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Australia 'refouling asylum seekers'

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
July 15, 2014

After returning a boat full of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, where they face imprisonment, Canberra has come under growing criticism for a practice Amnesty International's Graeme McGregor describes as act of refoulement.

Sri Lankan asylum seekers sent back by Australia queue to enter the magistrate's court in the southern port district of Galle on July 8, 2014. Sri Lankan authorities plan to charge a group of asylum-seekers with attempting to leave the country illegally.
Image: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

After intercepting a boat carrying 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers and sending them home after a brief screening process via video conference, the Australian government has been under fire over its handling of potential refugees. Upon their return to the homeland, the adults among the group of 41 were charged with attempting to leave the country illegally, a crime punishable by up to two years in jail.

Canberra is now facing mounting international scrutiny, given that a second boat carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remains in legal limbo as the Australian High Court considers whether their interception was legal.

In a DW interview, Graeme McGregor, refugee campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Australia explains why he regards Canberra's screening process at sea to find out if a person's life is at risk as 'inappropriate' and as a violation of Australia's international obligations.

DW: How do you assess Canberra's treatment of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who tried to reach the country by boat?

Graeme McGregor: The Government's actions last week in returning 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities was an act of refoulement, a violation of the most fundamental principle of the Refugee Convention. International law states that a government must not return a person to a country where they are at serious risk of persecution, including torture or murder.

Graeme McGregor Amnesty International Australia
McGregor says Canberra's return of 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities last week was an "act of refoulement"Image: Amnesty International Australia

Amnesty and others have documented widespread human rights abuses carried out by the Sri Lankan authorities against Tamil people as well journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and politicians who oppose the government. Those abuses have included abduction, imprisonment, torture and sexual assault. To return asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without first assessing their claims for refugee status is indefensible.

Under the 'enhanced screening' process, all but one of the 41 asylum seekers were rejected based on their answers in an initial interview conducted at sea. Is this an adequate way of fairly assessing asylum claims?

No. Amnesty International has monitored Australia's use of what is called "enhanced screening" of asylum seekers. Enhanced screening is a discriminatory and unfair interview which overwhelmingly is used against Sri Lankans. It consists of four questions, put to an asylum seeker through an interpreter. The asylum seeker is not offered access to a lawyer and if they ask for one he is simply handed a telephone book and a phone.

Asylum seekers we've spoken to told us they had to limit their answers to one sentence and that, if they exceeded that, they were told to stop talking. The interview rarely takes more than 30 minutes. The interview is not an appropriate way to find out if a person's life is at risk. To conduct that interview via video conference from Australia, while the asylum seekers sits on a boat in the middle of the ocean, is clearly a violation of Australia's responsibilities.

What are asylum seekers entitled to under international law?

Under international law, asylum seekers should have the ability to claim asylum and access a fair, rigorous and efficient refugee status determination process in the country where they made their claim, with the ability to present evidence of their persecution and obtain legal advice.

Unfortunately, very few countries offer this opportunity. Australia used to be one of them and as a result has a long history of successfully protecting and integrating refugees from all over the world. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Australia took in 90,000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing the abusive regime in that country. Unfortunately, the Australian Government has abandoned these principles.

Are the asylum seekers who were returned to Sri Lanka now at risk of persecution?

We're very concerned for the welfare of these asylum seekers. Unfortunately, there is no way for a Sri Lankan to flee persecution without leaving their country.

Human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Law Centre have long documented the human rights abuses widely committed by the Sri Lankan authorities against those that publicly oppose it. Despite the end of the 2009 conflict, the Sri Lankan Government has systematically and violently cracked down on its critics.

Sri Lankan asylum seekers have faced torture upon return to Sri Lanka from countries such as the UK. Torture has been reported in rehabilitation camps, by police and military personnel in the context of counter insurgency against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and also in the context of civil policing. All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka continue to face risks of torture in police custody, including sexual violence, where it is pervasive. In several known cases, Tamils who have been returned to Sri Lanka have faced arbitrary arrest and detention.

Canberra has decided to maintain refugee camps abroad, namely on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Is the government acting according to international law?

No. I visited the Manus Island detention centre in November 2013 as part of an Amnesty International research team. We found that the asylum seekers locked up in cramped, unsanitary conditions there were subjected to a daily regime of cruel, humiliating treatment, designed to pressure them to return to the countries that they had fled, regardless of whether or not they are refugees.

Processing of refugee claims on Manus Island and Nauru only began recently and only a handful of refugees have been resettled, despite many of the asylum seekers being detained there since August 2013. We continue to see evidence that the Australian, PNG and Nauru governments are trying to pressure unprocessed asylum seekers to return to their country of origin. Most alarmingly, this has included Syrian asylum seekers fleeing the conflict, who are considered by the UN to be refugees due to their nationality.

What impact has the Tony Abbott-led government had on immigration policy?

Although offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island was introduced by the previous Labor government, there have been many changes introduced by the current government. Foremost among these is the stifling secrecy imposed on the government's offshore asylum seekers policies.

Despite its repeated claims of "stopping the boats," the Australian government refuses to tell the public how many boats are still attempting to reach Australia and how many have been turned back to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. At the moment, the Australian Government is hiding a boat containing 153 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers somewhere in the Indian Ocean and refuses to talk about it.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention were denied access to the Nauru detention centre. The cost of a journalist visa to Nauru has leapt from 200USD to 8,000 USD. The information that is leaking out of the Nauru detention centre, which holds families, pregnant women and children, is extremely disturbing.

Suspected asylum seekers arrive at to Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island, after being intercepted and escorted in by the Australian Navy, on August 3, 2013.
McGregor: Asylum seekers in the Australian detetion center in Manus Island are "subjected to a daily regime of cruel, humiliating treatment"Image: Getty Images

Why is the Australian government so restrictive in terms of its refugee and asylum policy?

There is increasing evidence, including our own research, that the Australian, Nauru and PNG governments are using the censorship and secrecy surrounding offshore detention to hide serious human rights abuses against asylum seekers, with the ultimate aim of pressuring asylum seekers to return home, regardless of whether or not they are genuine refugees.

The government claims their policies are preventing deaths at sea and protecting Australia's borders, but abusing the rights of men, women and children in detention does nothing to achieve those aims. It is simply cruelty carried out to serve a political agenda.

Graeme McGregor is Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.

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