THE Gillard government says more Afghan asylum-seekers are likely to be sent home following the lifting of a ban on the processing of their claims.
Today’s announcement that the ban on processing of Afghan asylum claims would end came ahead of a decision due by October 8.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said his department had spent the six months since claims were suspended working to understand the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
The government’s announcement in April that it would suspend claims by Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum-seekers came amid mounting pressure over the growing number of boatpeople landing on Australia’s doorstep.
The suspension of processing for Sri Lankan nationals was lifted in July, following a review of information from the country.
Boatloads of asylum-seekers have since continued to arrive, with a boat intercepted this week the 97th this year, bringing the number of intercepted passengers to 4612 – putting enormous strain on detention facilities.
There are almost 5000 people in immigration detention in Australia in facilities on the mainland and on Christmas Island. Official figures showed that in mid-August almost half of those, or 2248 people, were from Afghanistan.
Mr Bowen told parliament today that fewer Afghan asylum claims were now likely be successful, meaning more asylum-seekers would be returned to their country of origin.
“Mr Speaker, as a result of the more exhaustive country information there has been a decrease in the number of primary acceptances of claims from Afghans who are not subject to the processing pause.
“Even taking into consideration the possibility of some of these being overturned at review, the percentage of successful refugee claims is likely to be lower than in the past.
“Those Afghans who are found not to warrant more protection will be returned to Afghanistan, consistent with Australia’s international obligations.”
Mr Bowen said the government was working “very closely” with the Afghanistan government and the UNHCR to enter into an agreement for the return of Afghan nationals to Afghanistan.
“I hope to update the house and the community on that in the not too distant future,” he said.
Mr Bowen said the decision to lift the suspension followed additional information the department had gathered from a range of sources, and close collaboration with the Australian embassy in Kabul.
“The government is committed to providing protection to those who are found to be refugees, in accordance with Australia’s international obligations.
“Those people who are not found to be refugees will be returned to Afghanistan. The government is working closely with the UNHCR and the Afghanistan government to facilitate safe, sustainable returns of unsuccessful asylum-seekers”.
Mr Bowen said would-be Afghani asylum-seekers would have access to immigration advice and the application assistance scheme ahead of making an asylum claim.
The Coalition has been heavily critical of the government’s approach to asylum-seekers, which it says has contributed to the growing number of boat interceptions in Australian waters.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the freeze was an “election fix” and should never have been introduced.
“It was discriminatory and it said if you came from a particular country then we would not assess your claims,” Mr Morrison said.
“That’s just not something that Australians do.”
Mr Morrison said the freeze had contributed to a “significant crisis” in processing claims.
“Almost 1200 additional Afghans are now being held in detention since the freeze was introduced – 57 boats have arrived since the freeze was introduced,” he said.
“This was a ridiculous policy that has filled up our detention network, putting it into crisis at significant expense to the Australian taxpayer.”
Greens spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, welcomed the lifting of the ban but said it was just a first step in reforming a “failing” immigration system.
“We also need to ensure there is swift processing of the claims of the more than 2000 Afghans held in immigration detention in doing so, adequate resources are required to prevent further delays.”
Senator Hanson-Young said the suspension of claims had no practical effect other than to increase the backlog of cases within the system and magnify the anxiety, frustration and trauma within detention facilities.