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JRS: Australia has breached its legal responsibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers
May 08, 2014

JRS: Australia has breached its legal responsibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers
Australian authorities check newly arrived refugees on a dock on Christmas Island. (Jesuit Refugee Service Australia)

(Sydney) May 8, 2014 — The Australian government has breached its legal responsibility towards refugees and committed grave ethical blunders in its application of offshore processing procedures, says Jesuit Refugee Service Australia. The comment comes amidst speculation that the government has convinced the impoverished country of Cambodia to host Australian-bound refugees.

See statement below: asylum seekers arriving in Australia may be 'resettled' in Cambodia 

One of the most lamentable aspects of current policy is the lack of progress on the creation of a Regional Cooperation Framework — a recommendation contained in the Expert Panel Report (2012) and promoted by the UNHCR through the Bali Process.

Although UNHCR has fought hard to incorporate the protection of asylum seekers into the Framework — to be used as guide for states to collaborate on migration issues — the Australian government is actively undermining the process by instead pursuing a model of regional deterrence.

A Regional Cooperation Framework would help transit states in the region to differentiate between asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, says Oliver White, JRS Australia's Head of Policy and Advocacy.

"We urge the government to collaborate with states in the region to strengthen protection in host and transit countries, and to develop a regional processing system that provides timely, durable solutions for those seeking protection," he said.

"Cooperation, consistency and subscribing to universally accepted standards of protection are the way forward to ensure more equitable burden-sharing for states and to protect refugees transiting through Asia Pacific. Standardizing procedures means refugees will face the same treatment, no matter where they go, and increasing protection in transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will reduce the need for onward movement."

JRS has also criticized the Australian government for preventing asylum seekers from accessing its jurisdiction — and in so doing its effective systems of processing — by diverting asylum flows to other states, such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru.

"This undermines the essence of the Refugee Convention’s notion of asylum, which upholds people’s right to travel irregularly and choose when and where to flee. It makes no sense to establish offshore processing centers in countries where there are no asylum seekers. If Australia would like to help process the many thousands of asylum seekers left stranded in places like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia then this is where they should start," said Mr. White.

Although Australia is legally obliged to assess the claims of asylum seekers in a fair, efficient and expeditious manner, very little processing has taken place in the offshore Processing Centers, with just one decision handed down on Nauru since the first asylum seekers arrived on the island in 2012 and none on Manus Island. Moreover, the capacity to house asylum seekers in these centers is limited, and Christmas Island is warehousing several thousand asylum seekers who are in limbo.

"Australia already has a robust assessment process in place onshore, but such processes are functionally absent on Manus Island, despite the fact that the Expert Panel recommended 'capacity be established' in these places to process asylum seekers transferred from Australia in ways consistent with Australian, Nauruan and PNG responsibilities under international law," said Mr White.

In particular, JRS holds grave concern for children, who have no access to formal education on Christmas Island — a situation which brings into question the government’s ethical treatment of asylum seekers.

"The punitive treatment of this group of people might assuage conservative voters but it fails to pass the test of principled, ethical policy provision," says Mr. White.

"Rather than being more effective and ethically justifiable when moved from the mainland to a remote offshore destination, Australia's asylum processing policies are less so."

JRS Statement


Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific (JRSAP) is deeply concerned about the Australian Government’s request to Cambodia to resettle refugees from Australia's off shore processing centre on Nauru Island. A spokesperson for the Cambodian Foreign Ministry has stated that Cambodia has agreed "in principle" to the request but was still considering its feasibility. He added that Cambodia would only accept refugees who agree to come to Cambodia.

JRS calls upon the Government of Australia to live up to its obligations under international law to guarantee adequate protection to these vulnerable individuals who have sought asylum in Australia, to ensure that they have due process and if they are found to be refugees to grant them protection in Australia. 

For many years now, Australia has had a range of policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers from arriving on its shores irregularly. It is alarming that resettlement in a third country is now being added to Australia’s armory of deterrence instruments. 

Cambodia is a country where many live well below the poverty line, it still lacks the necessary legal and judicial processes and the social infrastructure, to integrate refugees. Cambodia still has many challenges to meet, some arising from the displacement, starvation and genocide of the past.  

At this point in its history Cambodia needs to address the poverty of  its people; forced internal displacement caused by land evictions; mass labour migration and trafficking in persons; serious political tensions among elected national assembly members; the lack of an independent judicial system, and of procedures to deal with nationality, citizenship and status documentation.  Cambodia accepts refugees coming to its own borders but is still developing processes for granting work permits, residency cards and eventual citizenship. It is not at all evident that the necessary safeguards are in place for refugees to be resettled there.

Under the current arrangements between Australia and Nauru, unless refugees can be sustainably settled in Nauru in a way that guarantees them adequate protections, the obligation to protect falls to Australia.  Given that Australia has a clear capacity to integrate those who seek its protection in Australia; it is an improper use of resettlement to devolve that responsibility to yet another country.  The fact that it is trying to do so betrays the current plan for what it is: not an attempt to share responsibility in the region but an instrument of deterrence for those planning to go to Australia, and a punitive measure against those who have actually done so.

JRS works in both Australia and Cambodia promoting hospitality toward refugees, and seeking to support and accompany them in their journey from persecution to freedom. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between these two countries, JRS will be ready to serve, accompany, and defend the rights of these vulnerable people wherever they may be.

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