Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers threatens refugee protection across Asia-Pacific

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers threatens refugee protection across Asia-Pacific

APRRN Press Release | Date: 10-7-2014, Bangkok, Thailand | PDF Version

Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has been roundly criticised by both the internationally community and within the Asia-Pacific region. This week, however, it reached a new low when the Australian navy intercepted a group of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers and then forcibly returned them to Sri Lankan authorities without properly assessing whether they were in need of international protection. The action in itself has been seen by many legal experts and human rights advocates as a stark violation of international law which prohibits the forced return of refugees with a genuine fear of persecution (the principle of non refoulement). 

As a network of 193 civil society organisations and individuals working across 26 countries working towards advancing the rights for refugees and people in need protection in the Asia Pacific region, The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network strongly condemns Australia’s actions. Australia has not only flagrantly endangered the safety and dignity of those seeking its protection, but its actions are now seriously undermining the protection of refugees within the Asia-Pacific region. While Australia has been a champion of human rights in the region, and its historical efforts to protect refugees have made a great contribution to stemming the need for refugees to make onward movements in search of protection, its actions are now directly putting lives at risk and seriously eroding regional efforts to provide protection and solutions for refugees.

Smugglers thrive on exploiting desperate asylum seekers who can’t find protection. When states fail to protect people from persecution and fail to protect those who have fled persecution, then refugees are forced to move in search of protection. Trying to deter refugees with harsh policies will not stop people trying to protect themselves. It just forces them into the hands of smugglers and makes smuggling more profitable

Australia’s actions not only set a dangerous new precedent of forcible return within the region, but in continually pushing the burden of protecting refugees on its neighbors, and then providing incentives to these governments to take a tough anti-asylum approach, refugees are being increasingly forced into the hands of people smugglers. “Smugglers thrive on exploiting desperate asylum seekers who can’t find protection. When states fail to protect people from persecution and fail to protect those who have fled persecution, then refugees are forced to move in search of protection. Trying to deter refugees with harsh policies will not stop people trying to protect themselves. It just forces them into the hands of smugglers and makes smuggling more profitable” said Dr Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, President, INHURED International, Nepal and Chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)

“For years, our members have been providing assistance and protection to refugees in the region while gradually encouraging our governments to provide better protection to refugees. Now we are finding that our efforts are being undone as Australia encourages a race to the bottom” said Dr Gopal “Embarrassingly, asylum-seekers and refugees are now seen as political threat or security risk and are considered as a social and economic burden”, he further added.

APRRN is deeply concerned that Australia’s actions are part of a larger strategy to erect barriers to prevent the movement of people desperately seeking for protection from persecution in the name of population stabilization and containment. The Australian government has stated its intention to set-up a regional deterrence framework and has been actively encouraging other governments to step-up their counter measures to stop asylum seekers moving in search of protection within the region. To cement these bilateral deals with Malaysia and Sri Lanka, Australia has provided two Australian naval vessels to each country. While the measures are ‘supposed’ to target people smugglers, they usually are aimed at deterring people seeking asylum.

Anoop Sukumaran, Executive Director, APRRN said “the forced return of one boat of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka and the threatened return of another were the latest actions by Australia to undermine painstaking efforts to encourage governments across the region to pay greater attention to the needs of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees within their national borders. The world, and particularly the Asia-Pacific region, is watching Australia’s actions carefully. Sadly, many will be drawing the conclusion that their nations can copy Australia’s very negative example.”

the forced return of one boat of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka and the threatened return of another were the latest actions by Australia to undermine painstaking efforts to encourage governments across the region to pay greater attention to the needs of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees within their national borders. The world, and particularly the Asia-Pacific region, is watching Australia’s actions carefully. Sadly, many will be drawing the conclusion that their nations can copy Australia’s very negative example.

Last month Malaysia refouled two recognised refugees and an asylum seeker to Sri Lanka claiming they had links to the LTTE, a claim which was never proven in a court of law or even given access to courts. There are disturbing reports that Malaysia has, in a fresh move, arrested another four refugees on similar grounds and face imminent refoulement. Last month Sri Lankan authorities arrested and detained hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from Pakistan in and around Colombo, and these refugees and asylum seekers could face refoulment to Pakistan. The reasons for their arrests are eerily similar to that used by the Malaysian government, that they have links with terrorists or terrorist outfits, but the accused are given no legal recourse to challenge the accusations.

“It is impossible to overestimate the negative impact of Australia’s actions, particularly given Australia’s status as one of the region’s wealthiest nations, the first nation in the region to accede to the Refugee Convention and the Asia-Pacific nation with the greatest capacity to receive and integrate refugees” said Veerawit Tianchainan, Executive Director, Thai committee for Refugees , Thailand and Chair South East Asia Working group of APRRN. Those forcibly returned by Australia with no chance to put their case for protection for persecution will not be the only refugees and asylum seekers to suffer. We fear that there will be more examples of governments ignoring their non-refoulement obligations and sending vulnerable people back to persecution in their countries of origin, using the same rationale that Australia has used.

“When so many refugees cannot find safety, cannot live free of the fear of arrest, cannot work legally to feed themselves and their families, cannot educate their children and constantly worry about being forcibly returned to the danger they escaped, how can the Australian government officials say with any credibility that refugees have no right to seek a place of genuine safety?” asked Lakshan Dias, Director, SANRIM, Sri Lanka and Chair of the South Asia Working Group of APRRN.

By its actions, Australia has stepped away from any possibility that it could provide constructive leadership within the Asia-Pacific region to find better answers than the insecurity and danger facing so many persecuted people.
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For enquiries contact
Anoop Sukumaran,
Executive Director, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network
Click here to contact Anoop and can also be contacted at +66 2 2526654

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