uncertainty over the detention centres”, causing unbearable levels of anxiety for asylum seekers.

RAC said three men had attempted suicide in the Christmas Island detention centre in the past week. After more than a year in detention, they had given up hope of ever being free or able to assist their families left behind in desperate circumstances. One cut his throat, another took an overdose and a third died by refusing to eat or drink.

Conditions for asylum seekers in detention are appalling. A statement from refugee advocacy organisation RISE said on August 12 there were many cases “of people who are physically disabled due to injuries sustained in conflict areas, [having to]stand in the hot sun or rain for at least an hour, queuing for food, queuing for the phones to call their family members and using shared toilet and bathroom facilities”.

In one case, a man waited six months in agony for an artificial leg. When he returned from hospital, he was forced to to share a room with three other men — but only three beds. One of the men gave up his bed for him, and sleeps on a table in the TV lounge.

One refugee told GLW that “people who have arrived by boat are discriminated against. They are not allowed out unless accompanied by guards. So only two of us can go to church because Serco [the company that runs the centres]says it cannot afford to have more guards. But refugees who arrived by air are allowed to go into town by bus, and walk around.”

Discrimination against boat arrivals extends to how their claims are assessed. Asylum applications made under the offshore processing system at Christmas Island deny asylum seekers the right to a court appeal if they are rejected, unlike those who apply for refugee status on the mainland.

A letter to political leaders published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said forcible removal to an offshore processing site is highly questionable under international law”.

“The Anti-People Smuggling and Other Measures Act 2010… will almost certainly interfere with the right to seek asylum by allowing the punishment of those who act with purely humanitarian intentions.

“Australia … has departed from international consensus by including the facilitation of all irregular movement under the definition of migrant smuggling.”

On August 24, a case will be heard in Sydney’s High Court, challenging the legality of offshore processing. If the case fails, there will be no further legal barrier to deporting refugees currently held in mainland detention centres to offshore detention centres.

RAC is encouraging people to join the protest outside the court hearing. The protest will be on August 24, outside the Law Courts building, Cnr Phillip and King St, Sydney at 9.30am. For more information, visit www.refugeeactioncoalitionsydney.wordpress.com .

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