16 July 2012

Expert panel meeting triggers fresh Australian immigration row

The first meeting of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's expert panel tasked to find a non-political solution to the ongoing asylum seeker issue in Australia has triggered a fresh row between the government and opposition.

Australia immigration

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen (top) and Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison (bottom) have once again engaged in a war of words over the asylum seeking issue in Australia.

Ms Gillard ordered the formation of the panel, which includes former Department of Foreign Affairs chief Michael L'Estrange, Paris Aristotle, a renowned advocate for refugees, and is headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston, after the Australian parliament failed to find a solution.

The deadlock came after an emergency discussion on the issue following the capsizing of two Australia-bound asylum seeking boats in less than a week which resulted in the deaths of 94 people. A compromised solution successfully passed a vote in the House of Representatives but was struck down in the Senate and parliament broke for its six week winter break without a solution.

Without a deterrent in place, boats have continued to arrive, reaching record levels in June.

The argument

Both the governing Labor Party and the opposing Coalition want to reinstate the controversial policy of offshore processing; asylum seekers who are either intercepted by Australian immigration authorities en route or those who make it to Australian shores are escorted to a third party country and their claims for refugee status are determined there.

While both parties are in agreement over the policy itself, the argument centres on where the asylum seekers should be escorted to. The government favours Malaysia, the opposition the Pacific Island nation of Nauru.

The Coalition also want to reinstate the temporary protection visa policy, which prevents holders from bringing family members to Australia, and escorting some asylum seeker boats out of Australian water.

The government maintains these policies as cruel and that they put the lives of both asylum seekers and Australian navy personnel in danger.

The Coalition contends that as Malaysia is not party to the UN Refugee Convention, they cannot support legislation that will allow asylum seekers to be taken there.

The panel

Ms Gillard has given the expert panel access to all possible resources needed to come up with a suitable deterrent which all parties can be satisfied with and instructed them to be prepared to present the solution to both her and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott simultaneously.

The prime minister stopped short of saying she would adopt the panel's suggestion regardless of their recommendation and Mr Abbott has flatly refused to listen to any advice, claiming his party's policies have been proven to be effected, having been in place during the previous John Howard government which saw boat arrivals practically stop.

While the panel's purpose is to put an end to the row, its first meeting in Canberra this week, which coincided with three more boat arrivals carrying over 100 asylum seekers in 24 hours, has sparked fresh insults.


Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison claims the UN's Refugee Convention is outdated and 'short changes' Australia and other countries such as the UK, the US and Canada who resettle large numbers of refugees.

"The Refugee Convention as it's being interpreted and as the legal understating of its application has evolved over the years is giving aid and comfort to people smugglers who are able to sell packages to people to sell up and move halfway around the world and seek asylum in the country of their choice," said Mr Morrison.

Mr Morrison said people travelling through various countries to reach a specific country to claim asylum in, known as 'secondary moving', did not fit with the convention's original intention, to help people fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe or Vietnamese following the fall of Saigon.

"That's a world of difference between people getting on planes to Indonesia or Malaysia as part of an integrated package to get to an asylum country of choice. That's not what the convention was designed to address," said Mr Morrison, adding that it should be re-examined.

"The Convention is supposed to provide protection, safe haven for people directly fleeing place of persecution. Now we know the people leaving Indonesia are not directly fleeing a place of persecution.

"Over time these protections have been extended to people who are secondary moving and flying halfway around the world.

"The big re-settlers are being short-changed by the [United Nations High Commission for Refugees]."

Mr Morrison rejected the assertion that the Coalition's policies were cruel, claiming it was an unjustified attack by a government without their own effective proposals.

"[The government has] no policies to stop the boats, and they have jettisoned any commitment to human rights with their shameless attempt to legalise their abominable Malaysian people swap."


Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said that while the movement of refugees has changed since the convention's signing in 1951, 'what hasn't changed is the fundamental prince that people should be refouled to a country from which they are fleeing persecution'.

"I'd like to see what [Mr Morrison] is arguing," said Mr Bowen. "If he's got suggestions as to how the refugee convention needs to be rewritten then he needs to say exactly what they are."

The government has been pressured from both the Coalition and the Australian Greens, who oppose offshore processing of any kind, to increase Australia's refugee intake to 20,000 as an incentive to encourage people not to board boats but Mr Bowen says this, without a suitable deterrent to those who do board boats, is pointless.

"The idea that we could increase the refugee intake and it not be accompanied by offshore processing to provide some sort of disincentive for the 43 million refugees and displace people in the world to attempt irregular boat journeys to Australia is, I think naive."

Mr Bowen attacked the opposition for their refusal to negotiate with the government over processing in Malaysia on the grounds that it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

"I find it extraordinary that Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party are saying being a signatory to the refugee contention is the absolute essential requirement for offshore processing but in the same breath he then says he wants to rewrite the refugee convention.

"The real reason they oppose the Malaysia arrangement is because they know it will work." 

Prime Minister

Julia Gillard has said Mr Morrison's suggestion that the Refugee Convention needs to be rewritten is proof of the farcical nature of counterpart Tony Abbott's refusal to engage in negotiations with the government:

"Mr Abbott's team has exposed the sham, the pantomime, that he has been involved in, in not being prepared to work with the government."

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications with the Australian Embassy.

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