25 Jul 2013

Refugee arrangement against spirit of UN refugees convention

4:40 pm on 25 July 2013

Australian academics say a plan to send boat people seeking asylum to Papua New Guinea undermines Australia's legal and moral obligations under the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

But the Australian Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, says the policy would survive a legal challenge.

PNG and Australia signed the regional settlement arrangement last Friday, which says boat people found to be refugees will be processed and resettled in PNG.

Mary Baines reports.

A Monash University law lecturer, Azadeh Dastyari, says Australia is penalising asylum seekers because of their mode of entry.

AZADEH DASTYARI: You can't punish a refugee for the mode of arrival. The Refugee Convention says it doesn't matter how a refugee comes into your country. What we are doing in Australia is saying to people that come by boat that they will get less rights by being sent to PNG than people coming by plane who will continue to be processed in Australia.

Ms Dastyari says asylum seekers may be detained for protracted periods in harsh detention facilities, and may be sent back to persecution because of inferior determination processes in PNG. She says given the poverty in PNG, refugees may not have access to health care, social security and adequate standards of living. But a spokesperson for the Australian Attorney General's office says the government is confident that all actions taken to implement the policy are in full compliance with the law. The spokesperson would not comment directly to the academic's claims, but says the Convention will be adhered to. The chair of Melbourne's Victoria University's Research Ethics Committee, Deborah Zion, says the number of refugees and asylum seekers taken in by Australia is very small on an international scale. She says Australia's world ranking by total amount of refugees is 49th, and by asylum claims is 20th.

DEBORAH ZION: It's not clear to me why we expect low income and middle income countries which have their own burdens to look after asylum seekers when where we, as a wealthy country, who have made an undertaking, signed a declaration, refused to do it. Why should a country like PNG, a very very poor country, be expected to look after asylum seekers if we won't do it?

Dr Zion says the Convention allows for a country that refuses to provide assistance to arrange re-settlement with a co-operative, similar convention country. But she says Australia relying on this apparent gap in the Convention is morally wrong.

DEBORAH ZION: The new arrangement fails to meet human rights obligations not to send refugees to danger - even if the danger is in a country that has ratified the Convention or partly ratified it. For example homosexuality is illegal in PNG, rape and sexual violence rates are astronomical there and the death penalty exists.

Dr Zion says PNG has only partly ratified the Convention. PNG made reservations against seven of the Convention's Articles including the right of refugees to wage-earning employment, public education and freedom of movement. The Chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, says the legality of the arrangement is subject to interpretation.

PAUL POWER: The Australian government can argue that the arrangement could be within the letter of the law of the Refugee Convention. But it's definitely against the spirit of the Refugee Convention. When the Refugee Convention was developed there was no expectation at all that a country with the resources of Australia would be pushing responsibility for people seeking asylum on its territory to a country with far fewer resources such as PNG.

The Greens' immigration spokeswoman, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, says the policy is a clear breach of Australia's obligations.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: It is about domestic politics rather than doing what is right by refugees who need our help or sticking by the obligations under the Refugee Convention. Our Prime Minister has announced a cruel rush to cruelty on refugees as he rushes to the poll in a desperate attempt to win the next election.

Ms Hanson-Young says a legal challenge to the policy is warranted and hopes one will be established. But she says any challenge will not be before the next election.