Asylum-seekers packed off to camps

By Greg Ansley

Tough new law puts mainland Australia and its legal system out of bounds for boat-people

Photo / Graham Gibbons
Photo / Graham Gibbons

The vast continent of Australia is no longer Australia. At least, not for any of the asylum-seekers who survive the deadly Indian Ocean crossing from Indonesia, evade naval and air patrols, and land on the mainland.

Until this week they had access to the Australian legal system and could apply for protection as refugees, avoiding rules that send others intercepted at sea to remote Pacific detention camps and opening the possibility of being allowed to live in the community.

But with an urgency triggered in part by the arrival of a boatload of Sri Lankans diverted from their passage to New Zealand, the Labor Government has gone a step beyond even former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard's draconian Pacific Solution.

Following rapid negotiations cloaked by the political clutter of Budget week, the Government won the support of the Opposition to push through new legislation that effectively excludes the mainland from the nation's migration zone.

It now joins the islands ringing the continent in blocking the protection of, and access to, the Australian legal system and means that any who slip past the maritime blockade will be packed off to the recently re-opened camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Labor had vilified the Pacific Solution in Opposition, branding the camps as inhumane and closing them after winning power in 2007. Now in Government and alarmed by the political cost of continuing arrivals by sea, Labor has backflipped and resurrected remote detention, along with other Howard-era policies.

It has now gone even further. In 2006, when Howard unsuccessfully tried to excise the mainland from the migration zone, Labor MP Chris Bowen attacked the proposal as "a stain on our national character".

Last year, as Immigration Minister, Bowen reversed his position to introduce legislation enacting the policy he had previously abhorred.

The passage of the legislation this week through both houses of Parliament now means regardless of where they land, asylum-seekers can be packed off to spend years in camps in conditions condemned by the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission, and even the Immigration Department, which administers them.

The Government and Opposition also this week rejected calls for the camps to be inspected by the Human Rights Commission or the media.

Recommended by the expert panel on asylum-seekers whose report last year has since guided Labor policy, the move intends removing any advantage boat arrivals may have had over refugees applying for asylum through official channels overseas.

The hope is that with no chance of early access to Australia, the likelihood of years in isolated camps with no idea of when claims may be processed, and the strong chance of eventual deportation, people smuggling rings will be put out of business.

But the pressure of politics is clear in the targeting of boat arrivals. Until relatively recently, more than 90 per cent of asylum-seekers applied for protection after arriving by air and living in the community. Even with the surge in boats from Indonesia, boat arrivals still make up only about half the total of those seeking asylum after arriving on Australian territory.

The new laws do not apply to air travellers, who are not subject to the no-advantage rule or threatened with deportation to Nauru or Manus Island.

And with Labor progressively tightening the knot despite widespread condemnation and potential breaches of UN obligations, there is no prospect of relief for boat arrivals.

The Opposition, likely to win power at the September 14 election, favours even tougher policies, including powers for the navy to turn boats back to Indonesia.

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor, who replaced Bowen in the portfolio last February, said the new laws were needed to "strengthen disincentives to irregular maritime voyages, discouraging people from embarking on life-threatening journeys by boat".

But Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs said the legislation discriminated against vulnerable people and penalised them for the manner of their arrival in Australia.

"This undermines Australia's obligations under the Refugee Convention," she said.

"Transferring asylum-seekers to third countries may lead to breaches of their human rights, including the right to be free from arbitrary detention and the right of children to have their best interests treated as a primary consideration."

The legislation has also been attacked by Amnesty International and the Greens, whose balance of power in the Senate was steamrolled by the Opposition's support for the bill.

- NZ Herald

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