(London) - Australia is trying to export policies that violate the rights of refugees, Human Rights Watch said today in a new briefing paper titled "Not for Export." The paper's release marks the one-year anniversary of Australia's controversial asylum legislation, passed on September 26, 2001.
The Australian government has been on an aggressive mission to muster international support for its approach during the past 12 months. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has declared he will use next week's [September 30-October 4] meeting of the Executive Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to again deliver the message that unauthorized "secondary movements" of refugees from country to country should be prohibited.
"The Australian government argues that asylum seekers could have found protection closer to home," said Ophelia Field, author of the Human Rights Watch paper. "We found that many were forced to travel because they were not safe where they were."
Human Rights Watch collected testimonies from dozens of asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq describing why they attempted to seek refuge in Australia. The testimonies reveal many had legitimate, protection-related reasons for doing so. Some had been forcibly returned to the hands of persecutors on a previous attempt to find asylum in Pakistan or Iran. Therefore they had wanted to get further away when they fled for a second time. Others had experienced ongoing persecution by agents operating across borders. Many more were discriminated against so severely by the laws of their first host country that this treatment could itself amount to persecution within the meaning of the Refugee Convention.
Drawing on this research, Human Rights Watch concluded that Australia's laws violate the Refugee Convention by imposing penalties on those who travel via third countries, regardless of their individual circumstances.
The findings also illustrate the impracticality of Australia's suggestion that refugees should be obliged to wait in "queues" for resettlement from their regions of origin. Some refugees said that they simply could not do so without putting themselves at further risk. Others had applied for resettlement in the first host country they reached, but were nonetheless forced to flee onwards.
Human Rights Watch said Australia's current refugee policies raise serious human rights concerns, including the use of interception and detention of asylum seekers at sea under "inhumane and degrading" conditions. This sets a poor example for all coastal states, and is particularly dangerous at a time when Greece and Italy will hold the next two EU presidencies.
The Australian laws have downgraded the quality of protection granted to almost all refugees who pass through third countries prior to their arrival in Australia. Such refugees will be indefinitely denied family reunification and the freedom to leave and enter Australia. They may forever be denied a secure legal status, endlessly having to renew their "Temporary Protection Visas," even though they are recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
Human Rights Watch said the policy of returning asylum seekers to Indonesia or transferring them to other Pacific countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea shifts responsibility onto international organizations operating in those countries. These include UNHCR, but also the International Organization of Migration, which is not primarily concerned with refugee protection.
Earlier this month, the UNHCR told EU Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs that UNHCR supports the creation of a new international agreement concerning the issue of "secondary movement." Human Rights Watch believes the UN proposal and other initiatives under development in the European Union must take care not to end up mirroring the Australian approach.
"When a refugee can't get effective protection in one place, he or she has every right to try to find it somewhere else," said Field. "It would be a tragedy if governments followed Australia's disastrous approach and took away that right."