A journalist vanishes, along with our compassion
In light of last Friday’s announcement that the Australian Government has implemented a blanket suspension on the processing of new asylum claims by Afghan and Sri Lankan nationals, it is worth going back to basics and taking a moment to consider the human rights reality for many people living in those countries.
It may not be pleasant to read, but it certainly places the government’s announcement in the international context in which it should rightly be considered, and gives an insight into the reasons people are fleeing.
On 24 January Sri Lankan journalist and political analyst Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared shortly after leaving work at the Lanka-e-News office in Homagama, near the capital Colombo. He has not been heard from since. In the lead up to his disappearance, Prageeth Eknaligoda had been actively reporting on Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, had been critical of the Sri Lankan Government and had received threats.
Prageeth Eknaligoda’s is just one story to emerge from Sri Lanka in recent months that highlight the systematic persecution that continues in that country, despite last year’s bloody and brutal end to decades of civil war.
Situations for many groups in Sri Lanka, including activists, journalists and some Tamils, remain volatile and dangerous, according to Amnesty International’s research. Abductions, enforced disappearances and torture are serious problems, as are extrajudicial killings. Often they are not investigated and go unpunished. In many cases, there are allegations that extrajudicial killings have been carried out by state agents and Tamil paramilitary groups working for the Sri Lankan security forces.
Amnesty International’s investigations show that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is equally grave. Many individuals who have escaped Afghanistan, in particular minority groups, activists and journalists, have fled real threats from the Taliban or government-associated warlords. Women face widespread human rights abuses, including sexual violence and trafficking.
In the media release that followed Friday’s announcement, the Australian Government outlined its belief that “asylum seekers should only be granted the right to live in Australia if they are genuinely in need of protection.” This is a blatant statement of the obvious. It is also completely in line with existing government policy, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and calls from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
The statement gives rise to two equally obvious questions. Firstly, how can a person prove they are “genuinely in need of protection” if the Australian Government refuses to assess their claim? And secondly, what will happen to the men, women and children who have genuine claims for protection while the suspension is in place?
In order to prove a genuine protection claim and be granted the right to live in Australia as a refugee, asylum seekers must demonstrate that they meet the internationally agreed criteria set out in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This means they must show that they face persecution in their country of origin due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Often, as highlighted above, this persecution takes the form of torture, mass human rights violations and death.
Under Australian law, the procedure for proving such a protection claim is rigorous, and sometimes lengthy. Over 90 per cent of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been found to be “genuinely in need of protection” over recent months. Targeting a suspension at these groups, who are overwhelmingly found to be people in need, is plainly unjustifiable.
The short answer to the question of how a person can prove their protection claim when the government refuses to assess it, is that under the new policy they won’t be given the chance.
The answer to the question of what happens to these people, is that unless the government reverses the decision or recommences processing after the specified three and six month periods, people who have fled persecution, torture and other untold horrors will be arbitrarily detained. Including torture victims. Including victims of sexual violence. Including children. Perhaps indefinitely. And as we know from our past mistakes, the psychological impact of indefinite detention is irrefutable.
It is clear that asylum seekers are once again a big issue for all sides of politics in an election year. It is also clear that the government is under pressure on this issue. However, suspending the internationally protected human rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable people is not the answer. Nor is the opposition’s ‘whatever it takes to stop the boats’ approach and “core principle” of returning to the system of Temporary Protection Visas. Both these approaches are morally objectionable and fundamentally inconsistent with Australia’s international obligations.
It’s time for both sides of politics to stop using the world’s most vulnerable people as political footballs.
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