A Foot In The Door

A foot in the door

Paul Toohey
October 15, 2009
Article from: The Australian

THE federal government says “push factors” such as unendurable turmoil back home are behind this surge of asylum-seekers. Although that is certainly true for Sri Lankans, many of the Afghans making their way to Australia have not lived in Afghanistan for years.

But they have been living as refugees in Pakistan's North-west Frontier Province, parts of which came under Taliban control late last year. That would explain the push out of that region, along with increasing attempts by Pakistan to clear out refugee camps and send Afghans home.

Other Afghans heading to Australia have been living for years as refugees in Iran; it is less clear what factors are driving them from that country.

The federal opposition believes there is not so much of a push but a pull, with Australia offering attractive terms to asylum-seekers: that is, the likelihood that anyone who reaches an offshore area will be processed and given a protection visa within 90 days of their arrival.

In fact, it was the Coalition under former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone that amended the Migration Act in late 2005 requiring the Department of Immigration & Citizenship to finalise protection visa applications within 90 days. At that time, there was no surge afoot and Vanstone had been persuaded that people were languishing too long in detention while awaiting processing.

But there are differences. The Howard government only offered a three-year temporary protection visa and reserved the right to return a refugee to their homeland if the situation cooled down. The reality is that this power was rarely exercised, but it was a handy threat.

Under John Howard's Pacific solution, an asylum-seeker who arrived at any offshore location – areas excised from Australian territory, including thousands of islands and the sea – could be resettled in any country that was a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. Now, Immigration Minister Chris Evans has decreed that those who arrive at Christmas Island can, if they pass health and security checks, automatically apply to stay in Australia.

Kevin Rudd says loud and clear that asylum-seekers who were held under the Pacific solution on Nauru and Manus Island eventually became permanent Australian citizens anyway. The opposition cannot deny this, but it believes the Pacific solution created such a strong sense of doubt among would-be asylum-seekers that it served as an effective deterrent.

The argument is really about perceptions, not reality. But there is something valid about opposition claims this week that Rudd is increasingly using an Indonesian solution to keep public disquiet at bay.

The Australian Federal Police has embarked on a project to train 145 Indonesian police in identifying and detaining asylum-seekers, and is closely working with Indonesia at 12 key set-off points in Indonesia.

The AFP says it has an arrangement with Indonesia that prevents it from discussing the project, and that any comments must come from Indonesia. This is a convenient arrangement that once again assists in the carefully managed art of perception: we, at least at this end, don't talk about it.

Meanwhile, asylum-seekers who apply within Indonesia to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will likely be released from detention. Australia provides funding through the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration to house them and provide a small stipend while they await resettlement in countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

It is hard to see an substantive difference between the Indonesian and Pacific solutions, except if you are in Indonesia, rather than on Nauru or Manus, you have a better chance of slipping quietly away and paying a people-smuggler for passage to Australia.

Using Indonesia as a holding point for Australia-bound refugees is nothing new. The former government did it, too; it also funded the IOM and UNHCR to contain the people and try to persuade them to accept free airfares home. But Howard also had Manus and Nauru, which help spread the perception, at least to the Australian public, that the government had multiple options up its sleeve to deal with the problem. Now, with Manus and Nauru closed, Indonesia is it.

None of the asylum-seekers, whether Iraqi, Afghan or Sri Lankan, have long-term plans to reside in Indonesia. They are just passing through. Indonesian detention centres are filling up and its authorities are being asked to deal with increasingly desperate and threatening actions by asylum-seekers in Indonesian waters.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees but tolerates those who arrive and apply for protection. Its patience will be tested sorely if former immigration minister Philip Ruddock is right and 10,000 asylum-seekers are on their way.

The Australian met a man in Indonesia last week who was trying to get to Australia. He says he knows of two Iraqi brothers who came through Indonesia and are now in Australia after going through the 90-day process on Christmas Island. The man claims the brothers are formers members of the Shia Mahdi Army and had talked about – proudly, according to this source – the kidnapping of Sunni Muslims in Baghdad and taking them to Sadr City to be tortured.

The question of who Australia lets in is hardly new, but it is more crucial now that years of battle against the US and its allies have hardened people in their views.

Offshore arrivals are taken to Christmas Island and immediately put through a health check by a medical service provider, which is contracted to the Department of Immigration. Those who show signs of tuberculosis are masked and separated. The others go through detailed medical checks, eyes and all orifices, and a medical profile is established.

Immigration then moves to collecting biometrics. Fingerprints, facial data, iris scans and photographs are recorded, plus any documentary material they are carrying, in order to begin establishing a personal profile. In the case of those aboard SIEV36, the boat that exploded off Ashmore Reef on April 16, none had a skerrick of documentation.

By this stage, every person who has arrived by boat has been separated from the wider group in an attempt to limit collusion. But they have already been at sea together for a number of days and may have spent months together, and they may have already had the opportunity to manufacture stories. They are sat down with an interpreter. They are looked in the eye and asked a series of questions as to their origins.

It is often not science but human deduction that is used to establish the truth of an asylum-seeker's story. The real trick to establishing identity is the interview process, where languages are carefully scrutinised by interpreters. If someone claims to be a Hazara who has fled the Taliban, Immigration believes it has the expertise to establish whether they really are Hazara.

Once Immigration has a profile, it is referred to ASIO, which conducts its own security checks. Immigration will also use the biometric data to run profiles through the movement alert list, or MAL, which contains information on 700,000 individuals from around the world.

The information on MAL might reveal criminal connections, the fact that someone has lost a passport at some point, or people who pose a risk if they apply for a visa or apply at the border. Most asylum-seekers have no MAL history.

MAL is populated with data from a range of agencies, most particularly from Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand.

Iris scans – taken in Indonesia among those applying for refugee status, and at Christmas Island – will reveal if someone has attempted to enter Australia on a previous occasion, but this is uncommon.

The federal government is struggling to downplay perceptions that it is going soft on asylum-seekers. This is not assisted by its contingency plan to make the Darwin immigration detention centre a temporary home for up to 550 unauthorised arrivals.

It is also in discussions with the Department of Defence about providing further mainland emergency accommodation should Christmas Island reach capacity, as it soon will. But for now it appears to be reluctant to open these facilities, perhaps because voters who don't look closely into the nuances of what is happening will assume people are now landing cold on Australian soil.

People who arrive on the Australian mainland with legitimate visas and then apply for asylum will first be dealt with by Immigration. If it is felt they do not meet the defining requirements of the 1951 convention on refugees – a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion – they have the right to appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal and to the Federal Court. Boatpeople have no such rights: they are at the mercy of Immigration.

There is a view among refugee advocacy groups that the 1951 definitions are outdated, because they do not account for those fleeing from generalised violence, an argument many Sri Lankans could easily mount. Either way, most asylum-seekers will succeed in making their case, regardless of which party is in government.

Only 10 asylum-seekers have been returned to their homeland by the Rudd government. They are Sri Lankan Catholics who claimed they were being persecuted for their political allegiances. They were not considered to be under threat and, as boat arrivals, had no right to take their cases to the Refugee Review Tribunal or the courts. But under Labor they did have one extra right of appeal on Christmas Island.

Immigration Minister Evans has appointed a panel to review negative decisions by Immigration on Christmas Island. This panel is made up of the likes of former RRT members, and it gives boat arrivals a second chance. Who these people are, what they are paid, and the outcomes of their deliberations is not public information.

Those who do make it to Australia will almost invariably become permanent residents. It has always been so. But it was a problem Howard and Ruddock were proud to tackle, and now Rudd and his government are keen to show that nothing has changed under them.

Things have changed. An asylum-seeker does not face being shipped off to another country; the visa they are granted will be permanent, not temporary; there is an extra level of appeal if Immigration knocks them back; and the chances of languishing for years in a detention centre are no more.