The United Nations refugee agency has expressed alarm that Australia may have breached a cornerstone of the refugee convention by returning a group of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka after intercepting their boat at sea.
Volker Turk, Director of International Protection, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said there was a serious risk that the “enhanced screening” of claims at sea fell well short of requirements for the fair processing of claims and could mean that asylum seekers were returned, or refouled, to persecution.
“You can only ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement if you have in place proper and fair procedures that identify, with due process, who is in need of international refugee protection and who is not,” he said.
In an exclusive interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Turk has also expressed concern at the fate of 153 asylum seekers who remain on board a customs vessel after their boat was intercepted and urged the Abbott government to rethink its approach.
While the world faced a displacement crisis that was “probably unprecedented since the end of the Second World War”, Mr Turk said he was “absolutely” concerned about the message Australia’s approach sent to the rest of the world.
“You cannot extrapolate Australia’s approach to the rest of the world because, if that was the case, you would spend an enormous amount of resources on moving people from one country to the next and keeping them in limbo.
“And that’s not what we need as an international community in order to address the massive displacement problems that we face in today’s world.”
With almost three million refugees outside Syria and more than one million internally displaced in Iraq, Mr Turk said the agency found itself “a bit startled” by the debate in Australia.
His interview came after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signaled that the boat still on the high seas will not drop its human cargo at Christmas Island.
Mr Morrison said the reason border protection policies were working was that “we have been adamant that, on every occasion that may present, we will apply all of the policies we have to ensure that no venture successfully reaches Australia”.
Mr Turk said the imperative, in the context of the scale and complexity of the global displacement crisis, was for countries capable of showing leadership to make sure their systems were “fully in accord with international law and standards”.
“When one looks at some of the trends that we have seen in Australia over the years – not just by this government, but also by the previous ones – it gives cause for concern on a number of fronts,” he said.
“We have a refugee convention, it’s the hallmark of our civilisation, and it’s important that that convention is used in the way that it was initially intended to be used and respected in all its components.
“Quite frankly, when one looks at what’s happening with those two boats . . . it does give rise to concerns whether this is in line with international law and standards.”
Mr Turk also expressed concern about the failure to grant permanent residency and family reunion to those in Australia whose refugee claims have been recognised and the failure to settle any of those who have been held on Manus Island.
Of those on Manus, he said: “If they can’t do it, another solution has to be found. We don’t think putting people in limbo for months and years in some instances is the response.”
He said the UNHCR shared Australia’s concern about people smuggling and loss of life at sea, but pointed to the approach of Italy, which had rescued 64,000 asylum seekers in the Mediterranean since beginning of the year.
“What is really required is commitment to address smuggling as a criminal issue and not punish the victims of smuggling and trafficking,” he said, adding that the Bali process set up to address people smuggling in the region needed to “look at protection much more forcefully”, rather than being a regional deterrence framework.
His message to Australia was not to lose perspective of the global dimension and to re-examine policy to make sure the system in Australia has space for people who come in unauthorised fashion. (Sydney Morning Herald)