Rudd’s new bid to stop boats

asylum-seekers      Kevin Rudd has for the first time flagged a review of Australia’s obligations under the United Nations refugee convention as part of a new policy aimed at stemming the flow of asylum seeker boats.

The Prime Minister signalled the review as part of a three-pronged policy shift to address the issue globally, promote regional co-operation and tighten the refugee assessment process in Australia.

The government has already directed the Refugee Review Tribunal to consider new assessments of conditions in source countries – such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran – that are being prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs.A new directive, issued five days before Mr Rudd toppled Julia Gillard, also says asylum seekers with genuine identity documents must be given priority over those who either have fraudulent documents or do not co-operate.Mr Rudd revealed on Wednesday that ”the effectiveness of the refugee convention” was being examined, after Opposition Leader Tony Abbott declared that boat arrivals were now ”a national emergency”.

”I say to Mr Rudd, face the fact that you got it wrong. Be man enough to admit that you got it wrong,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Mackay as he called for the recall of Parliament to debate asylum seeker policy.

The Coalition has previously called for a rethink on the refugee convention, saying its operations and protections have become confused over the past 60 years.

No explanation of what Mr Rudd had in mind was forthcoming from his office, although possible areas of focus are Australia’s obligations to those who pass through countries where they could lodge refugee claims, and whether permanent residency should be afforded in the first instance.

Mr Rudd’s comments could also presage a diplomatic push by Australia for the international community to review and reform the treaty, which came into being in 1951.

Former foreign minister Gareth Evans said on Thursday that it was sensible for Australia to begin an international dialogue about revamping the refugee convention.

Professor Evans, who is president emeritus of the International Crisis Group, backed the idea of updating the convention.

”I think it’s perfectly sensible to open up an international conversation about the scope of the convention,” he told ABC radio.

Professor Evans expressed doubts that Australia would walk away completely from the obligations of the convention.

”But at the same time we have to recognise there have been concerns about the applicability of the convention to the circumstances of the 21st century compared to the post World War II years,” he said.

Professor Evans pointed to definition problems in the convention such as the requirement that refugees be fleeing persecution.

”That doesn’t on the face of it extend to those like Syrians at the moment, who are mostly fleeing from the risk of death by crossfire in a civil war,” he said. ”There’s no burden sharing obligation on countries.”

Professor Evans said there were also problems with the different treatment of refugees in camps and those who were able to get to convention signatory countries.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison dismissed Mr Rudd’s remarks on Wednesday, saying: “Kevin Rudd is always talking and raising expectations about what he might do on border protection, but his record shows he does very little.”

On Thursday, Mr Morrison said he had ”strong reservations” about the interpretation of the convention and its impact on domestic policies.

He stopped short of confirming that a potential Coalition government would remain a signatory to the convention.

However, he hinted the Coalition would remove the appeals process to the refugee tribunal, as it did under the Howard government. ”That is obviously an outcome that if it can legally be implemented once again, that we would look kindly upon,” Mr Morrison told ABC radio on Thursday.

But Greens leader Christine Milne and refugee lawyer David Manne expressed alarm at any softening in Australia’s support of the convention, with Mr Manne describing it as the ”bedrock” of the nation’s commitment to those fleeing persecution.

Australia was one of the first countries to sign the 1951 convention, the document that defines who is a refugee and the obligations of signature countries.

Mr Manne also challenged the government to explain why the changes to processing were justified, describing them as a threat to the independence of decision-makers.

Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, executive director of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, which provides legal help to asylum seekers, agreed.

”It’s very important when we’re talking about life-and-death situations that there’s an opportunity for independent review. If there’s pressure from the government for a certain country outcome above others, you have to question whether that independence is being endangered,” she said.

Mr Rudd previewed his policy shift on Tuesday night at a community cabinet in Rockhampton, declaring: ”Getting that balance right is a tough business, but we’re determined to do that and it will require changes in our policy and I make no apology for it.”

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Bob Carr said the new country information for Sri Lanka and Afghanistan would be ready by the end of this month, though such advice would not ”routinely be made publicly available”. Advice on other countries such as Iran and Vietnam was also being prepared.

A spokesman for the tribunal said the department’s information would be ”one of the sources that both primary and review decision-makers can rely upon”. Other information sources included the UN refugee agency and the US State Department.( Sydney Morning Herala)


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