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Frank Walker
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Asylum seekers and the law


It’s difficult to watch the news these days and not see something about asylum seekers. We know that Christmas Island is seriously overloaded, and that the government faces a dilemma over what to do with the increasing number of refugees seeking asylum in our country.

‘Asylum seeker’ basically means a person who seeks protection as a refugee in another country. To get a protection visa in Australia, people must be able to show that if they return to their own country they face persecution.

As a party to the Refugee Convention, we’re obliged to protect refugees and not send them back to a country where they would face threat.

Under the Migration Act, those who arrive on the mainland go through the refugee status determination system. This involves being assessed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), which decides if they are eligible to receive a Permanent Protection Visa. If their application is refused, they can appeal through the Refugee Review Tribunal, the courts, or to the Minister of Immigration. During this process they have access to support groups, which assist with things like community accommodation and employment.

But asylum seekers arriving by boat are processed offshore, on Christmas Island off the Western Australian coast. They have little access to an appeals process, and face mandatory detention in a location far removed from any support groups.

In other words, the mode of transport dictates the treatment asylum seekers receive. Many believe offshore processing should be abolished.

The latest decision to put a freeze on processing the claims of asylum seekers coming from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan by boat, means these people now face a kind of ‘limbo’ in detention before their claims even begin to go through the lengthy system. This decision follows information from the countries’ governments, and UNHCR, advising that the situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan is stabilising. But many argue it is not.

Human rights advocates say this law racially discriminates against people from particular countries.

The government’s ‘New Directions’ policy of 2008, aimed to use immigration detention centres as a last resort, focusing instead on housing asylum seekers in community-based accommodation on the mainland. But the reality is there is not enough accommodation.

Now there is talk of a multi-million dollar spend to expand the Christmas Island detention centre, and money is being channelled into detention centres in remote WA and Darwin, to deal with overcrowding on Christmas Island. This seems to contradict ‘New Directions’ entirely. Many believe funding could be much more appropriately ‘directed’, such as towards creating more community housing.

Others are critical of the government for a ‘policy back-down’ in sending asylum seekers to the mainland.

It’s a contentious issue which is unlikely to go away anytime soon.


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