Australia Halts Processing On Some Asylum Requests

Australia Halts Processing On Some Asylum Requests

By Rachel Pannett
The Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2010

Canberra — Australia's government said Friday it will immediately suspend processing of any new asylum-seeker applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, in a move it hopes will send a message to people smugglers that they can't guarantee visas for those who arrive illegally.

Canberra also unveiled new measures to stop the flow of funds to people-smuggling ventures and said it will seek to expedite the passage of previously announced laws to toughen the penalties against people-smuggling when Parliament resumes in early May.

The moves come as the center-left Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is under mounting pressure to address increasing numbers of refugees seeking to enter Australia by boat without appropriate travel documents.

Though periodically a problem for Australia, the frequency of boat arrivals has picked up in recent times as people seek asylum from areas of recent geopolitical unrest in the region.

Unlike much of the developed world, Australia avoided a recession last year, which has been cited by some would-be migrants as boosting the country's attractiveness as a destination, despite the riskiness of the sea voyage in often unseaworthy craft and cramped conditions.

Australia's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, Friday sent a blunt warning to those considering the hazardous journey that the political situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan is changing, and coming from those countries doesn't necessarily translate into a legitimate claim of asylum.

'As we speak, we are witnessing in Sri Lanka for the first time in two decades a parliamentary election, following on recently from the presidential election,' Mr. Smith told reporters.

'Sri Lanka is clearly a country in transition and that evolution is the basis of the government's decision to suspend processing so far as new asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are concerned,' he said.

Turning to Afghanistan, the foreign minister said circumstances and conditionsparticularly for minority groups such as Hazarasare also changing following the fall of the Taliban, with improved security in parts of the country and constitutional and legal reforms.

'There was a time, indeed until quite recently, when if you were an Afghan Hazara then you almost automatically fell within the provisions of the refugee convention, suffering from a well-grounded fear of persecution,' Mr. Smith said. 'That now requires much more country and individual circumstances consideration.'

Friday's announcement is the latest in a series of moves by the Australian government to shed its image of being soft on refugees, a perception that last year damaged the prime minister's standing in voter polls.

When Mr. Rudd first took office in 2007, his government relaxed some of the border-control measures implemented by the previous conservative administration, apparently creating a perception among refugees that it is easier to relocate to Australia than elsewhere.

Around 2,700 refugees arrived in Australian waters by boat last year without appropriate immigration documents. The pace of arrivals appears to be quickening, with 384 arrivals in the past week alone compared with 639 for the whole of last month.

The government in February proposed tougher laws against people-smuggling, giving the country's intelligence agency new powers to investigate that crime and other serious border-security threats. The proposed laws will also create new offenses and penalties for those who finance or provide support for people-smuggling activities.

Last month, Mr. Rudd reached a new framework of cooperation on people smuggling with Indonesia, a regional staging ground for growing numbers of political refugees. Mr. Rudd's government last year made moves toward sending some refugee processing to its giant archipelago neighbor because its own facilities are at capacity. That sparked an outcry among human-rights advocates who argued asylum seekers' claims may be dealt with less fairly in Indonesia.

Under the new measures announced Friday, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre will be given the power to deregister remittance dealers that offer access to funds for people-smuggling ventures and other unlawful activities, including money laundering.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans defended criticisms that the suspension of asylum seeker processingwhich for Sri Lankan refugees will be for an initial period of three months, and for Afghan refugees for six monthsis inhumane.

'It is humane, because people will still have access to consideration of their refugee status, they will still be treated with dignity and treated as human beings,' Mr. Evans told reporters.

'But what we are saying is, as a result of changing circumstances, we intend to delay consideration of their claims because we think the situation in their country is improving, we think they are less likely to be found (to be) refugees and owed our protection,' he said.

The immigration minister noted that the United Nations refugee agency is currently reviewing its own advice for Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in light of changing political circumstances there.

Australian authorities on Friday rescued 70 passengers from a suspected refugee boat–the sixth so far this month–near Christmas Island, the offshore center where the asylum claims currently are processed.

The government said that the Christmas Island center is now full and any future arrivals will be sent to a mainland center in Darwin.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For further coverage of this developing story, visit:


Rudd shuts refugee door
By Matthew Franklin and Paige Taylor
The Australian, April 10, 2010

Labor slams door on refugees
By Phillip Coorey
The Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 2010

Govt Backs Australias Strict New Asylum Regime
The Jakarta Globe, April 9, 2010

Australia bans asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka
By Bonnie Malkin
The Telegraph (U.K.), April 9, 2010