22 Jul 2013

Australia/PNG arrangement seen as violation of UN convention

5:26 pm on 22 July 2013

The chair of Melbourne's Victoria University research ethic committee says Australia's plan to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea is a moral and legal violation of the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Dr Deborah Zion says Australia has an obligation to the safety of asylum seekers.

She spoke to Mary Baines:

DEBORAH ZION: Australia signed the refugee convention in 1954. International covenants, actually, are supposed to mean something. So if you sign on that you will care for refugees that come to your shores, then you actually have to do it. You can't make an undertaking like that and not do it. So a lot of the issues that have arisen around these kinds of debates have been about, well, why kind people stay in Malaysia? Why can't people stay in Indonesia? I feel there are two very significant issues here. The first of these is that neither of those countries have signed the declaration, so they've made no undertaking of any kind of any kind to look after asylum seekers that come to their shores. Now, the other issue for me is the fact most asylum seekers in the world are being hosted - if we can call it that - by poor countries. So 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 we, as a wealthy country who have made an undertaking, signed a declaration, refuse to do it.

MARY BAINES: So this new arrangement doesn't really comply with Australia's international law obligations then.

DZ: Within the convention there is provision for a third similar country. Now, PNG has partly ratified the convention, but in every other way it doesn't fulfil morally the kinds of criteria that we're talking about. It really lacks the capacity and expertise to assess refugee claims. It violates international standards required when it comes to detention services and treatment of asylum seekers. It violates international human rights due to a protracted period of detention that will occur in PNG, but most importantly the new arrangement, I think, 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 so if an asylum seeker is gay they will be in grave danger. Rape and sexual violence rates are absolutely astronomical there, so women will be in danger and young men. And the death penalty exists. And this will breach Article 17 and Article 22 of the convention regarding basic access.

MB: How does Australia's situation compare with other countries in terms of the amount of asylum seekers coming? Is it quite a small percentage?

DZ: A tiny, tiny amount. So Australia's world ranking in 2012 by total number of refugees is 49th, compared to our population size per capita we're 62nd, and compared to our national wealth GDP at PPP per capita we're 87th. The whole thing is just a total beat-up as far as I can see.