(4th July 2014) Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS) is deeply concerned about reports that Australia has intercepted two boatloads of Sri Lankan asylum seekers near Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands and has planned a mid-ocean transfer to the Sri Lankan Navy after conducting a mere four-question assessment of the asylum seekers via video link.
JRS notes that it has not been able to confirm these reports because of the veil of secrecy that the Australian government has cast over its actions against asylum seekers seeking to arrive in Australia by boat.
The government’s ‘enhanced screening’ process – under which JRS presumes such a mid-ocean transfer would occur – is grossly insufficient and is not rigorous enough to meet basic standards of fairness. Moreover, it puts asylum seekers at risk of refoulement – the internationally-prohibited practice of returning refugees to places from which they have fled and where they are at serious risk of danger.
“Australia is the lone state signatory to the Refugee Convention that denies people asylum based on their mode of arrival. Seeking asylum is a human right, and the Refugee Convention clearly states asylum seekers should not be penalised for their illegal entry, mode of arrival, or a lack of documentation,” says Oliver White, Head of Policy and Advocacy at JRS.
The ‘enhanced screening’ process, which bypasses rigorous refugee assessment standards in favour of a swift resolution, has already led to hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers being denied access to a fair and comprehensive hearing of their claims. Close to one-thousand asylum seekers have been forcibly returned to Sri Lanka where some have allegedly faced arrest, detention, interrogation and torture.
JRS notes that the Australian government’s repeated assertions that Sri Lanka is a safe place for its citizens are at odds with the recent findings of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has launched an inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by the present Sri Lankan government.
“Despite the end of the civil war in 2009 and the government’s claim that asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are ‘economic migrants’, many people fleeing the country are still in genuine and urgent need of protection,” says Mr White.
“Without a proper assessment, the government cannot determine whether it is safe to return asylum seekers to their country of origin. The swift and clandestine assessment of asylum seekers in transit and en route to Australia represents an unprecedented departure from this country’s already-punitive asylum protocol. Asylum seekers must be given the opportunity to voice their protection claims, and be granted access to a lawyer and an independent appeals process or a review of the decision.”
At present section 46A of the Migration Act imposes a bar on applications for asylum by those who arrived by boat unless the Minister declares such an application to be in the public interest. Of particular concern to JRS are the 37 children believed to be on board the intercepted vessels. In the past, says Mr White, unaccompanied minors from Sri Lanka have not been advised of their right to ask that the bar be lifted so that they may seek asylum upon their arrival. This has resulted in their return without the opportunity to have their claim for protection assessed.
Whilst JRS acknowledges and applauds the interest states have in the eradication of people smuggling, it objects to any approach that denies those asylum seekers who have engaged people smugglers from accessing a country’s refugee determination process.
“Refugees may resort to people smugglers out of desperation and because they have no other means of obtaining a visa to enter the country legally. Until alternative pathways to safety are introduced, asylum seekers will be forced to solicit the services of smugglers so they can reach safety,” explains Mr White.
JRS urges the government to adopt a policy of transparency vis-à-vis asylum seeker issues, to properly assess the validity of their claim to refugee status and to not return anyone to a country where they may be subjected to harm.
For further information
Head of Policy and Advocacy, Jesuit Refugee Service
Tel: +61 2 93563888